21 Jun 2017
10 min read
1697 words
From the Archive (Oct, 2016): Som Paneru talks about his career of opening doors for others through education, and why social enterprises are particularly relevant in Nepal

How would you describe your childhood?
I come from a humble farming community in Gorkha. Growing up with nine siblings meant that we didn’t have a whole lot of things, but nevertheless our parents always prioritised education. I started school when I was seven years old, that is only when I was old enough to make the hour-long journey on foot to school. When I was 13 years old, I received a scholarship at Gandaki Boarding School, in Pokhara. Gandaki School and Budanilkantha School commission teams to scour villages in search of bright young kids from underprivileged background who cannot afford education. As it happened, a team arrived in my village in Gorkha. I did exceptionally well in their entrance examination, and next thing you know, I was told that I would be going to Pokhara. I would describe my formative years as challenging but full of incidences that have gone on to shape my values.

How did life change for you as you transitioned from a remote village in Gorkha to Pokhara?
I remember arriving in Pokhara almost three months before school started—I was that excited. When the headmaster told me to go back home and return when the school session was to start, I made an excuse of not having the bus fare to go back. I wanted to take in all I could of Pokhara. It was a completely different world, full of new experiences—from living in a place that had electricity and motor vehicles to learning English in class. For me, many of my life-defining moments happened in those three golden years of school, and I made sure that I took advantage of the opportunity given to me. After I passed SLC with good grades, I joined Amrit Science College, in Kathmandu, to pursue further studies.

Were you prepared to pursue your Kathmandu dreams, and the struggles that came along with it?
Gandaki Boarding School was like a nurturing cocoon compared to Kathmandu’s harsh realities. My parents couldn’t afford my college tuition, so I had to take up odd jobs to make ends meet. All of a sudden, I had to support myself and my family. Later, I found my calling in teaching private tuition classes. I was studying, teaching and supporting my six siblings’ education. Those were tough days, but I absolutely embraced and relished the challenge.

You seem to be have been unfazed by challenges early on. How did you develop such resilience?
My father was a self-taught man who acknowledged the importance of education, but boy, he made sure we worked hard in the fields. I learned early on in my life to value those years of hardships and the motivation they instilled in me. I also realised that when I could not change my situation, I could always change my perspective.

What keeps you motivated?
When I look back at my beginnings and how education transformed my life for the better, it makes me want to work harder to provide the same opportunities to other less fortunate kids. See, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study in Pokhara, I would be ploughing the fields, just like my friends back in the village. Getting the scholarship was a ray of hope for me, and now as a president of the Nepal Youth Foundation, I have the chance to provide others the same. I am delighted to have an opportunity to serve educators, families and kids. I’m ambitious, because I see hope and great possibilities for everyone.

From social worker to the president of Nepal Youth Foundation. How did it all start?
I somehow got my intermediate degree, but I couldn’t complete my bachelor’s degree. As destiny would have it, I got help in the form of a scholarship from Nepal Youth Foundation (NYF). Later, I met the founder of NYF, Olga Murray, and my life changed completely. At the age of 64, Murray, a retired lawyer, had come to Nepal and fell in love with the country and the people, especially the children. She decided to help the needy in Nepal and started the organisation. When she offered me a position at NYF, I didn’t think twice about the offer. I was one of the first employees, and since January 1995 I have been a part of the foundation. Murray will always remain a huge source of inspiration—if a lady can come from 10,000 miles away to help kids in Nepal, then why can’t a Nepali help other Nepalis?

You went from being a science student to running a public charity programme; take us through the formative years of NYF.
NYF works for the welfare of underprivileged children and youth in Nepal, predominantly in giving access to good education and healthcare. We didn’t have an office back then; I remember going from school to school in a rented van paying fees of kids we had sponsored. The foundation had invested substantial resources to educate those children in different private schools of Kathmandu; however, the results with regards to their progress was anything but satisfactory. Whenever I used to visit these schools, I used to be appalled by their approach to education, how they were treating children, the physical infrastructure, and the lack of trained educators. So we decided to start a school where children from all cultures, races and ethnic backgrounds would be treated with respect and dignity. It was to be a place where kids from across Nepal could get a good education. And that was the genesis of Ullens School.

What sets Ullens apart from other institutions?
Ullens is a development agent for the community. That’s why we maintain a high level of ethnic, economic and occupational diversity among the parents while handpicking our students. Because we are a not-for-profit institution, we use the funds earned by the school to provide scholarships for children who cannot afford tuition. Twenty per cent of our students benefit from the scholarship programme. At our school, kids hailing from different strata get to interact with each other from a very young age, and this creates curiosity in them which then leads to their understanding various societal issues and striving to find solutions from among Nepalis. Our aim is to empower children to become responsible and capable adults.

What is the difference between managing a charity and a social enterprise?Until 2006, I was only managing the charity, and then I started working for a social enterprise in the form of Ullens School. Yes, the school is a not-for-profit entity but is nevertheless run as a business. See, people can be very unaccountable in a charity because the money is coming from somewhere else, and it’s very easy to make excuses to the donors when your goals are not met. But when you’re running a social enterprise you cannot take things for granted because your existence is solely dependent on your performance, and on the satisfaction of your clients who are paying for your service. In a sector that’s reliant on constant fundraising, sustainable funding is a crucial issue. A social enterprise model ensures sustainability, but also scalability—to expand even on the basis of limited investment funding rather than ever-increasing grant funding.

Talking of challenges, can you tell us about the anti-slavery Kamlari movement?
The phenomenon of innocent Tharu girls being sold off by their parents with the help of local middlemen shook me to the core. Besides being exploited for their labour, the girls are also subjected to sexual abuse, rape and physical torture, and there are also many cases of the girls being trafficked for prostitution both in Nepal and to India. So in 2000 we rescued 37 girls and supported their education. That was the start of this movement. We kept on working with the girls’ families and government bodies, and in 2013 we have liberated close to 13,000 young girls, and abolished the practice. The girls who were liberated in 2010 are now adults, and through them we are seeing changes at the grass-root level. We didn’t just rescue the girls; we provided education and vocational training so that they could be self-reliant. Here again, we return to the same point of independence—rather than support dependency, social entrepreneurial tools enable marginalised people to develop their own opportunities.

What’s your take on the brain drain the country is witnessing?
I think of this phenomenon not as brain drain, but rather as its opposite—brain gain. Outbound Nepalis get to learn about other cultures, see the world, broaden their horizons and end up gaining valuable lessons in life. Even if 50 per cent of these kids decide to return home some day, they will contribute towards the economy in a meaningful way by their roles as professionals and entrepreneurs.