About 35 young women gather every day at a centre in Kandbari, a village in Himachal Pradesh, to learn front-end web development, project management, teaching and social work. As different as their aspirations are, the fire in their belly is the same: to learn and craft a career for themselves.
The Sapna learning centre, where they gather every day, is run by Sajhe Sapne, a social enterprise founded by Surabhi Yadav, a 33-year-old IIT-Delhi and University of California alumna and social entrepreneur, three years ago.
The idea of setting up a career and skills development centre for young women came to Yadav after she met 19-year-old Phula Kumari through common connections a few years ago. During their conversations, Phula asked Yadav: “Didi, teach me something, anything.” The request was driven by her hunger for education. Phula roped in four friends, and the small group would get on a call with Yadav every day at noon to discuss work, life, learning and more. And so, Sajhe Sapne started in 2020 with daily phone calls with five girls who just wanted access to education.
“It was (the midst of the pandemic), a time of chaos. They come from very low-income families that were struggling to survive the pandemic. Amid all this, what really mattered to them was learning,” Yadav tells Lounge. Yadav was based in Himachal Pradesh and the young women, including Phula, in other states. Over the next few months, as more young women expressed an interest in learning life skills, Sajhe Sapne was started in Kandbari.
This year, 38 young women, between the ages of 18 and 23, have enrolled in the year-long job training programme. They have four foundational courses: incremental improvements in English, career intelligence (networking, negotiations and interviews), self and society (to understand oneself and managing relationships) and a specialised course. The specialisation could be in front-end web development, social work, project management or primary math teaching. Over the course of three years, about 50 students have completed the course and taken different career paths.
Barriers to entering the workforce can range from a lack of communication skills to not knowing how to negotiate a fair salary. Through their programmes, Sajhe Sapne tries to break down these barriers for young women and help them thrive in the workplace.
Yadav, the first from her village, Madhopura in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, to go to IIT and then to the US on a scholarship for higher studies, understands the impact of education. “The more I got educated, the more free I felt, not just financially but also emotionally and socially. It was this freedom that made it clear to me how women are tied down by society. They run a home, farm but don’t get any visibility and often face violence at home. They are taught to limit themselves,” Yadav says.
So, Sajhe Sapne was built on the idea of women gaining the power of learning, earning and sharing with the community to enable them to live life on their terms and build a career. “There is a huge population in the country which yearns to learn but they don’t have opportunities. Career growth pathways haven’t been created for rural women. Sajhe Sapne is addressing that by focusing on rural women’s career growth and giving them options,” says Yadav.
At Sajhe Sapne, the courses and goals are gender-focused and delivered through a rural college model. Most women who have enrolled or graduated from Sajhe Sapne are Dalits and from other backward castes. Many of the women who have become Sapnewaalis, as students at Sajhe Sapne are known, start without any knowledge of what a job interview is and rise to crack them multiple times and chart a career path.
She tells the story of Alisha from Peelwa in Rajasthan joined the first cohort of Sajhe Sapne as a newlywed 18-year-old in 2021. When they graduated, Alisha was the first to turn her internship into a job. “The day she got the job, the girls picked her up, jumping up and down. Big smiles, cheers all over… it was a powerful moment… when she got a job, everyone believed that they could too,” Yadav says.
Phula, with whom the story began, finished her course from Sajhe Sapne, worked as a youth advisor in the non-governmental organisation, Dasra, and has now returned to Sajhe Sapne as a podcast associate.
Every year, Yadav witnesses young women travelling from different villages to join the course, all with the same desire for learning that she saw in Phula. She believes more such Sapna centres have to be set up across the country, just like the government set up primary health centres. “We want Sapna centres for women’s aspirations across India so that a young woman pursuing her dreams after class 12 becomes the norm and not news in villages,” she says.