THE GUARDIAN ANGEL: GLORIA BENNY

GLORIA BENNY: OUR FREDERIQUE CONSTANT WOMAN OF THE MONTH

Frederique Constant and RITZ Magazine join hands to identify those women who live their passion and share their journey with us to influence others. Meet one such girl who is changing the lives of million others – Gloria Benny, our Frederique Constant Woman of the Month.

BY NAMITA GUPTA

Gloria Benny started her social entrepreneurial journey at the young age of 20 when she had the opportunity to understand the challenges that children living in orphanages and children’s homes faced. She realised that she had lived in a “privilege-bubble”, one that insulated her from the underbelly of society – the acute inequality. Her early experiences with children in Children’s Homes got her alongwith six of her friends to start their first non-profit organisation Guardians of Dreams. Little did she know then that it would go onto becoming one of India’s largest youth volunteer networks.

You started doing something so meaningful at a very raw age. Please share how Guardians of Dreams happened.
Right after college, I went onto work with Google India for five years before deciding to move full-time to the development sector. I did not intend to do anything different at an early age. I only intended to be dedicated to whatever I took up. It was my early experiences with children in Children’s Homes that touched my heart. Guardians of Dreams (godreams.org) works to improve and standardise the quality of childcare that children living in orphanages receive. Our mission is to ensure that every vulnerable child receives the right inputs in their childhood to enable them to achieve their full potential. I’m currently working on building my second non-profit organisation that I co-founded along with Sujith Varkey, Mekha T and Aditya Surneni.

What motivated you to become what you are today? What was the turning point?

It was an early experience that made me realise what it was I wanted to dedicate my time and effort to. I love working with children but for the longest time I didn’t see it as a career/profession I would pursue. But then, once you see certain things, it is difficult to unsee it. Once I saw the challenges that vulnerable children faced, I chose not to unsee it. Now looking back, that was the point when I decided to walk the path less traveled. At 20, being exposed to children living in shelter homes was the turning point. It was evident that many shelter homes were struggling to run effectively due to lack of resources and systems; and as a result a majority of children who lived in these homes had a slim chance of breaking their cycle of poverty. The social injustice meted out to such children and the belief that if more people dedicated time and effort to finding a solution to this problem, we had an actual shot at solving it; made it an obvious path for me. My greatest motivation was conversations I had with children in those shelter homes. It gave me the resolve to not unsee them but instead work towards ensuring they receive the kind of childhood they deserve.

How tough was it to quit your full-time job?

After a five-year stint in a reputed tech company, I more or less knew what I wanted to dedicate my efforts to. I realised I wanted to lead a meaningful life and development sector is where I saw myself in the long term. However, the truth is I did not intend to do anything different at an early age. The early experience of starting up a non-profit organisation opened up a whole new world of experience that made me committed to solving the problem. I knew I loved working with children but for the longest time I did not see it as a career/profession I would pursue. However, as years passed, I knew with certainty that working with children is what I saw myself doing long-term. Once this realisation dawned, quitting my corporate career to move to the development sector full-time was only a matter of time.

Any challenges and how you overcame them to follow your passion?

Back in 2006, when I started my first organisation, volunteering was unheard of in India. To top it, volunteering in our organisation meant volunteering every weekend religiously for a year. Many a times the larger public would have difficulty grasping the concept of “working for free”, even if it was for a cause like children. Overtime, this changed in our favour. Volunteerism picked up and majority started realising the value of early volunteering experience for youngsters. At the time we started our first organisation, we were just a bunch of 19 and 20 year olds. While age was an advantage in many cases, we also lacked the experience and didn’t really an influencer to back us up and lend credibility. It took hard work and dedication to prove our credibility and commitment in the early years. Looking back, it was the best way to gain credibility and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. Development sector itself was at a very nascent phase and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for youngsters to get into the space. I’m referring to 2006 where most of the platforms you see today for youngsters to gain sector context did not exist. In India, there weren’t any real parallels to what we were doing. Hence, many of the people we spoke to treated it as just-a-phase. Many expected us to snap out of it and pursue “real dreams”.

What message do you have for women who encounter roadblocks? How would you best describe yourself as a woman who’s living her passion?

I learnt early on that following your passion isn’t easy. While it is exciting and fulfilling, it comes with its fair share of challenges. If you’re a woman, then brace yourself for the nay-sayers and self-doubt. There will be times when you will question your ability. It will often require us to rewire ourselves to reject the years of conditioning that tells us that following our passion isn’t something for us. Fervently keep your eye on the ball and persist. It will pay off in the long run. I’ve had to do a lot of this to keep doing what I’m passionate about – and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Highpoints of your journey so far?

There are several success stories of children having leapfrogged into the lives they have dreamt of and made happen with their force and conviction. One such is the story of a boy from one of the homes we supported who received a one year scholarship to study in the US. That was a great launchpad for him. He has now completed his engineering degree, got married and is now settled in the US. That will always be a moon-shot we will cherish. His story builds conviction in us that it is possible for more of our children to break the cycle of poverty.

You’re an inspiring force for many others out there…Please elaborate.

How to make your dream come true – First up, spend time on being sure of what your dream is and why it drives you. Once that is sorted, spend time perfecting the skills/knowledge you will need to achieve it. Building the required skills with a clear focus on the end point is half the work done on making your dream come true. How to get to your goal – Operationalise it. Break it down into sizeable, doable chunks. Visualise it to the finest detail. And then start implementing.

Two tips for success for any woman entrepreneur – Prepare for the tough journey. Carry a pair of boots, an air balloon and a parachute. You will need them – to run, to fly and to save you from the falls. (to break your fall)

What keeps you motivated and inspired?

Stories of impact. That’s what keeps me motivated. The reason that I’m doing this is to be able to see a world where opportunities are more equitable. Stores from our work or any stories that show indicators that this is possible is what keeps me inspired to do what we do. It is give me hope that that future is worth working towards.

What do you feel to be selected as our Frederique Constant Woman of the month?

I feel extremely grateful and honoured. Thank you.

What are your future plans?

To continue my work through Guardians of Dreams and to create a future where universal access to quality childcare is a reality.