Literacy India started in 1996 as a non-profit organization, with the objective of empowering underprivileged children and women. When it was launched, it served five children; today, that number has risen to 15,000. Continual innovation is critical to reaching a larger population in need of help with education, empowerment and employment, says founder Indraani Singh in an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton during the 2010 Wharton India Economic Forum.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

India Knowledge at Wharton: What it is Literacy India and what do you do there?

Indraani Singh: The vision I had when I started [Literacy India has begun] to come true. I started about 15 years ago with just five kids. Right now, we have [reached] 10,000 to 15,000 children, women and youth. It has taught me [that] something needs to be done urgently for India, something which has to be addressed by people like me or many people who are working in this field. So it is an organization which is trying to address many things at the same time: illiteracy, education, empowerment and employment for all kinds of beneficiaries — youth, women and children. Many of us are trying to do that. And I think Literacy India is just a small drop in the ocean.

India Knowledge at Wharton: How did you become interested in this?

Singh: Since my childhood, I could never see [myself] in a better-off position [while there were] children on the street. I would go to school and I found children on the street. [I thought,] someone has got to do something about it. Why are they not being helped? This [feeling] has been there since my childhood. It increased when I was in Calcutta [now Kolkata]. I used to watch these nuns working so selflessly, picking up a little child on the street. I visited the orphanage. I felt that I had to come to a position where I could do something like that. I didn’t know how. It was frustrating. I had this restlessness in me thinking of when I was actually going do something?

I didn’t ask somebody how to go about it. How does it happen? What are the regulations? What am I supposed to do? I learned the ABCs from scratch by going to [organizations]. I felt shy asking anybody who was running an organization or taking some lessons because they would look at me in a very cynical manner. “You are a pilot. You are doing pretty well. You must be a nutcase.” Or “You are well off. There must be some hidden agenda for getting into this.” I had to work hard to find out details. And I learned a lot. There was so much self-learning. It was a fantastic journey.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You don’t have the usual background for anybody in India or anywhere across the world. Could you tell us where you started off?

Singh: My dad and my mom — I didn’t realize it — have had an important role to play because they both come from very humble backgrounds. My grandfather worked during the English rule and I heard a lot of stories of what happened in the villages. My mother lost her dad; a single mother struggled her way bringing up her daughter. All those stories had a deep impact on me.

This background has helped me and made me think: If somebody is in that situation, what will that person think and [how will he or she] try to survive? What will the person do? So when I reached a level where I was comfortable staying in a five-star hotel, going places, doing whatever I wanted with my money, I could [still] relate to somebody who didn’t have money. I had seen both sides. It made my life much easier when running this organization. It made me street-smart — getting into a situation and [knowing] how to get out of it and how to resolve it. It is a learning [experience] for me. Whenever I meet people from any kind of background — be it industry, be it education — I am forever curious to find out where India is heading. Because if I know how we are getting developed, what areas we are working on, it becomes easier for me to handle my beneficiaries, give them that kind of a channel and that kind of a thrust. These are the areas that they can grow in.

Literacy India is working on the three Es. The first E is empowerment. Go on motivating. Go on telling them over and over again that you guys can do it, you guys can do it. The second E is Education. It is important for you. You can’t do without it. And the third E, after getting educated, is Employment. It is so very important. I have seen there are graduates but no jobs. There are school pass-outs but no jobs. So what were the answers? And there I had sleepless nights trying to find out the answers. [People would tell me to] go and read the newspapers. A pilot reading a ‘Business Standard’ or any kind of economics paper! This kind of paper doesn’t interest me. They will talk about aircraft, what the engines do, and etc.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned a step-by-step process for your organization. Could you walk us through what the process was? How did you go about setting this up?

Singh: Very simple. I started with five children. We adopted these five kids. I had other cofounders. We discussed. They said, “Okay. Good school. They must go to a good school.” The background was that the parents [of the children] were completely illiterate. So we put them in a good school. What is the definition of a good school? That, I learned over a period of time, is whether the school is teaching well. So they go to the school. When they come back who is going to help them do their homework? No answer. So we have got to find a teacher who will tutor them after school hours, help them with the homework. That’s how the process started.

What next? They go to school. They are not treated well because they are from the poor class and are mingling with the regular kids who are from the privileged class. What next? So, no; this is not going to end here. We must do something about confidence building — that you are good. If your grades are good and if you are groomed well, nobody can make out that you are not from that class. So the journey began with the five children.

Then I realized, why five? When I’m working I might as well increase the number. So the number went up to 50. And then 100. And then 150. It multiplied. What is the next step? When these kids pass out of school, what kind of questions are they going to be asking me? I should be ready with their higher studies and then further higher studies. Or what are they going to be getting into? What kind of employment? What I would be thinking for my son, I should be thinking about these kids too. Even now all the planning is going on.

I have a school. I have a few schools in fact. The principals and the teachers are counseled and they are told that you should be doing this homework. Who are the averages? Who have very little interest in the school? They just want to quickly finish their schooling. And who are the studious type. Map those ones. Keep them aside. Who have a scientific bent of mind — you can have doctors or engineers? Who don’t? [Plan] the science and the non-science stream. Then diversify. These are the things I found none of the non-profit organizations doing. They were just regularly doing the education bit. If the chap is ready, he will find his or her way in regular life. But it doesn’t happen. I found that if we do these experiments then it becomes a model for us to copy and give to any other non-profit organization and tell them, “Hey, this is what you can do.” Believe it or not, after 15 years, I am giving away whatever I learned in this process to others. You know, you can do this, you can do that. Many new people, when they come into this field, are looking for some sort of mantra. What you can tell us, please tell us. So I share it all. I say, this is how I learned. And I think these are the things you should do. It will be good for you. It will be successful.

India Knowledge at Wharton: So you scaled. You have gone from five to 10,000.

Singh: I think it is 15,000 now.

India Knowledge at Wharton: 15,000 students. So that is a huge scale-up, whichever way you look at it. So how do you manage that scaling process? And how do you ensure people don’t fail?

Singh: There was a very good point from somebody from an American Foundation. [He said] most non-profit organizations are run by strong leaders. Okay, I am the leader. I have about 174 staff now. I started with two — two teachers. Now I have so many teachers, supervisors and coordinators — project coordinators because we have six or seven projects going on simultaneously — and a head above that who reports to the trustees. So, yes, it is leadership-driven.

[At the Forum meeting] I saw so many young faces. [I thought:] Why are you here? I was asking myself, why am I here? The answer came that I am looking for a leader. So any of you who are interested in taking my position, do contact me. I am also searching for a successor. In the next 10 to 15 years, [we will] groom a young person. When I started, I was quite young. Down the road, I am also looking for a successor. I don’t want this thing to die. You require a strong leader because vision is very important in this field. If you have a vision then you will go on strategizing, coming up with new methods and innovation. It is an ongoing thing. It can never stop at one place. Every year there has got to be something new.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about flying. What has your experience been like?

Singh: I started on the Boeing 737s and then came on the 320s. When the 320s came in at that time it was fly-via-technology and something new in the world. So I was the first Indian woman to go for my training. But actual recognition came on the wide body. When I started flying I was given an option whether I wanted to go back on the Boeings or the 320s or remain on the 300s and fly in command. I said, I would like to fly in command. I had no idea that I would be getting into a history book. It was a kind of shell shock for many of my seniors because no woman had been there on that seat — in the left seat.

I didn’t realize it; it was a regular thing for me. Until the day I got my command — the day I started doing my solo. That’s the time I realized people are worried about it, because a woman had never gone on the left seat before. It’s a huge aircraft. And it has an impact. It has some sort of an impact on you when you look outside. “There can’t be a woman over there.” And the kind of system in which we live — the tradition which we have in our country — a woman pilot? So in 1996 — that’s when I got my command — it was a big thing. In 1995, Literacy India had started. I think they were moving on parallel tracks in my mind.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You actually have a wonderful story to tell. So I want to, on behalf of India Knowledge at Wharton, thank you for spending time with us today.

Singh: Thank you so much.