Building Bridges For Social Transformation

Unmesh Sheth

My father, and first mentor, impacted me greatly. He gave to not only me, but to the people of Gujarat, India through  the immeasurable daily gifts of knowledge and social uplifting. He gave to me the lasting gift of courage to follow my passion instead of a “corporate mirage.” He was the first hero in my life. His wisdom led me to my other mentor, and hero, Indians For Collective Actions (ICA) which is a hero in the form of an organization. With its mission to “empower anyone’s passion for social change in India and their loca community” it has built a movement for nonviolent transformation of society in India.  The story of such heroes should be told during their lifetime, so that others in the society are naturally motivated to serve society unselfishly.

India’s anti-corruption movement, led by Anna Hazare, has engaged youths of India and rest of world like no one else in recent times; some call it a second freedom act.  ICA is building bridges to current India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and several other past movements like “Rejuvenate India, Communal harmony in Gujarat and Anti-Corruption movement” for decades.  ICA is pioneer in supporting many of the social activists in an early phase.  If you see the last 43 years of ICA’s history, it almost seems that one small organization has created many ripples by supporting different powerful movements in India and gave birth to powerful NGOs like ASHA for Education and Foundation For Excellence (FFE).   ICA has also supported and honored many young social activists in their early phase: Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, D. R. Mehta, and Inderjeet Khurana.  Many of ICA’s past executives, like SR Hiremath, Ravi Chopra, Sandeep Pandey, Srikanth Nadhamuni, and Raju Rajagopal, (and list can go on) have gone back to India and started people’s movements or organizations.

On Oct 15, 2011, ICA is honoring the “India Against Corruption, Team Anna”.  ICA is proud to say that last year we honored Dr. Kiran Bediji, and 4 years ago Arivind Kejriwal, a Right To Information (RTI) author and an architect of IAC. This year a leader of IAC and one of the authors of the Jan Lok Pal Bill, Prashant Bhushan, will definitely be coming to US on Oct 14.  While Anna Hazare has confirmed his intention to join us several times, we have to recognize that he may not be able to come in person, given the volatile situation in India.  In the event that he cannot join us, ICA will do it’s best to video cast his live message.   ICA is working to create a coalition of likeminded US based organizations to support the goals of the IAC movement.  The primary objective is to create a platform that can support an effective mobilization for a movement.  The second objective is to create an effective communication and education of movement for US based Non Resident Indians and US residents.  The third objective would be to provide the right set of inputs to the IAC team for sustaining the current movement.   The roadmap for each will be presented to Prashant Bhushan during his visit to US.

Thanks to the vision of Professor P K Mehta and several other founders, ICA continues to deliver on this vision today, albeit adapting to what the new world needs today.  Back in 2007, I was fortunate to be part of a young group of students lead by ICA’s partner, InSPIRE, in Ahmedabad.   For several years, I have been pondering the wisdom, value, and practical impact of  my own involvement in technology and management to society, just to come up empty.   Since then, I have also been wondering, “what if we use the same skills to empower the economics of global poverty?” Thus not fully convinced with the value of my personal impact on technology and management efforts, I decided to say good-bye to the corporate world in 2010.

Having realized that there is no alternative to working with people who would be using the solution most, I decided to take a month long journey to India.  I was also fortunate to visit SEWA Rural, a unique health care delivery provider for 1,71,000  tribal people.  Working with them, other institutions, and their members, my understanding of the fundamental role of an aid organization from foreign soil changed.   To develop the most effective solution an individual or organization must integrate themselves in the community to build a profound solution.  Taking this to heart, ICA has built three pillars:

Services to a local community: ICA supports any local organization that has a passion for social change. In recent history, ICA was approached by various organizations seeking support for different social change missions.  One such example is, new local community volunteer group Pallium-India-USA. Last year some of us in ICA met Dr. Jerina Kapoor, a pediatrician who is passionate about providing culturally sensitive care to  those who need palliative care in the Indian community.   ICA helped extend their base to define a mission, goal, structure, non-profit status, as well as commit some of their volunteers to expand and grow their mission.  Today, this is a thriving organization, expanding ever since meeting need of the community with an eventual goal of expanding across the US and supporting the mission in India of the father of palliative care, Dr. Rajagopal from Kerala, who has been doing an amazing service for millions of poor in India.

Enable agents of social change: The SEWA Rural experience taught me that my idea of a normalized rural healthcare delivery system and reality were way far apart.  Unless, you meet rural/tribal people needing services, unless you understand pain and immense gaps of services to those who need them the most, you cannot design a program or serve effectively from thousands of miles away.  To enhance this experience, ICA has built two unique programs. First, ICA’s partner InSPIRE has been conducting coordinated programs for ages 18-22 for several years.  InSPIRE takes groups of youths to NGOs focused on different sectors of integrated development such as education, rural development, environment, youth and leadership. These programs provide a hands-on understanding of economics and development of marginalized poor, which no four year college program can.  Second is the ICA Ambassador program, a self-paced program for anyone  looking for an opportunity to connect on a deeper level. We had over 10 ICA Ambassadors, age 12-75, who visited various NGOs and returned from India with life changing experiences.  I highly recommend you to read their life changing experiences on the ICA website. ICA provides a financial scholarships to selected candidate to InSPIRE and the ICA Ambassador program.


Build bridges to high impact social “last mile” issues: India’s growth during the last decade has resulted in an acute skill gap at the management level of most NGOs and social enterprises. In recent times, their roles have become lot more complex and demand more knowledge and experience in better design, technology and management practices including experience of working with market based practices.  Western countries, including the US, are fertile ground with professionals experienced in some of these fields who can offer their recognized expertise to fill this challenge.   I see a need to fill this unique gap by extending our ICA Ambassador program for professionals to create practical solutions. We call this an ICA Knowledge Network.

The first pilot for our ICA Knowledge network is SEWA, an woman based organization of 1.3 million. When I sat with 20+ women leaders in their Ahmedabad office to discuss key challenges where ICA can provide professional support, I was able to identify 4 areas: a design improvement for a solar lantern, design improvement and product roadmap for smokeless Chula, replacing diesel engines with alternative technology, and improved performance of a membership database.  Since then, ICA has been supporting their need remotely. However, working from remote has its own limitations. To meet this challenge, four ICA professionals will travel and work with SEWA Hariyali staff with a goal of fully understanding the gap and scope, and resolve addressable gaps as necessary.


ICA hopes to replicate this experience in many more domains with your help. Some of the ideas being pursued are building eco-system of social partners and regular lecture series on India’s social entrepreneurs and development.  India is becoming the largest factory of social entrepreneurs at the bottom of pyramid and bringing unique opportunities to integrate corporate models eventually on a scale necessary for a social change.  ICA invites you to take the  plunge into this rich experience of building bridges using socially innovative solutions and in the process solve one the most difficult challenge, a balanced development for all.

Author Unmesh Sheth is the president of ICA ( He left corporate world last year to build network of social entrepreneurs and build a social enterprise.



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