In April, after I wrote my last post from the Hall of Flags, I was emailing with Manjula Dissanayake, one of the students featured. A week later, we sat down and he described the incredible path he has followed from his pre-Fletcher days to now. With Commencement just around the corner, I’m featuring Manjula’s story.
It all starts in 2007, when Manjula was working in finance in the DC area. He and his roommates had previously raised funds for Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, but they felt they could do more. They decided to focus their efforts in the area of education, forming Educate Lanka. Before long, Educate Lanka was occupying so much of Manjula’s time that he decided to dedicate himself to the effort, starting by pursuing graduate study in development and social entrepreneurship, either through an MBA or an international affairs degree. An application process later, he enrolled in Fletcher’s MALD program in September 2010 as a Board of Overseers Scholar, and quickly got to work on building his own intellectual infrastructure to run the organization, which currently has a core volunteer staff of ten, and a larger pool of about 40 to draw upon.
I should pause here and describe Educate Lanka. The organization’s main activity is securing micro-scholarships of $10 to $20 for students who lack funds but have a high potential to become future leaders, by connecting the kids with sponsors from around the world. 100% of the sponsorship funds go to the students. There are no administrative expenses (this being a fledgling organization), but if something comes up, funds are raised through a separate fundraising process, which also generates some scholarships for students without sponsors. Currently 275 students are receiving scholarships. A total of 350 have received funds, about 30 of whom have completed school (though a few left school and the program). There are over 400 sponsors in 15+ countries. Once they are in the program, the kids are funded through their undergraduate studies, starting as early as fifth grade (age 10). Over 12 million Sri Lankan Rupees (about US$100,000) has been awarded.
Back to fall 2010. Manjula settles in, registers for courses, etc. Good things started to happen pretty much right away. The first was that Educate Lanka was selected to receive the funds raised through Fletcher’s annual Asia Night event. That same semester, Manjula drew support from Empower, a project of the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership (IGL). And Educate Lanka took third place in the Tufts 100K Business Plan Competition. Not a bad start for one semester, and at that point Manjula started to think Educate Lanka had the potential to become a larger organization.
In spring 2011, Manjula took a microfinance class with Kim Wilson, and cross-registered for a Harvard class on education and social entrepreneurship with Fernando Reimers. Both professors offered advice on complementary models for Educate Lanka, and on how to make the organization more sustainable and scalable. Should it continue as a 501(c)3 (non-profit)? Or should it turn into a blended social business? Also that semester, after attending the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, someone referred him to USAID and the State Department, because he works with the Sri Lankan diaspora community, which led to an invitation to speak at the Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum.
Come summer 2011, while also interning in the Education Investment Group of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, Manjula was a finalist in the MassChallenge competition, as a result of which he received mentorship and guidance. Toward the end of the summer, he used a fellowship from IGL to travel to Sri Lanka, visiting the north and east of the country, where Educate Lanka wasn’t yet working. He returned with a sense of how to achieve near-term organizational expansion in Sri Lanka, including a corporate partnership model.
Meanwhile, Manjula’s roommate, Sadruddin, was thinking of replicating the model in Bangladesh, and had received a good response to the idea. He hopes to pilot the project by the end of this year. (Here they are together.)
Back at Fletcher in September 2011, Manjula reconnected with Prof. Wilson and Prof. Reimers, who together mentored him and helped him to think about global replication and to add a corporate partnership model to Educate Lanka. An MIT class on Development Ventures required him to take his ideas and act on them. He received another IGL/Empower fellowship to return to Sri Lanka during the winter break. And he continued entering business plan competitions. He was one of two finalists in the MIT 100K Elevator Pitch Competition.
His Fletcher classmates sent more funds Educate Lanka’s way from 2011 Asia Night proceeds, and Manjula was one of a small group honored as a UN Volunteer of the Year in Sri Lanka. Also helpful, more Fletcher students were jumping on board, including a group that wrote a consulting report on the concept of distance learning in Sri Lanka. He received additional funding from the Center for Emerging Market Enterprises, and IGL is committed to supporting Manjula, even after graduation.
In spring 2012, Manjula was a semi-finalist at the Harvard Social Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition. And this semester also found him in two classes specifically selected to build his skills set. Along the way, he needed to write a thesis and do the other things expected of Fletcher students. Oh, and he attended Clinton Global Initiative University in March, and was an Echoing Green semi-finalist. In preparing to graduate, he created his own Fletcher Field of Study: Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in International Development. (His second field is International Political Economy.)
I asked Manjula to reflect on his Fletcher experience, which seems to have been uniquely successful in connecting him to the local academic community. He said that he came to Fletcher “with the idea to get more guidance, more advice” and to “test the model and see if it has legs.” He confirmed that he was able to do that through classes, the business plan competitions, talking to mentors, seeing the response of people who believe in the Educate Lanka model (including some who want to replicate it elsewhere in South Asia and in Africa), and talking in panels and at conferences. All of this pushed him to move Educate Lanka toward a sustainable social business model while maintaining its core scholarship model.
What’s coming up after graduation? There are five or six fundraising events set up for the summer. The model will be starting up in Bangladesh, leading to “Educate World” in many countries. There’s a plan to start an online platform to arrange one-on-one mentoring for underprivileged kids, enabling knowledge-sharing between the developed and developing world (and also generating more traffic for the Educate Lanka website). The mentoring program would offer a new means of involvement for people who can’t contribute funds, and builds the community of people Manjula says are energized with “‘change the world’ spirit.”
Finally, Manjula took a minute to say “how much I appreciate all the support and backing I have received from my fellow Fletcher students, from all three classes (’11,’12,’13) with which I had the privilege to share my experience, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni. I owe them my thanks.”
I’m going to try to keep up with Manjula and Educate Lanka through the coming year, and I’ll report back on Manjula’s post-Fletcher path. Based on his success in the past two years, I’m guessing there will be plenty to write about.