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Dharunika’s parents were overjoyed when she told her teacher that she didn’t like having dosas for breakfast. Sounds strange? Not when you realize that this was the first time the 13-year-old had expressed an opinion, and communicated something that went beyond the basics.
Born with cerebral palsy, Dharunika’s communication was limited to the 20 gestures she used to convey hunger, pain or discomfort. This was until Avaz changed her world.
“Avaz is basically an artificial voice for children and adults with cerebral palsy who don’t have the required muscle control and therefore can’t speak, or the autistic who think more in terms of visuals than actual words,” explains Ajit Narayanan, the 29-year-old creator of the device.
Launched in March 2010, Avaz works by converting muscle movements into speech through features like pictures and scanning. “For example, users can put together different words like ‘I like’ and then select a picture of an apple, thus constructing sentences pictorially. For those with lesser degrees of muscular control, who can’t touch all parts of the screen, we use a method called scanning,” says Narayanan.
The scanning method shows different options users can select by touching any part of the screen. Avaz can sense their choice and help them narrow down options till the right one is reached to make speech. Avaz has artificial intelligence and can give suggestions to make choices easier. For someone trying to say “Good afternoon,” selecting the word “good” has “afternoon” suggested as an option. This makes it easier for the user. Once the sentence is constructed, the artificial voice synthesizer speaks it out.
Avaz supports English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Marathi, and plans are on to add more languages soon.
Avaz’s shape and size is that of a tablet computer. With a seven-inch display, easy to read fonts and voice prompts for the visually impaired, this battery-operated device can be mounted on desks and wheelchairs or even carried on laps.
Narayanan, an IIT Madras alumni, was named Innovator of the Year 2011 by MIT’s Technology Review India. He worked in Georgia and California with American Megatrends Inc. for four years. “America was an excellent learning experience. I loved the Bay Area in California. But I always wanted to come back and start my own company,” he says. “Contributing to solving a specific need that has special relevance to India was my inspiration.”
A visit to Vidya Sagar, a special needs school in Chennai, thanks to an IIT Madras professor and his wife, gave him an idea about what he wanted to do. Speaking to the faculty and students at the school made Narayanan realize that the differently-abled, a whole section in India that remains marginalized, could be given technical assistance to join the mainstream.
Inspired by the way Americans integrate technology into daily life and by the success stories of Dynavox, the U.S.-based provider of communication products and speech-producing devices for various disabilities, Narayanan was sure that he wanted his creation to be technically savvy as well as have a high social impact. “We watched a lot of YouTube videos on Dynavox users who had broken down their walls of silence and emerged as successful, high-flying professionals. A product like Avaz doesn’t exist in India, so we had to build everything from scratch,” says Narayanan.
Work on the prototypes started in March 2008. “The real challenge lay in making it attractive for children with cerebral palsy and getting a response from those whose feelings we can’t really feel, and hence find difficult to understand,” he says. “When we gave them our earliest prototypes to test, we met with a blank stare. That’s when we realized that they didn’t like it. We made a lot of changes, especially redoing the size and making the software more sophisticated. Most of these children are familiar with computers so we made it look like a tablet computer and used symbols they were familiar with.”
The effectiveness of the changes was proved by Dharunika at Avaz’s launch in her school, The Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu in Chennai. “She held it in her hands and in a few minutes typed out ‘thank you’ for the entire audience,” says Narayanan.
The American connection with Avaz continues. “I received a lot of help from people in the U.S. who donate these units to schools. In fact, just a few days ago, a person from Virginia sponsored three units for a school in Kochi,” he says.
An electrical engineer by profession and a rural development worker by passion, 34-year-old Gyanesh Pandey is co-founder and CEO of a company that produces electricity from rice husks. To fulfill his dream of bringing light into the lives of millions of people, Pandey returned to India in 2007 after giving up a successful career in America. “It has been a lifelong dream to work for rural development,” he says.
Born in Baithania village in Bihar, Pandey studied engineering at Benaras Hindu University before moving to New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he earned a master’s degree in electric power and power electronics engineering. He went on to work as a senior yield enhancement engineer with semiconductor manufacturer International Rectifier in Los Angeles, California.
After returning to India, Pandey joined hands with Ratnesh Yadav to set up Husk Power Systems. “Energy forms one part of the vision. Ratnesh and I decided to work on it in 2002. It took over five years to figure out the right technology for the purpose,” Pandey says.
A chance meeting with a gasifier salesman, Krishna Murari, helped Pandey discover the right technology. A gasifier is a device that converts plant material into a gas that can be used as fuel.
Murari showed Pandey how rice husks burned in an oxygen restricted gasifier produce biogas to power rice mills. However, according to Pandey, this decade-old technology was not being used to run a whole power system. The problem was that the rice husks produced a gas that had a very high tar content. Pandey found a solution for this problem. He created a mechanism for cleaning the engine, before the tar would cause it to choke.
“We use the process of biomass gasification, where rice husks or other biomass is burned in a controlled amount of oxygen to produce a gas...which drives an internal combustion engine which runs an alternator that produces electricity,” explains Pandey.
Tamkuha, which means “fog of darkness,” was the first village in Bihar to receive electricity at affordable rates from Pandey and Yadav’s rice husk-based 40 K.V. plant. Now they have 60 mini power plants that provide electricity to more than 250 villages and benefit around 150,000 people. Husk Power Systems set a landmark with its ecofriendly technology.
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. government agency, was one of the first financers of Husk Power, providing a $750,000 loan in 2009. This helped the company develop some of its first power plants in the villages of Bihar.
Does Pandey see potential in his company to replicate its success across India? “Yes, it does hold a great promise to cater to the majority of power-starved rural areas. We plan to set up 2,014 systems by 2014 [and provide electricity to] over 6,500 villages,” says Pandey, who was among the Indian entrepreneurs invited for a round-table discussion with President Barack Obama in Mumbai in November 2010.
Describing his entrepreneurial aspirations, Pandey says, “I want to bring tangible changes in the rural space in the areas of energy, healthcare, primary education, agricultural market aggregation and livelihood generation for women.”