Founder and CEO, Mentor Together
Fellow project website: www.mentortogether.org
Arundhuti Gupta enables disadvantaged young people to escape the “lottery of birth”. Through systems, both in person and online, she can deliver anywhere that ensures successful mentoring for them as teens and as young adults.
THE NEW IDEA
What disadvantaged – – whether by caste, class, gender, geography, or other causes – – young people cannot get sufficiently at home or in rote, narrowly focused schools and colleges, they might access through a third dimension: Mentoring. That they do is Arundhuti’s life goal.
But how can one provide reliable, successful mentoring to the hundreds of millions of young people who need it? That’s Arundhuti’s entrepreneurial challenge.
She is succeeding. More and more schools, colleges, state governments, and others are signing up. Ninety percent of her young teen mentees have a better relationship with their mothers, and 80 percent with their fathers. Over half see their school grades go up.
Arundhuti is successful because she is building for systems change. She studies and evaluates and iteratively improves how her mentoring works and is delivered all the time.
Between 2009-2018, Arundhuti first focused on scaling an in-person mentoring program for high-school students. This started as an action-research project at the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. The program then scaled up to five cities – Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, & Chennai. By 2018, the program would annually accept about 500 new high school students facing conditions of high risk into a 3-year mentorship program until they graduated high- school. Despite the success of the program, Arundhuti realized that the in-person model significantly constrained the supply of available mentors as it was difficult to meet the needs of mentees due to work travel, difficulties committing to the program duration and language barriers.
Around the same time in 2018, Arundhuti noticed an economic and sociocultural shift in India: older students – prospective mentees for Mentor Together – in universities began to own and access mobile technologies. The falling costs of mobile data and smartphones meant that mobile phones became ubiquitous and essential to the student experience in universities. The entrepreneurial mind of Arundhuti saw this as a unique opportunity to increase access to mentorship using technology.
In 2018, she developed and launched ‘Mentor To Go’, a mobile and web-based mentoring platform that offers career mentorship to help young people – – across the age groups of 18-22, a period where such mentorship can be career-defining – who are primarily from low-income families.
The platform, via its data-driven algorithms, matches best-fit mentors and mentees in either 1:1 or group formats and presents structured mentorship tools for teaching and learning. Through an array of language choices and audio/video communication channels, the platform has made the mentoring program extremely accessible and scalable. Beyond platform development, Arundhuti is orchestrating a coalition of governments, individual educational institutions, non-profits, and corporates, across India to champion this mentoring model.
Over 35,000 mentors and mentees have signed up to the platform in the last 4 years, from a network of over 150 educational institutions and 40 corporate partners. 65% of the educational institutions are in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, and 35% in Tier 1 cities, across 10 states in In- dia. Formal government partnerships in Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Telangana help drive the bulk of student participation in the program. Close to 5400 mentoring relationships have been facilitated by the platform.
Mentors and mentees work through a mentoring toolkit of activities that supplements formal education with an emphasis on enhancing the mentee’s work readiness skills holistically. Through research-backed sessions, mentors help mentees understand themselves, build social and emotional skills, set a career vision, plan roadmaps toward those goals, and discover personal & professional values.
Arundhuti Gupta believes that education alone isn’t enough to help young people in developing the skills and mindsets they need to fully overcome their conditions. “Providing them life skills that can broaden horizons, build identity and connect to opportunities, is also necessary,” she says. - THE INDIAN EXPRESS
Arundhuti is gathering important information and data to support her work on policy change to embed mentoring as a critical element for youth development. In addition to her own efforts to expand scalable mentoring, Arundhuti has also registered a new non-profit organization to make the Mentor To Go technology platform available for companies and citizen groups looking to institute their own mentoring programs to meet the enormous demand for mentoring across the world.
Her mentors and mentees benefit from a rich mix of learning techniques ranging from games to softly Socratic problem solving, all delivered in empathetic, mutually respected ways. They also benefit from close, objective management monitoring and help. Her approach for young teens is in person; for young adults, online (but still very personal).
In other words, Arundhuti has developed a system that can cover millions, which can be taken up by others (which she encourages), and that promises that those millions of young people can have full futures. This is a big step for India’s future and for justice.
As of 2022, 38 million young people are in tertiary education in India, with the highest-ever enrollment rate of 30 percent of the youth population in the tertiary age group. Furthermore, national education policymakers seek to increase that number to 50 percent by 2030. To meet this national goal, services and sectors are getting on board to support the vision. However, in their quest for meaningful jobs and a better life, first-generation learners battle systemic inequalities that prevent them from achieving upward social mobility, something that is exacerbated by a lack of economically and socially successful role models within their social and geographical reach.
In addition, job markets are changing rapidly, while India’s continued dependency on standardized, textbook-based learning denies young people access to 21st-century skills that are critical to surviving and thriving in emerging and future markets. Ill-prepared youth, especially women, struggle to find connections and mentorship in their immediate environments and many end up taking unskilled and low-paying jobs as a result. Many become unemployed.
There is some access to informal mentoring programs, but these avenues focus on connecting youth with elders in the immediate community, so there is neither any formal training nor support for the mentor or mentee nor access to a wide set of mentors who have experience outside of these communities. As a result, many of these relationships fizzle out and young people become disillusioned with the benefits of mentoring.
Arundhuti’s solution is to help young people break out of socio-economic silos to achieve their potential. By integrating cross-disciplinary research, expertise, evidence, design, technology, and curriculum, she addresses the massive gap between the demand and availability of trained mentors for India’s youth as they navigate the school-to-work continuum. Furthermore, she is developing a mentoring solution that is backed by evidence, developing the capacity of the mentor to offer the high- est quality support and forming a community of learners and practitioners who are championing this form of mentorship.
To enable children and young people ages 13-21 to access a varied network of mentors, Arundhuti and her team have instituted two programs.
I don’t know if she’s like a friend, a parent or a guide. I think she’s more than God to me,” says Nayana (name changed), 19, who feels she can’t thank her mentor enough for giving her life a new direction. Just like her, a few other girls from Karnataka’s rural areas have been helped by Mentor Together to guide them academically and emotionally – THE INDIAN EXPRESS
First, the city-based school mentoring program is designed for high-risk adolescents in grades 8, 9, and 10. Anchored by in-person mentoring (at home or school), mentors counsel their mentees through the development of critical life skills – including self-awareness, self-esteem, motivation, and perseverance. A randomized control trial carried out in 2018 by the Centre of Budget and Policy Studies demonstrated a 90 percent likelihood of a mentee having a better relationship with their mother and 80 percent likelihood of a better relationship with their father when compared with students who did not participate in the mentorship program. Further, a mentee is 58 percent more likely to have better emotional, social, and school well-being, and 55 percent more likely to have better grades in math, social sciences, and sciences.
Second, the Mentor To Go work readiness mentoring program for underprivileged college and university students open up opportunities for young people who are transitioning into the world of work to build skill sets and open new and important networks they will need to shape long-lasting careers. This is a virtual program through which mentors and mentees connect online.
Both programs are defined by strong evidence-based curriculums, mentoring that is facilitative and not prescriptive, allowing for an equal stake of mentor and men- tee in the successful outcome of the mentoring process, robust processes, and partnerships that lay the ground for a vibrant mentoring ecosystem.
While the in-person school program has been dormant due to the pandemic since 2020, the Work Readiness mobile mentoring platform – Mentor to Go – has grown exponentially, as documented above. Arundhuti and her team have developed a research-backed curriculum benchmarked against global excellence standards. Work- ing through the curriculum, young people set work readiness goals and access personalized coaching.
To be eligible for mentoring, both mentees and mentors must commit to a minimum six-month timeframe. Uploading their college ID and proof of income, men- tees submit basic information – their current academic courses, subjects, work readiness, need areas, hobbies, preferences, and available times for mentorship. Before they are matched, the students must complete a set of self-learning exercises, demonstrating their commitment to the process. The algorithm then offers the mentee a choice of mentors in sync with their preferences – only first names and profiles are shared. The selection of a final match is determined by the mentee.
Altering the choices of India’s disadvantaged youth also requires an expansion of their social networks. Their communities have few role models who can guide the next generation with professional advice. Mentorship has been a part of urban youth community programmes around the world for nearly a century but is a fairly new intervention with children and youth in India. When Arundhuti Gupta launched Mentor Together in 2009, there were only a couple similar programmes in the country. - THE GUARDIAN
Mentors are also trained and prepared for the mentoring process through a series of modules that explain the process and support mentors’ developing ability to listen, stay objective and empathize. This formal training provides an important and missing pillar in traditional mentoring initiatives across the country. The lack of such interpersonal skills among traditional mentors often leads to the breakdown of mentorship engagements be- cause no amount of technical knowledge, resources, or network relationships can offset the need for soft skills that are needed to foster trust and connection. Arundhuti’s robust training curriculum for mentors aims to fix this and take a more holistic – technical and interpersonal – approach to mentorship.
In virtual learning spaces – through scheduled or on-demand communication and powered by a range of exercises such as games, videos, toolkits, goal-focused activities, and self-reflective discussions – the mentoring pair dive deep within and share reflections as they exchange thoughts and experiences. These conversations help mentees develop a sense of self as they identify core values and motivators. Gaining insights into the world of employment through the mentorship relationship, mentees are encouraged to express their career visions and pathways to actualize those visions. Once these are mapped out and identified, they take the first initial steps to becoming work ready – putting together their resumes, preparing for interviews, or applying for internships.
On the ground, the Mentor Together team ensures the effectiveness and success of the mentoring relationship before, during, and at the end of the mentoring journey. Mentees are asked to assess their motivation and commitment to the program before matching each pair. Then, a ‘pair manager’ tracks the mentoring relationship diligently and is alerted to issues about ease of navigation, safety, compatibility, and comfort in the relationship. Responsible for catalyzing the relationship and championing mentors and mentees through regular check-ins, the ‘pair managers’ are now able to expand their roles through the Mentor To Go platform. By professionalizing this process, a greater sense of trust and accountability is nurtured for all stakeholders.
Mentor Together staff adheres to global standards for effective mentoring with weekly team meetings to report on and analyze data on mentors, mentees, levels of satisfaction, and attrition. These data are measured against 5-6 indicators of outcomes with an emphasis on improving self-concept, career-focused self-efficacy, improving work readiness, and career maturity. The metrics instill rigor in the process and help Arundhati to strengthen the system itself by continuously using the data to iterate the curriculums, training, and engagement practices. This data-informed process has been a key advocacy tool when convincing partners such as state education departments to adopt the model. Female mentees who comprise 61 percent of the total mentee pool are specifically tracked for increases in voice/expression, agency, understanding of gender socialization norms, and behaviors that apply to the workforce.
Mentor Together has signed MoUs with the governments of three Indian states, and agreements with 89 colleges and universities located in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities. 26 corporates with a huge workforce have signed up to champion the mentoring platform within their organizations. The partnership with Telangana’s TASK (Telangana Academy for Skill and Knowledge) has enabled mentoring opportunities to reach over 6,000 students (including pilot pro- grams with people from indigenous backgrounds) across the state since 2018. Through the partnership with Karnataka’s Department of Technical Education, Arundhuti is reaching 14 government colleges in rural Karnataka, covering over 1,000 students since 2020. Lastly, with the more recent partnership with Maharashtra’s Department of Higher Education, Konkan Region, Mentor To Go has already reached over 1,000 students since March 2022.
Furthermore, Arundhuti has reached new groups through employee engagement programs and existing mentors are serving as ambassadors. Responding to the demand from mentees, Mentor to Go is being made available in more Indian languages, ensuring that the model can reach the most disadvantaged youth across the country. Topic-based speed mentoring over shorter time periods will also be introduced, allowing mentees to dip into the work-related experience with mentors. Arundhuti also plans to track the mentee’s successful transition into the workforce in the long term alongside other im- pact indicators over a person’s lifetime.
Moving forward, Arundhuti has set three clear goals for herself: 1) to reach 100,000 young people with Men- tor Togethers’ services in the next five years 2) create a mentoring ecosystem by training citizen groups and organizations and making her technology open source, 3) influence policy to further embed mentoring as a critical element for youth development. Arundhuti is setting up the networks and infrastructure to achieve these goals. Having rigorously proven her solution through service delivery since 2009, Arundhuti is now looking to ramp up the ability for her model to be widely replicated and scaled across the country.
Having personally experienced the positive power of mentoring and its influence on her life choices, Arundhuti started Mentor Together as a way to pay it forward.
Growing up in Bangalore, Arundhuti’s early life was dedicated to academics. She was a very strong student and eventually joined one of Bangalore’s premier colleges known for its emphasis on holistic personal development. There, Arundhuti discovered a world beyond academics as she participated in many activities and found great joy and a sense of purpose in volunteering.
At age of 20, encouraged by her professors, Arundhuti participated in a student leadership program held by the Goldman Sachs Global Leadership Institute in New York City – one of only two Indian students selected. Interacting with peers from 50 countries, she was both stunned and inspired by their life choices as well as their actions and ambitions for a more equitable world. For the first time, Arundhuti learned about different youth identities and power outside of academics. This was a turning point for her.
Energized and brimming with new ideas, she returned home to explore her own ability to make change happen. A meeting at a conference with Dr. Rajeev Gowda, then a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management – Ban- galore, pivoted her into the world of youth development and youth empowerment. Expanding her leadership skills and own experiences in a mentoring relationship, she volunteered with Dr. Gowda and supported his ef- forts to host career exploration events for young people. Through these experiences, she learned not only about young people’s hopes and dreams but also about their fears. These early insights helped draw the blueprint of Mentor Together.
After university, Arundhuti took a position with Goldman Sachs as an operations analyst at a bank. However, after a year, she felt reaffirmed that her life’s purpose was working with young people, but her current job didn’t offer a fulfilling path forward. She decided to return to school and pursue a Master’s in Finance. While studying in Manchester, she shared with two close friends about her experience, her passion, and her dream of accessible mentorship for India’s disadvantaged youth. Together, with Arundhuti’s leadership, the small group went on to establish her design for a standalone youth mentorship program for young people in India.
Impressed and inspired by her entrepreneurial zeal and determination, Dr. Gowda signed on as co-trustee and, in 2009, at the age of 23, Arundhuti launched Mentor Together with a mission to help underprivileged students gain access to formal mentorship opportunities.