Jeroo Billimoria: a global movement that started with a simple gesture in her teens
A social entrepreneur known for building huge, global coalitions, Jeroo first started in Mumbai, working with street children. She saw how their precarious living conditions and acute level of poverty made street children highly vulnerable to violence, police exploitation, and health issues, such as illness and injuries. Jeroo quickly learned that civil service organizations worked independently from each other and did not offer after-hours services, which is when young people need support the most. So she gave them her private phone number in case of emergencies.
Every night the phone rang.
From that simple act of caring and then later the recognition of a great need came Childline. Any street child could call a free number and be answered by a trained and sympathetic street child. Shortly thereafter help would be on the way.
The consequences were profound - services connected with need; quality assurance was normalized; areas of shortage gained resources. Police exploitation fell sharply because a call to a sympathetic operator from half a block away about what an officer was doing quickly brought trouble to that officer.
Free Childline service soon spread to over 50 Indian cities. And then to 143 countries.
More recently, Jeroo focuses on helping all young people understand their economic rights and access financial services through Child & Youth Finance International. Financial literacy enables young people to stay safe and plan for their future. To date, this global coalition has reached 32 million children and young people in 150 countries.
What led Jeroo to break out from being a good professional like all those around her? Her early experiences gave her the knowledge of a far bigger power—that of a changemaker. Around age 11, she organized all the domestic workers in her apartment block to open bank accounts. She traces her interest in financial literacy and access back to this intervention.
She truly stepped out when she was 16. Her mother, a social worker in the schools for poor members of the Parsi community, focused on family life and other non academic issues. Jeroo felt this was a mistake. Instead, she felt the effort should go towards academic issues because half of the students were dropping out due to failing their math or English courses.
Her mother, who was brilliant at helping Jeroo become an entrepreneur, asked her daughter to design solutions instead of just presenting a problem. Jeroo’s mother also introduced her to faculty at the Tata Institute. As Jeroo inquired how to teach English and math more effectively, several faculty members suggested that she visit Gloria de Souza, who was just then introducing “environmental education”, an alternative to rote memorization based on problem-solving in the real environment. Jeroo went to see Gloria and immediately they formed an alliance. Confidently, Jeroo sold this new approach of teaching to the head of the Parsi schools, while her mom encouraged her on and did not step in for the big meeting. Gloria trained Jeroo, and they worked together on implementation. Gloria was Ashoka’s first Fellow.
To this day, Jeroo empowers young people to find their power and become their own changemakers. "If you have an idea and if you passionately want to change the world,” Jeroo advises, “start with small achievable things. Believe in yourself and be ready to make a million mistakes. And then you will be able to change the world."