Interview: Shreyas Prakash, ICE (2012-2016)
Please state your current profile and explain your profile. If possible help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.
I am currently the co-founder of dHive Rural Design Studio. Through this, we are enabling children to solve pressing issues of their own community through design thinking. Why children? Children empathize heavily with the problems their own family members face within their community. As they are creative by default, they are well adapted to solve centuries old problems in an innovative manner. Through our social innovation labs, the rural children and youth have been able to start enterprises in association with women self-help groups to manufacture their products in a sustainable manner. Through our design thinking approach, our students have come up with various low cost innovations such as smokeless chulha, rice grader, pole climber and grass scythe to name a few.
Currently, I am also the recipient of the Justus & Louise van Effen Scholarship at TU Delft to pursue my Masters in Industrial Product Design and continue my work in social design. I will be validating the design thinking processes which I have followed earlier to bring more children into the social innovation process.
Before this, I was working with Ware Innovations in Mumbai on a James Dyson Foundation funded initiative. We developed this device named Jhoule which generates electricity by walking. After this stint, I was more interested in developing products for grassroot communities and took up volunteering at various NGOs to understand rural context in a better manner. I worked with Barefoot College in co-creating Gravitas, a device that could generate electricity by lifting weights. I developed a special interest in working with children, prompting me to work with artisans from Chanapatna village in making some eco-friendly toys specifically for children. Eventually, one thing led to the another and I started my work in the education sector as an SBI Youth for India Fellow at Bhandara district, Maharashtra where I co-founded the dHive initiative.
How does one improve upon the required soft skills at college if one wants to be an entrepreneur?
There was this Startup Weekend event that happened in NIT Trichy that gave me my first taste of what entrepreneurship is. That’s when I realised that there is so much more one could do apart from the conventional trajectory of taking up higher studies or going for placements through T&P. It got me thinking. To explore other options, I went on a rural odyssey as a part of the Jagriti Yatra in my third year of college. I covered 8000 km in 15 days, travelling across 12 states and that’s when I fell in love with rural india and decided to try my hand in this sector.
If there is a soft skill that is highly required, it is in taking risks and venturing into unknown unknowns. Unless you explore uncharted territories, how do you know if your choice is the best choice for you? It’s only after I exhausted all my choices – working with a startup, doing research abroad and after all that, that I finally decided to work in the development sector.
If you take continuous risks and exercise several options, then at least probabilistically you might come up with an optimal choice, right?
I have also begun to retrospectively appreciate the value of a strong network. You’re the average of the five people you associate with. Attend all sorts of networking events, TEDx events, conferences and connect with people from various backgrounds. There will be more intercourse of ideas and better connections. It’s all about networking. I feel that these are the biggest takeaways from being in a reputed institute. You harness the collective knowledge of the crowd. I would suggest attending various conclaves and summits to know the who’s who of your area of interest. World Business Dialogue, HPAIR Asia, India Youth Jam, Jagriti Yatra etc help you find your tribe to tackle interesting problems together.
Could you tell us about the SBI Youth for India fellowship? How and when does one apply for this fellowship? What are some of the qualities that one is screened for?
It’s a uniquely designed fellowship organised by the SBI Foundation to assist the transition into rural environment and giving you complete liberty in doing so. It is a 13 month fellowship designed for helping you assess the ground realities in the rural context and create your own initiative that combines your own strengths with the needs of the community. Applications open every year around the months of June. What’s also interesting about this fellowship are the diverse backgrounds of the people who apply – behaviour psychologists, designers, social scientists, dentists, you name it. There is a lot one could learn by mutually working as a cohesive unit.
In my opinion, they specifically look for candidates with diverse experiences to work for a village, a basic development unit of a country. Work experience is recommended but not mandatory to get selected for this fellowship. More than anything, they look for a selfless motive to do rural development work and the ability to communicate your opinions to the panel.
Please describe your experience of being a MITACS scholar, including both your experience in applying for MITACS and your experience of the internship itself.
I applied under Dr. Jose Etcheverry from the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto as I was specifically interested in using my knowledge of power electronics in the design of electric vehicle charging stations. Through him, I was able to get a lot of exposure regarding the energy scenario of Ontario, networking with various pro-renewable energy policy makers and broadening my perspectives on this front.
As a MITACS Globalink Scholar, I was involved in the design and construction of 6.84 kW solar electric vehicle charging station (Solar EV Carport). The main objective behind this project was to setup a charging infrastructure beyond home as range anxiety (fear of draining your battery completely in the middle of the trip) is a big problem for electric vehicles.
I was also involved in the renewable energy policy drafting as a part of the committee set up by the Mayor of Woodstock city. It was a proud moment for me when there were actual tangible outcomes at the end of the internship. The solar EV Carport was finally installed and the resolution which we were fighting for was unanimously passed to make Woodstock city completely renewable by 2050.
How did such internships help you later on in your career? How relevant are the technical skills you picked up at college to you in your career now?
For me, the internships which I had taken were helpful in a way to cross off certain career choices from my list, and to dovetail my work towards the ones which I found to be the most fulfilling.
In terms of technical skills, I had specifically taken electives in Product Design in my sixth and seventh semester that increased my interest in this field. I was able to hone my fabrication skills to the extent that I was passionate about continuing my involvement in manufacturing and product design.
Later on, I was also able to combine this specific direction with my interest in working for grassroot communities by setting up children-led social innovation labs in tribal areas of Maharashtra.
How did you get interested in product designing? Is there any way students can hone their skills in this particular domain in college?
My interests shifted towards this direction when I came across the design of the Mitticool fridge by a grassroot innovator made entirely out of clay to store fruits and provide cooling for water. To me, this was a very inspiring model of how local problems can be solved using locally available resources. Good design could in a way be used as a tool for social change.
To become product designers, or in other words, problem solvers, the institutes play a major role through the facilitation of makerspaces. I believe that institutes through makerspaces could act as hubs to facilitate experimentation and randomised trial and error. They could hone their skills towards designing tangible things through such ecosystems.
Why makerspaces? Because institutes need to complement the top-down approach of academic research with makerspaces where ideas are tried out in a more organic and bottom up manner. I feel that the best way to get design education for ourselves is through this process.
What inspired you to co-found dHive? How did you get investors to believe in your startup? What has been your experience working with dHive?
The seeds of the initiative was setup by Krishna Thiruvengadam, a former Youth for India Fellow who laid the foundation for setting up an innovation ecosystem in the tribal belts of Bhandara region where kids could intervene and solve community challenges through design thinking. It was observed that kids do not just build toys or do science experiments but they had the potential to do much more. That’s when I came to know about the work which he had done and joined hands with him to establish and grow this initiative. As a non-profit initiative, we were able to get support from BAIF Development Research Foundation for continuing our ground level work. We were also able to get grants from S&T Park Pune (DST : Govt. Of India) and 3M India for replicating our model in three other locations of Maharashtra (Ahmednagar, Nandurbar and Yedshi) The experience of setting up your own initiative has been a roller coaster ride so far with a steep learning curve.
What are the difficulties associated with managing one’s own start-up and what are the important things one should remember?
I think it’s absolutely essential to have a co-founder who shares the same vision and ideals that you value. I am not saying that it’s not possible to do a startup without a co-founder but it just becomes excruciatingly difficult to succeed. While managing a startup, certain difficulties might occur and those are the times when you need a co-founder who could be your devil’s advocate to better resolve conflicts. Ergo, it also helps if we have a partner to share risks with, giving encouragement for the same.
How can one get into the education sector, having done engineering or anything similarly unrelated?
The problem solving skills which one acquires after going through a rigorous engineering course is obviously not domain-dependent. It could be applied across multiple domains, and it could be applied to the education sector as well. In terms of qualities, patience is a must as we don’t get quick returns in the education sector. The benefits reaped are not immediately visible as they are more qualitative in nature and take more time to actually be visible among the student groups you are involved with. The game is long and ought to be treated with caution.
How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?
There is this scene in the movie Whiplash when the protagonist, Neiman rushes to get his drumsticks for the jazz performance despite of being badly hit and flipped over by a truck. He runs over to the auditorium to play with blood dripping from his wounds.
Although this might not be an exact ideal to emulate, it shows how obsessive passion helps us deliver the best version of ourselves despite many such difficulties. Such obsessive passion is so difficult to find and if we do come across something that doesn’t give us any sleep at all (in a good way), we have found out our potential career choice. I think there is a need to truly love your work and be obsessed about it.
Is there something about your career that you wish you had known in college, in retrospect?
During my course of time, I have made a lot of mistakes dealing with various stakeholders such as the students, parents, villagers, gram panchayat members, NGO bodies and so on. I would have made better management decisions had I been exposed to working with the organising teams of Pragyan or Festember at NIT Trichy. However, experiences are always learnt and it is never too late.
What is the recruitment policy that your company follows? How do you hire the right talent?
Presently we are hiring full time candidates interested in setting up the dHive makerspaces and have also been encouraging part-time volunteers with specific skill sets to work for the cause in any way they can. Before hiring, I do a background check on various social media profiles, articles that the candidate has written to understand the psyche of the candidate to better explain the reason why he/she is interested to work with us in the first place. If the motive is better explainable, I would ask situational problems which we ourselves face in our day to day work, and try to understand the perspectives that the candidate has to offer.
We also look to hire educators with previous experience working with children as a prerequisite. More than anything else, we expect them to understand children in a better manner to make better decisions.
Check out dHive and their initiatives at: http://www.dhive.in/