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How A History Graduate Became A Big Name In Tech Giants Like Google And Twitter

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One of the remarkable ironies regarding the raging debate over the need for our schools to focus more on teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is that many of the technology experts in Silicon Valley are sending their children to ‘soft’ schools. Many of these leaders are those graduates of top Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and other such vocational universities. Yet they’re sending their children to liberal arts schools. These are schools that emphasize building the precise skills that a liberal arts college education seeks to foster, chief among those being intellectual curiosity and confidence, creativity, strong interpersonal communication, empathy for others, and a love of learning and problem-solving. Perhaps reminiscent of the great quote by the US President John Adams in a letter to his wife Abigail, in which he stated that, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture.” Many executives seem to value the humanities. It is, after all, the study of humanity, humanity’s gravest problems, and what actually gives life meaning.

A father, husband, and seasoned executive, in his early thirties, Rishi Jaitly has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. He has run policy and operations for both Google and Twitter in Asia, and today is CEO of Times Bridge, a division of Bennett Coleman and The Times Group, which invests in big ideas aspiring to think creatively, not just clinically, about their India opportunity. Though he spends his days with Times Bridge’s portfolio of start-ups, including Uber, Airbnb and Coursera, he’d most likely chuckle if you ask him if he’s a technologist.

Jaitly was personally recruited to Google by then CEO Eric Schmidt, and helped negotiate the end of YouTube and Blogspot’s government censorship in Pakistan and Bangladesh. At Twitter, he was the company’s first hire in Asia–Pacific outside of Japan, and for nearly eighteen months was a one-man operation on the Indian subcontinent. On any given day he’d jump between evangelizing Twitter to developers in Bengaluru’s start-up ecosystem to helping a Bollywood celebrity locked out of an account, to holding meetings with Indian Premier League cricket executives on their approach to social media to sitting down with police officers tracking ISIS. And during election season, he was even pulled into the bowels of national politics, and a controversy or two.

Jaitly’s role, like any high-level job in technology or business, was one that required him to be a chameleon, a communicator, someone deeply versed in and curious about people, media, entertainment, and politics. It didn’t require specific technical ability, but rather soft skills and adaptability, and a sense of one’s own purpose. As a history major from Princeton University, he was well prepared.

The son of two physicians, Jaitly was born in the Bronx, New York, and grew up between Flushing, Queens in New York and the tony suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. His parents, who had married after three weeks of courtship, had met through an ad in the Hindustan Times. Jaitly’s mother, an accomplished oncologist, was in search of a worthy husband, and she efficiently found him in Rishi’s father.

The Jaitly family had its roots near Srinagar in Kashmir, but his family had long left their native place. His father was born in Kolkata but grew up in Nagpur. His mother, whose family came from near Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, was raised in Chennai, where her father operated a coffee business before becoming involved in the Independence movement and the peaceful rallies of Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Jaitly’s maternal grandfather was standing next to Gandhi when he was assassinated.
Raised in the diverse environs of New York, as a child, Jaitly was relatively unaware of his own heritage. In Greenwich, Jaitly felt more American than anything else. But a liberal arts education at Princeton became a time for him to explore his identity. He’d entered university on a path to become a doctor, but once he got to campus he became fascinated by the heritage and history surrounding him. While he’d go to his organic chemistry lectures, he began to recognize that he had far more interest in the great civic speeches of leaders like Gandhi. President Clinton came to campus during his freshman year, while he was running for class vice president; after Clinton’s speech, and the opportunity to greet the president afterwards, Jaitly recommitted himself to a higher purpose of service.

When he went home for Thanksgiving that year, he told his father that he was dropping medicine for history.

The Princeton University motto, then and now, was, ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations,’ and this notion resonated deeply. His intellectual curiosities expanded, and he began exploring his own race and identity. Towards the end of college, he performed South Asian theatre, joined an Indian dance troupe and completed a senior thesis on the US’s South Asia immigration policy during the Cold War. He began to feel comfortable sharing his own heritage with others around him.
Throughout college, he also embraced his newfound interest in service: he won his race for class vice president, was asked by New Jersey’s governor to become a state commissioner of higher education, and, after graduation, won a coveted spot as a trustee on Princeton University’s Board of Trustees. There he sat next to other trustees, one by the name of Eric Schmidt. By exploring his own passions, Jaitly had found a trapdoor to the very top of Google, an iconic technology company in which many of his computer science peers would fight for a job.

After Jaitly delivered an eloquent closing prayer at an autumn Board meeting in Princeton, Schmidt leaned over to him at the table. “We don’t need any more technologists at Google,” he whispered. “We need more people like you.” Google was most in need of communicators, and chameleons like Jaitly whom they could drop into any situation, and who could perform with zeal and autonomy. Schmidt convinced Jaitly to build on his early career at education non-profit College Summit and join Google in the office of the CEO; from there, Jaitly earned trust, and later the opportunity to help Google scale its presence in India.

Jaitly’s career path isn’t the linear one we lionize in technology lore. But Jaitly is exactly the executive top performing companies like Google and Twitter aspire to find.

The magnetism that attracts opportunity—in technology or any field for that matter—is a mix of authenticity, passion, charisma and communication. It was the breadth of his education, and the freedom to carve his own path, that unfurled for Jaitly a set of opportunities that have afforded him every success, and recognition of his own mission—to help people and communities see their own power, including by drawing on the power of technology. Now also an advisor to a variety of Chicago-based efforts that draw on technology to build community, including service as a board member of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Jaitly has become an advocate for a broad liberal arts education.

“I think in India we ought to be doing more to emphasize the importance of this married skill set,” Jaitly said from behind the podium at the 2017 All India Management Association leadership conference. Making the case for blending both fuzzies and techies in education, business, and society, Jaitly hasn’t been alone. Billionaire executive and global leader Anand Mahindra has asked the question before: “Will technology save the world? No,” he’s said. “It will be poets, writers, and musicians.” The question becomes, how can we create an educational system that allows for literacy in technology, and the preservation of the very humanity that can help nourish and shape it?


Excerpted with permission from “The Fuzzy And The Techie” by Scott Harley, published by Penguin India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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