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Inclusion Works

Hyderabad-based Youth4Jobs trains and helps youth with disabilities with job placement, while encouraging companies build an inclusive workforce. 

“In India, if you want to do good, there are hundreds of things to do,” says Youth4Jobs founder Meera Shenoy. She started her career in media, focusing on stories from India’s villages, but soon felt the urge to do more.

“I woke up every day and felt, ‘Capturing this on camera is not enough,’ ” she says. “I also knew that it would impact my own life in the bargain.”

Shenoy then ran India’s first youth skilling mission and worked with the World Bank. But again, she found herself at a crossroads. She wondered what she wanted to focus on next in her career.

“I didn’t want to do anything which people had done before,” says Shenoy. “One of the things I like to do in life is to do things first—to be a pioneer. Because if you are a pioneer, there are no cut-and-paste models. You have to innovate.”

She decided to tackle the problem of employment discrimination against people with disabilities by founding Youth4Jobs in Hyderabad in 2009. The nonprofit organization trains and places youth with disabilities in the workforce, while helping companies build an inclusive culture. Shenoy and Youth4Jobs have won several prestigious awards in India and other countries. Shenoy has also given a TEDx talk in Berkeley in 2015 and authored “You Can: From Smarter to Wiser” with Prasad Kaipa, which featured stories of differently-abled entrepreneurs.

Shenoy attended the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Hyderabad. The event, hosted by the United States and India, brought together emerging entrepreneurs and investors from around the globe. She says she was interested in the summit’s focus on women entrepreneurs, especially given India’s high population of young adults, and the ways in which the panelists challenge traditional notions about employment.

“The work is very, very challenging, but it is beautiful,” says Shenoy. “I used to think that giving a job to a person is economic empowerment. But, what I understand now is it’s not just about that. It does a lot of other things.”

Shenoy says her work with Youth4Jobs was incredibly difficult at first because the nonprofit was dealing with a geographically dispersed population. Youth with disabilities who live in villages, especially girls, are often hidden from society because disability is seen as a family curse, she says. They are sent to separate schools, and the average person has very little understanding of disability.

“When we came, the parents thought we were saying something really funny—that this youth could be trained for a job. So, we had a lot of work to do at the sourcing end.”

The employment figures for young people with disabilities were particularly dismal. She cited a study by New Delhi-based National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People that showed only 0.1 percent of people with disabilities were employed.

“One way to look at it is to feel depressed,” says Shenoy. “The other way is to see an opportunity. I said, maybe, this is the opportunity for us.”

Since its founding, Youth4Jobs has established 24 residential training centers in 14 states. All participants are from rural families, and are taught English, soft skills, life skills and digital literacy for future employment in industries like retail, information technology, hospitality and food service.

“And more importantly, we’ve reached out to about 195,000 houses [to say] that there is ability in disability,” says Shenoy.

Nearly 12,000 young people have been placed at hundreds of companies, ranging from tiny start-ups to Google, as well as in government jobs. Companies working with Youth4Jobs see a drop in attrition and an increase in productivity.

The message of Youth4Jobs is that employees should not be hired out of pity or sympathy, but out of good business sense. If the companies take the disabled persons out of pity, “then they take one or two token numbers,” says Shenoy. “We battled with all of these challenges.”

For example, French automotive supplier Valeo, which has factories in India, initially wanted to hire only one receptionist from Youth4Jobs, “because it would have been good karma,” says Shenoy. But Youth4Jobs offered a more comprehensive program.

“For every worry they had, we put a solution there,” says Shenoy. Their work was so successful that Valeo won an award and is now a standout example for inclusion.

The focus of Youth4Jobs is on the overall development of disabled people, and not just on creating an employee. In January this year, an art workshop was organized for 40 visually impaired girls at a government school in Hyderabad. The workshop was organized by Not Just Art, a start-up of Youth4Jobs, and Microsoft India Development Center. At Google, hearing-impaired employees have been wholeheartedly welcomed. Their supervisors praise their attention to detail, and even the security guards have begun to learn sign language to communicate with them. They have embraced dance classes at the company’s Hyderabad campus.

“They dance so beautifully to music they cannot hear,” says Shenoy.

Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.