Hi! It’s me, Spiffy, the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making a difference in healthcare and emergency response. Today’s rockstar is Shyamli Badgaiyan, co-founder of the COVID-19 India Relief, a fundraiser led by South Asian students. Shyamli and her team jumped in to make an impact on UN SDG#3: Good Health & Well-Being and SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities when Covid-19 was surging in India. Let’s see how they did it!
Spiffy: Welcome Shyamli! Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and tell me about your work! Can you start by talking about the challenges you are addressing through your initiative?
Shyamli: Thanks so much for having me, Spiffy. In April and May 2021, India was hit by a deadly surge of Covid-19 that devastated —and continues to devastate—the lives and livelihoods of millions across the country. At the time, the crisis was particularly grave: hospitals and healthcare workers were overwhelmed, patients lacked oxygen and critical supplies, and millions were thrust into poverty and loss. I co-led an effort to bring South Asian students from across the US to help those battling Covid-19 and its far-reaching consequences in India. Together, we hailed from more than 35 university organizations in the United States and raised over $450,000 to support non-profits across rural and urban India.
Spiffy: Talk about a far-reaching impact! What were some of the reasons you were motivated to do this?
Shyamli: Well, Spiffy, I was motivated by three things: the scale and urgency of the crisis on the ground, the incredible privilege of networks and resources in the US, and the sheer generosity of donors wanting to help. We kept going because of each other (the energy and hard work from students across the country were stunning—even virtually, when we had never met one another!) and because of the support we received from our universities, the press, and friends and family. Special shout out to my co-founder Priyank Lathwal, as well as Akshita Mehra, Rishi Palan, and Roshan Sharma, who helped with many of the critical decisions, and Chaitanya Sharma at the GiveIndia team.
Spiffy: It sounds like it was a real group effort. Can you talk about how your fundraiser works to create a more equitable world?
Shyamli: I dream of a world in which there are robust institutions to safeguard the least privileged in society, and where no one is excluded from having a healthy, joyful, and fulfilling life simply by virtue of the circumstances they are born into. Unfortunately, when Covid-19 hit India for the second time, this wasn't the case: our health care system was burdened by the rampant virus, and the implications on livelihoods were dire and far-reaching. Our initiative hoped to play a small part in alleviating the situation by bridging the gap between those with privilege (like ourselves) and those without. The real work, of course, was being done by non-profits and healthcare professionals who were tirelessly working on the ground.
Spiffy: What kind of milestones have you achieved and what kind of impact are you seeing?
Shyamli: We raised over $450,000 and were able to direct critical medical and humanitarian relief to over 15 NGOs across rural and urban India. This included oxygen generators in city centers, health interventions and medical supplies in rural districts, direct cash transfers for families that lost breadwinners, and relief efforts for the blind and disabled, tribal communities, slum dwellers, and waste workers. We were also grateful to have been amplified through national media in India and the United States.
Some of the students behind the COVID-19 India Relief effort. (Image courtesy of Shyamli Badgaiyan)
Spiffy: What’s your philosophy in regards to failure? Can you share about times that you faced failure and didn't give up?
Shyamli: You know Spiffy, there were many obstacles along the way. We experienced helplessness and doubt (would we really be able to make a difference, and in time?). There were practical obstacles related to disbursing money quickly and to the right places (how could we decide among the many causes and non-profits, reach those most in need, and overcome disagreements?). And then the reality of overwhelm (how could we possibly do exams or manage grief and burnout when such a grave crisis was unfolding?). Ultimately, we drew strength from one another—and our mentors—to share burdens and seek comfort. We strived to change what we could control, and accept what we couldn't. We were also led by not letting perfect be the enemy of the good—particularly when time was of the essence— which was a tough tradeoff.
Spiffy: It sounds like you’re open to learning. Is there anything interesting you’ve learned lately that you could pass on to our readers?
Shyamli: I always find myself coming back to the importance of caring for yourself while caring for others. I used to be skeptical of this—perhaps because it seemed a little selfish—but I think I'm getting closer to understanding what it really means. You can do a lot more for others when you operate from a little bit of balance, love, and calm inside your own self. Figuring out how to achieve this peace—and understanding yourself enough to tap into it at the right time, or live without it in the sprints—is the harder part!
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Shyamli: You have more power than you think you do. Just as you might look to those “more powerful” than you to act in dark times, there are often people who are looking to you to help them. We just can't hear or see them. You might be surprised by how much you can change, how much growth it can bring, and how many people are willing to help you, just when you take the first step. Often, all you have to do is pay attention to what makes you angry, sad, and hopeful in the world (if nothing comes to mind, get closer to the problems you see or read about!) and make those invisible calls for help visible. Of course, do your research, seek advice, and work from a place of humility and generosity. But then, just act!
Spiffy: You’ve given us a very clear example of how to do that! Thanks for taking the time to tell me about your amazing initiative, Shyamli. It’s been an honor.
Shyamli Badgaiyan was a student at Harvard Business School when she started the COVID-19 India Relief fundraiser. She currently writes for the Economist and has experience across the public, private, and non-profit sectors in the UK, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Shyamli is from Delhi, India, and holds a BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford. (Nominated by NABET. First published on the Ladderworks website on September 8, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.