Curtailed and actively discouraged by a culture of silence enforced by adults in society, the youth seldom find opportunities to speak up about their experience of social and political phenomena. Status quo is encouraged not only in social circles, but reflected in mainstream media, which is not designed to spark action by citizens.
You could say he brought back the faith in citizen journalism for the Indian youth almost single-handedly. Starting off very young (he’s 24 today) as a blogger voicing his thoughts and views on what he viewed were “issues of critical importance”, Anshul evolved into a digital media entrepreneur legit, as the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of YouthKiAwaaz.com (YKA), a digital media platform for the “current generation” to express themselves, which is an ever-evolving success story. (Read: 1 million readers every month, and over 1000 volunteer journalists from around the world). Anshul has constantly experimented and innovated with YKA, launching the YKA Online Journalism internship program, which now gets about 2000 internship applications every month; hosting events such as Converge that encourage discussion points among the youth; and initiating YKA offshoots such as Cake, which exclusively talks about gender issues. YKA recently garnered attention by raising INR 4 crore from Raghav Bahl led Quintillion Media (and publishers of The Quint), which will be used for boosting its citizen led initiatives, and technology advancements. Anshul has been awarded the World Summit Youth Award by UN and ICNM and is an Ashoka fellow.
What was the impetus for YKA? Was there a triggering moment? Did you feel like you wanted “to change the world”?
In the general elections of 2015, almost 23 million young voters, between the ages of 18 and 19 were registered to vote. This indicates that India’s growing youth population will have a significant impact on voting trends, policy decisions and cultural changes as their voting share increases. However, despite their political importance as a voter base, they remain disconnected from mainstream opinion-making. Curtailed and actively discouraged by a culture of silence enforced by adults in society, the youth seldom find opportunities to speak up about their experience of social and political phenomena. Status quo is encouraged not only in social circles, but reflected in mainstream media, which is not designed to spark action by citizens.
We need our schools to encourage collaborative learning. We all come from such different experiences and opinions and yet, we do not want us to learn from our peers. This is a very colonial way of thinking.
Back in 2008, this was the exact realization that urged me to start Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA), the then personal blog to speak up on issues of critical importance. It remained a personal blog for around 6-9 months, after which I got friends and some readers involved in writing regularly. Over the last 7 years, YKA transformed into a digital media company, with a focus on combining journalism with technology and training to change the way media is produced and consumed, thereby overcoming structural limitations to media’s capacity to actively engage citizens.
What are your views on formal education and what sort of formal education is an absolute essential for your work (if at all)? Also, could you share with us the kind of internship or experience that would be helpful for a young person considering this line of work?
My views on formal education are a bit controversial, or unconventional. I do not think formal education is doing enough for the current and the next generation. We have a culture where failing is a taboo, and students are forced to adhere to systems that are doing more harm than good. Formal education also brings with it various other aspects of being a student, from life on campus to experiences outside of study circles – and our current system forces these areas to be built on stereotypes, encouraging the status quo. So when a female student at a premier university decides to address the rampant gender discrimination on campus, she is suspended for building dissent, rather than being assisted in solving the problem. And when a school student is growing up, discovering their sexuality, they are discouraged from asking questions. We need an education system that is more transparent, conversational, does not build on a top down approach and encourages breaking of stereotypes. It needs to let students fail, take risks, and learn. We need our schools to encourage collaborative learning. We all come from such different experiences and opinions and yet, we do not want us to learn from our peers. This is a very colonial way of thinking.
For our area of work, there is no prescribed formal education that is essential. Instead, it is experience that helps. Digital media is emerging rapidly, and it needs great writers, social media experts, academics, and so much more. So it isn’t so much about formal education than it is about interest and experience. However, if someone does want to work in this area, a writing, editing or a journalism internship really helps. Beyond that, if someone is interested in social media, then a social media internship to understanding how conversations spiral on the internet is ideal.
Did you have any fears when you were just starting out, and were any of them justified?
Yes, of course I did. I feared that people will not write on YKA, and that it will not sustain as a business. Mostly because before YKA, no other citizen driven platform had managed to sustain. However, with time I realized that this was the only way. If I wouldn’t do it, then no one will, and that someone had to make a start. I realized that even if I fail at it, I can always start again. I was way too young to think about stability of career or jobs – I was 17 then. I think that really helped. As YKA grew, my fears turned into opportunities. What I earlier thought about as something that no one had done now looked like something that was a brilliant opportunity to create a new path. It took a lot of patience, perseverance, and determination, but 4 years after starting YKA, it was a sustainable, social good business model that was being backed by some of the most reputed sponsors such as the United Nations.
I was way too young to think about stability of career or jobs – I was 17 then. I think that really helped. As YKA grew, my fears turned into opportunities.
Today’s older generation might think of snapchat … as a frivolous tool – but a few years from now they might turn out to be the most powerful communication platforms for collective action… There is growth of investment in these areas as well, which has made this a lucrative, sustainable professional choice – and imagine doing that without having to go with conventional careers like engineering or business administration!
Can young people in schools and colleges today think of expression on social media as a viable professional choice?
Absolutely! When YKA started in 2008, social media was a very new platform. At that time it would have been difficult. But now the times have changed. There is space for all kinds of expression on social media – so you find a serious platform like YKA, and you also find a diverse platform like Buzzfeed. There is no dearth of opportunity, really. Today’s older generation might think of Snapchat or Vine as frivolous tools – but a few years from now they might turn out to be the most powerful communication platforms for collective action. It’s all about identifying the opportunity.
Moreover, these platforms allow for innovative business models to come up. YKA runs on an ad free, yet profit-making business model. So do platforms like Buzzfeed and Vice. There is growth of investment in these areas as well, which has made this a lucrative, sustainable professional choice – and imagine doing that without having to go with conventional careers like engineering or business administration!
What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your work? And how do you see this profession faring 20 years down the line?
In 2008, internet was a big thing. It was the emerging trend in India. In 2015, mobile is. Everyone is trying to tap into the 60% population that has access to the mobiles. A few years from now mobile will probably become the primary information source for young people across economic and class backgrounds – and that revolution has already begun.
I think it’ll be unfair to predict what the world 20 years from now will be like.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
I consult my team and listen to my gut. I work with a fantastic, growing team of 10 diverse individuals who bring on board very diverse experiences and learnings. Their collective knowledge is often a source of inspiration and help. I also try a mechanism called the ‘jury room’. When you are confused between two options, you toss a coin. Whether it is heads or tails does not matter. What matters is what you want the coin to display when it is in the air during the toss – that makes it a lot easier.
When you are confused between two options, you toss a coin. Whether it is heads or tails does not matter. What matters is what you want the coin to display when it is in the air during the toss…
Describe a typical (business-as-usual) day and an atypical (screw-up-fairy-lives-here) day at work.
A typical day usually starts at 7 am with a morning walk with my dog. I start answering emails immediately after, land up in office at around 11, and continue work till around 6.30 or 7 pm, after which I head back home, or go see friends, or hang out with the team. An atypical day at work is when the entire team decides to pack their bags and head to Dharamshala! 🙂
What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?
There’s nothing more pragmatic than pursuing your passion. It makes complete sense. You are passionate about something, you want to do it long time in the future, and you are convinced that some way or the other you will figure it out. So why get bogged down by what others around you say? One thing I am glad I did not do was listen to other people’s opinions about my choices. Ask any successful entrepreneur and you’d find out that they put up a tremendous battle against the conventions of the society. So should you. Go for it, go all out and build something that creates a new path. There’s really nothing to lose. You can always get a job, you can always study further and you can always follow the convention. Even if you fail, you’ll know you tried.
One thing I am glad I did not do was listen to other people’s opinions about my choices. Ask any successful entrepreneur and you’d find out that they put up a tremendous battle against the conventions of the society. So should you.
If you could go back in time and meet yourself at 17, what would you say to your 17-year-old self?
- Don’t hesitate with that idea, you’ll do it in a few years anyway. So might as well do it right now.
- Drop out of college. Go full time with your website.
What is the kind of supplementary informal learning that will give you that edge today? What is the kind of reading/learning that you engage in to continue educating yourself? Any books, online resources (blogs, courses, Facebook or Linkedin communities etc.)
I read a lot. I don’t get time to read many books, but I spend hours every day reading about trends, opportunities, businesses around the world that are trying something new. I love staying ahead of the curve and identifying opportunities before they exist. I spend a lot of time studying about journalism, digital media and keeping up with what’s happening in the world.
What is most rewarding about your job?
The feeling I get after reading stories of people from around the country – people who talk about very personal instances of abuse, their struggles with the status quo and their battle for their rights. The fact that they come to YKA to speak up on all of this is the most rewarding thing. Just reading through what people have to say and being able to take it to millions is a great feeling.
Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ How do you get over that, if you do?
No, I do not. I just know that if this does not work out, I will start afresh. So no point wasting time thinking about what I am doing with my life.