Impacting future generations of India through Education

Shaheen Mistri, CEO, Teach For India

Shaheen Mistri is a name in India that is reminiscent with education, learning, teaching, youth, social impact and lots of fun while doing all of the above. The CEO of Teach For India, Shaheen serves as one of its founding board members and has earned global recognition for her dedication and commitment towards the fight for educational equity.

Shaheen founded the first Akanksha Center in 1989, enrolling 15 children and employing college friends as volunteers. It eventually evolved into the Akanksha Foundation, a non-profit education project that provides after-school tutoring to children from low-income. The program has developed a hands-on curriculum that includes art, theater, values, civic responsibility, reading, math, and English.  Once a student demonstrates commitment by attending for one month, Akanksha makes a big commitment to them: to provide them with “a strong educational foundation, a good time, self-esteem and values” until they are 18 and ready for the job market. Over the past 25 years, the Akanksha Foundation has expanded from serving 15 children in one center to almost 4,500 children in 51 centers and 16 schools in Mumbai and Pune. Born in Mumbai, Shaheen lived in thirteen different countries and returned to Mumbai, keen to learn more about the city and its slums, when she decided to enroll at the University of Mumbai. She founded Akanksha to battle the inequalities in India’s education system. 

Teach For India was seeded when she met Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America and two decades later, Shaheen has used her conviction and belief to motivate college students and working professionals to join the movement and devote two years of their lives to narrow the “education inequity” in India. Along with five colleagues, Shaheen launched Teach For India in 2008, after which the organization has recruited almost 1700 teaching Fellows till date for its two-year teaching Fellowship. “Initially, on my part, it was an attempt to learn about myself by teaching children. But the work has outgrown my or anyone’s personal intentions. Our belief is that every child must have an excellent education to develop his or her potential fully. With this vision in mind, we are building a movement of leaders for educational reform” says Shaheen. Shaheen is an Ashoka Fellow (2001), a Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum (2002), and an Asia Society 21 Leader (2006).  

Shaheen also serves on the boards of Ummeed, The Thermax Social Initiatives Foundation, The Akanksha Foundation, The Indian School Leaders Institute, and Design For Change, and is an advisor to the Latika Roy Foundation. She also serves as a committee member for National Council for Teacher Education. Shaheen has a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Manchester, England.

High point in career

“When I met Priyanka three years ago, she was a quiet, shy girl who was extremely driven and yet there was something different about her. She has grown up in tremendously difficult situations — her father was not around most of the time and she was raised by a single mother. In spite of all the difficult situations at home, she came to school everyday, even more committed to study and work hard. She auditioned for our Maya Musical, and through the journey of our musical, I have seen Priyanka grow both personally and professionally. She embodies our values of courage, compassion and wisdom and is continuously striving for excellence. Priyanka is currently studying at the United World College, Adriatic Campus, Italy on a full scholarship — one of the best international colleges in the world. Priyanka has shown us what is possible for all our students — with sheer hard work, commitment and a strong set of values, we can bridge the academic gap.”

Most challenging assignment so far

“As Teach For India expands to more cities and recruits a large number of Fellows, funding becomes a challenge. While Teach For America corps members receive their compensation directly from the schools they are placed in, Teach For India Fellows are paid by Teach For India itself. The funding required for Teach For India to place 1000 Fellows in schools across India is over Rs. 50 crores (US$ 7 million approx.)  a year. The second challenge Teach For India faces is maintaining a balance between scaling the movement quickly and continuing to ensure the highest levels of quality and impact.”

Greatest inspiration

“Mahatma Gandhi. His words, principles & ideals have shaped the way I look at my work.”

Women are the better halves. What does it mean?

 “I think everyone can make a difference.”