Acumen Fellow Sanjukta Das always had a very active imagination. But while most kids have imaginary friends, Sanjukta used her creative mind to solve practical problems. Growing up in Ranchi, India in the 1990s where the days were spent without electricity and the summers saw crippling water shortages, she didn’t have to look far for a challenge. The small industrial township in Jharkhand, India’s third most populous state, attracted a culturally and ethnically diverse population. The multitude of tribes, languages, faiths and world views combined with a scarcity of resources made creativity a necessity rather than a choice.
In school, Sanjukta and her classmates were encouraged to think about their choices and how they affected the people and places around them. When she was in middle school, the principal challenged the class to find ways to help their families and neighbors conserve water during the dry summer months. Sanjukta noticed her community used a great deal of water to wash the dishes after meals while also recognizing that a large portion of the area’s population ate their meals on compostable plates of dried leaves. Sanjukta and her classmates convinced their family and neighbors to make the switch. “I loved doing this project,” she said. “I learned how to talk to people and I was intrigued by how much impact we could make by such a simple intervention.” Little did she know at the time, but this was the beginning of a budding career in social impact.
Despite a hunger to feed her creativity, Sanjukta took the traditional route of a middle class Indian 18-year-old and pursued computer engineering in Bangalore. It soon became clear, however, that she was on the wrong path. Her grades plummeted while her stress levels rose, a telltale sign that she needed to activate her creative intellect if she wanted to achieve her full potential. “The engineering education gave me the skills to secure a desirable profession but not the purpose that allows you to find meaning in your work,” Sanjukta said.
She stuck it out until graduation, but then took a year off to figure out her next steps. It was during this time that Sanjukta came across a TED talk entitled “An escape from poverty” by Acumen Founder and CEO Jacqueline Novogratz. She was intrigued by Acumen’s definition of poverty, which stretched beyond income to include the complexity of dignity and choice. She began to imagine a future where she could leverage her creativity for social good.
Sanjukta started to research schools and Master’s programs that would allow her to employ her engineering background in more meaningful work. She found the answer — along with a tribe of like-minded, socially driven individuals — at the Industrial Design Center at IIT Bombay. Her classmates were a diverse mix of misfits, ranging from architects and mechanical engineers to artists and illustrators, all looking to change their course and team up to take on society’s biggest problems. The formal study of design introduced Sanjukta to the idea of human connection as a means for tackling real life problems. She immersed herself in the world of design thinking, which places the user of a product or service at the center, finding out their needs, to invent creative solutions that create maximum benefit.
“In design school, there were no exams,” she said. “Professors and fellow students asked you ‘What problem are you trying to solve? How does it affect the people involved? What do they have to say?’ Everything from disaster management to storytelling for children was viewed through the eyes of the beneficiary. It was the most transformative two years of my life so far.”
Upon graduating from IIT, Sanjukta, feeling armed and ready, set off to become a social intrapreneur. Her first job had her tackling a problem close to her heart: energy access. She joined Simpa Energy, a social enterprise focused on bringing affordable energy to resource-constrained environments throughout India. As part of Simpa’s design team, she worked directly with customers to learn about their energy consumption, livelihoods and aspirations in Uttar Pradesh. “We learned that the single most important factor driving social change work is trust,” Sanjukta said. “You have to spend time in the field, put aside your own biases and really listen to the customer to understand their real needs, create effective prototypes and iterate without losing the confidence of the customer.”
In 2015, Sanjukta found herself examining how she could use her expanding design skills to bring maximum impact to other complicated problems of poverty India faces. That same year, she applied for and became an Acumen India Fellow. In retrospect, she sees watching Jacqueline’s TED Talk just before making the choice to attend design school as a seed sown. “It was preparation for the two years that I to spent at design school. Subsequently, my background in engineering and design allowed me to work across domains. While working, and specially in moments when I lacked clarity, I was always influenced by the principle of ‘what problem are we trying to solve?’. I do not come from a domain specific expertise, the value that I try to bring is to look at the problem from a systemic level and use design as a tool to define the need right.”
In her cohort of Fellows, Sanjukta found a support system to help her as she moved forward in the next phase of her life and expand her career. “The program strengthened my resolve for working in the social space,” she said. “It forced me to think about the question ‘How do we stand on the shoulders of giants instead of reinventing the wheel?’” This idea of learning from the people and organizations that came before her — and finding new ways to building upon their work — continues to drive Sanjukta today.
And she is doing just that in her latest role as Senior Manager of Research and Innovation at ayzh, a Chennai-based social enterprise creating new solutions to address India’s longstanding issue of infant mortality. Every year, 2.7 million newborns in India die in the first 28 days of life. Over the past year, Sanjukta and her team developed the Shishu Healthy Newborn Kit for new mothers as part of the OPEN IDEO Challenge to design products and services to enable children in low-income communities to thrive in their first five years. The kit contains essential care items, and easy-to-use tools, such as pictorial guides on care and feeding, for the critical first days of a newborn’s life.
While developing the kit, Sanjukta and her team spent countless hours in rural India observing nurses and doctors in government hospitals where time and adequate resources are in equally short supply. During an encounter with one nurse, Gowri, they realized innovative products were not enough to solve the problem. Gowri, who was skeptical of any new product after years of being disappointed by countless offerings from nonprofits, refused to work with Sanjukta’s team. After days of getting nowhere, Sanjukta asked Gowri why she had dedicated her life to nursing. Gowri replied, her fatigue evident in her voice: “Eighteen years ago, I became a nurse because I wanted to be of service. I felt that I could make a difference, help mothers have healthy babies and babies have a good childhood. It’s hard to stay hopeful when no one is ready to hear your suggestions.”
Gowri’s reply stuck with Sanjukta. The Shishu Healthy Newborn kit combines tools familiar to nurses like Gowri with new innovations. It is also packaged so nurses can focus on the quality of their treatment rather than wasting time preparing for each delivery, and the ayzh team continues to work closely with nurses and caregivers to improve the product. “People overlook the importance of simplicity in driving adoption,” Sanjukta said. “We might develop the innovative app to track patient improvement but, if it doesn’t empower Gowri to feel proud of her work, it won’t get used. Today, ideas can only take you so far, implementation is where the real impact comes to life.”
As the azyh team work to roll out their newborn kit to healthcare providers across India, Sanjukta remains committed to the people she aims to serve . “In any kind of development work, there is always an unspoken contract of hope,” she said. “My work allows me to stay in touch directly with the people we are serving. I can see their frustrations. In government hospitals, you often see one nurse attending to five women delivering at once. They are under so much pressure. If you ask that nurse what she would design to make her job easier, she has a 1000 ideas of what she would build and who she would hire. Keeping their images in mind as I’m designing keeps me humble and grounded in purpose. I want to live up to their hope.”
Sanjukta Das is a 2015 Acumen India Fellow.
The Acumen Regional Fellows program is a leadership development program that equips emerging social leaders in India, Pakistan and East Africa with the skills, knowledge and moral imagination to drive social change in their communities.