CSIS Student Spotlight: Sweeha Panwar

Julia DaSilva
May 21, 2020
Alumni Stories

Sweeha Panwar is a current student in the Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy. While working at The/Nudge Foundation in Bangalore, India, Sweeha has also begun the process of developing her own non-profit organization. Learn more about how Sweeha is utilizing what she’s learned in the Executive Program in her professional life.


Please introduce yourself. What drives you, and what shaped that mission? Can you share a bit about  your organization?

Sweeha: So, I’m an engineer by degree and I did my bachelor’s in computer science. I began my career at Microsoft and during my time there, I realized that I eventually wanted to work in the social good space. There was one project that I worked on with some colleagues at Microsoft, which was centered on how technology can be used to drive social impact. It also involved the environment, which is an issue that is very close to my heart, because my parents have always been huge environmental activists. They have taken me to all these beautiful forests in India, and I have always been fascinated by the beauty of nature and what is happening to it now at our hands. So, for me, I saw this project as an opportunity to undo the damage we are doing every day. It was basically a personal carbon tracking app that monitors the actions you take every day. It uses AI, data analytics, and other fancy technologies to help you determine your own carbon footprint. I particularly enjoyed working on that and we were able to work with five or six nonprofits. It was then that I felt that this was the type of work that I wanted to do, and I decided to quit my job. A lot of people in my life were like, “Who leaves a job at Microsoft to work in the social impact space?” The social impact space in India has always been perceived as an organization where people wear traditional Indian wear, and have a very rustic look, with beards and messy hair, and big bags that they carry around to ask people for money. The nonprofit space today is not like this; they are social enterprises, driving social change. My friends still joke with me about leaving a job that paid $100,000 for a peanut salary, but I’m very happy with what I’m doing. 

So, I transitioned out with Teach For India as an intern. I worked on one of the most key projects at Teach for India at the time, which was Kids Education Revolution, a program that advocated for student leadership as the force for change for educational equity. The concept behind it was that we always hear from policymakers, teachers and principals, but the beneficiaries are never heard from. What do they want in an education system? To start the journey, we identified 100 changemakers from low income backgrounds, government schools, and high-end schools. We got all of these students under one roof and it was such a beautiful thing to see. By the end of the seven day retreat that we had planned for them, all one hundred of them were hugging each other and crying their eyes out. I was in the project for seven months and I think it was one of the most interesting and fun projects. I was able to work with Shaheen Mistri for that, and understand her vision for it, and work with another couple of very experienced professionals at Teach for India.

From that experience I knew that I had to continue working with youth and I transitioned to a very interesting job at a small nonprofit based in Bangalore called Reap Benefit, which focuses on creating civic leaders to solve the problems in their own communities. I started my role there as a mentor because I wanted to work very closely with the beneficiaries, but because of my experience at Microsoft, they asked me to work in communications and outreach, along with alumni engagement. They had over 30,000 alumni,  but no one knew what those students were doing after the program. I decided to create an alumni engagement program and established a youth board to hold the organization accountable. 


Can you share a bit about your current organization?

Sweeha: I am a Senior Associate in the Corporate Partnerships and Engagement team at The/Nudge Foundation. I basically build and manage our corporate relations and foundation nations. We have a pretty extensive portfolio of operates, like HSBC, Wells Fargo, and a host of financial institutions. We work with foundations; in the past, foundations like Rockefeller have supported us. I work on  building these relationships and creating an experience for them to be able to have the impact that they want. For this role, I have to work closely with multiple teams. I actually enjoy this role because I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting of serving our beneficiaries, but I still get to be with them, which is what I always wanted to do. 

The/Nudge Foundation focuses on poverty alleviation, and we have three different models through which we try to accomplish our mission. One element is development and entrepreneurship, which is building the skills of the youth. The second element is women’s empowerment building through micro entrepreneurship models in the communities that we are in. Finally, the third part is based on an understanding that poverty itself is such a multi-dimensional problem that is connected to health, education, sanitation, agriculture, etc.. I moved into this organization, in part, because my manager at Teach for India, with whom I was interning, was working there and thought I would be a good fit. Since then, I’ve never looked back. I think it has been the most interesting learning experience for me because I got to understand fundraising a lot better, which is a skill I will need if I want to start my own organization in the future. I had experience in leading a program and helping other people build their organizations, but never not in fundraising, and that is the most crucial piece in any organization if you want to have the funds to execute what you want to do.

Eventually, I want to start my own environmental organization. I started a conversation space in Bangalore, where people can voice wherever myths and thoughts that they have around climate change, which a lot of people still think is not real. There are people who are at the very bottom of the economic ladder who are suffering the most, but they think they are facing these challenges because of economic reasons.  Climate change is equal for everyone,but they don’t understand that. They don’t know that the water crisis that they’re having in their region is because of climate change.


What is the organization’s scale of impact?

Sweeha: So, we started our work in 2015 in one location in Bangalore. As I said, the initial approach was to use skill development and entrepreneurship as a model to actually break the cycle of poverty. You see, the concept of poverty is actually very simple; you simply weren’t born with a lottery ticket. That’s it.. You were not born into a middle class or upper class household. You were born into a very poor household, and that defines you. It seals your fate in terms of your education, food security, economic lifestyle, and quality of life. So, we wanted to break the cycle of poverty and, for us, the avenue for that was providing training. The founder and CEO of the organization actually went to one of the urban slums in Bangalore, and spent months there, just trying to understand the problems that these people are facing day to day. And at that point of time, he saw that there are three types of youth in each and every community— one who is unemployable; one who is employable, but is underemployed; and one who is employed, but is not in the right job. The youth who were considered unemployable were either the ones who have never gotten into really good schools, or who dropped out of school. So we established a 90 day training program to train them in multiple livelihoods. When they graduate, we give them certificates and we offer placements. If you want to be placed you can, but I think the most unique part of the program is that we offer lifelong support. It could be in terms of housing, getting a second or third job, or it could be just having someone to listen to their struggles. Additionally, when we started going into these communities, we saw that there’s another audience that we can engage with as well, which are the students currently in college. They still won’t be placed in optimum opportunities once they graduate, so we recently started a program where we go into these colleges and teach them English and life skills. These are some of the different scaling initiatives that we’ve started. 

We also started a program working with women in rural communities because when men migrate to urban areas to earn income, women are the ones who are left behind. Our program teaches entrepreneurial skills for specific livelihoods that will be sustainable in these communities. In this work, the realization slowly starts hitting you that there are people who are extremely poor not only because they are economically excluded, but because they are also socially excluded. In India, there is something called the caste system, where people are differentiated based on the caste they are in.   This makes it more extreme and more vicious for us to break the cycle. There are almost six and a half million people impacted in India because of this, and we try to serve in states where the situation is most dire.


Can you articulate some of your processes for making decisions and significant changes to your mission?

Sweeha: As I said, I want to start my own organization. When I applied to CSIS, my initial idea to create community centers to act as knowledge hubs, to  serve as a safe space for people to discuss the misconceptions that they have around climate change. People can take the knowledge from there and implement the changes in their communities. Through CSIS, I realized that this was not actually going to solve anything. That’s when I thought of the systems change approach, which I got clarity on during the Executive Program convening. I zeroed in on a couple of the most affected states, like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Bihar. The water in these areas is drying up, but they don’t know that this is the result of climate change. I realized that this was not something that they cared about. The only thing that they care about is getting food on the table every day and being able to pay their bills. With the systems change approach, I don’t have to be the implementing agency. I can get multiple organizations together to work and execute the programs, and then transfer ownership to the community members. I would like to use design thinking principles to help the members of these communities come up with the solutions themselves. 

Sometimes I do think that everything that I’m doing I could do maybe five or six years down the line, when the people in India will be more receptive to these things. But then I realize that there’s never a good time. It needs to be done now. I’m pretty hopeful that people start embracing this. Not necessarily the term ‘climate change’, but a way of life that cares more about our daily actions. 


How has your venture adapted to COVID-19?

Sweeha: Right now, because of COVID-19, a lot of things have changed for nonprofits. At The/Nudge Foundation I’m currently doing two roles. I’m still working in communications and outreach, but I’m also supporting a marketing function so that we can get more people to understand what we’re trying to do. 

Due to COVID-19, I’ve come to the realization that our systems are designed for the rich. They are not designed for the poor. The vulnerable groups that I work with through The/Nudge have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. They don’t have access to food or water. They’re forced to migrate to the cities, and, because of the lockdowns, they can’t return to their homes. This is the stark reality that they are faced with, and I know that when climate change becomes real for people and people really start to understand, the systems would be built for the rich, but never for the poor.


Why did you sign up for the Executive Program?

Sweeha: I’ve been in the sector for almost three years now. I understand the sector from the problem-solving lens. I understand the sector from the lens of the beneficiary. I understand the sector from the lens of partnerships between corporate entities, nonprofits, foundations, etc.. But what I do not have knowledge of, and something that I want to understand, is the strategy aspect of social impact. This knowledge can only come from studying social impact. I have some peers at my organization who have done fellowships, who have done Masters programs in social strategy, or have done international relations, or  social development, or social work.. So, they do have that perspective and at times I think that sort of gives them an extra edge to be able to understand the problem. I’m a problem solver because of the corporate background that I come from, so I can create solutions for beneficiaries, but I don’t have a very in-depth understanding of these different structures that exist within the social impact space, which can be used to create a larger impact. I wanted to understand these systems better, so I signed up for the program. I also wanted to get exposed to the social impact community for real. My time at Teach for India built my social impact knowledge, but it was more grassroots-oriented.


What are some of the moments or things that you’ve enjoyed most about your participation and the executive program so far?

Sweeha: What I have enjoyed the most in the program have definitely been the calls. I just love them because, for me, it is the space where I can cool off. I really look forward to the calls because I can talk to people and hear other opinions, and chat about things outside of the program as well. That is really helpful for me to get a break and gives me a new perspective on things. I get to learn a lot. The calls are the best part. I think I have to say that I really miss the breakout sessions from the convening. That’s a very happy memory that I have of the convening. I also really enjoy the different reading materials. I’m a reader, so for me, more than videos, I think  the readings help a lot because I am able to see all these things in detail. I think the whole curation of this program is well done. Initially I was sort of skeptical of how it would work remotely, but now, I’m able to understand the curation, the way it was done, the way the pieces fit, and I actually like the way the program is designed. 


Describe any collaborations you’ve undertaken with your classmates.

Sweeha: During the convening, we had cohort slides. Some people I just connected with, but others had written specific asks. One of the other students had written that she needed help with her social media outreach. I have done that for two years, I have a design background, and I can think from the user perspective, so we hopped on a call and just brainstormed. 

In a personal capacity, I wanted to do something for COVID-19 and tackle problems that others were not thinking about. Both of my parents work in government services, but my mom is an artist and she volunteers part time with local artists in the community in northern India.It’s a very small self help group; the women have a particular way of sewing clothes. It’s a very old art form, and it is slowly dying down, so she actually works with them to conserve that wealth of knowledge. I suggested doing a fundraiser for them, but my mom said that wouldn’t be enough. And then I met Nina, a fellow CSIS student. She’s also very big on arts; she has her own magazine. And I said, let’s collaborate. Let’s do something about this.  We did multiple calls and we came up with the idea, which basically will help local artists and artisans, and not only in India, but across the globe. The idea was to create a virtual experience for people to buy their art and for people to understand their art. Art is a very complex thing, and there are very different nuances to it. We came up with the whole business strategy plan- what it would look like, how will we fundraise, how will we get these artists on board, etc. We are actually looking forward to taking it up.

I think overall, the CSIS community has been really helpful to me. If we would have been physically together, the bonds would have been even stronger, but I think now that we are at the receiving end of COVID-19, and experiencing so many emotions and everything, it’s great to be able to have this community. And I think that the convening also came at a very right time when multiple countries were going on lockdown. The emotions were so high, and we had the chance to be raw with each other. I really hope that we get to see each other in person, because it would be the most beautiful experience to have all of us in one room. Because all of us are so amazing.  I’m going to be in love with this community for quite a long time. 


What are a few things you have learned that have been useful to you?

Sweeha: I have seen multiple nonprofits try to solve this problem, and although they might have solved the problem and the immediate need, they haven’t tackled the long-term and the problem finds its own way to grow back. So for me, I think the models, like theory of change, have been really helpful. It’s helped me in understanding my community from a separate lenS. The lens that initially I had was centered on how I could solve the problem. I was not at all thinking of the other way around, of what my community would need me for. Do they even need me? Will they even accept me? I’m really thankful for these tools to be there to navigate me in the direction that I’m going in right now. When I signed up for the program, I said that I wanted to build knowledge hubs because I thought that if I built awareness in the people and they understood the problem better, they would do something about it. But it is not about doing something to understand it, it is all about giving them the chance to understand. So, I think for me, that lens has been so beneficial because right now what I do every day at The/Nudge has been deeply impacted. I, every day now, when I talk to my team,  ask them to segment things. Yes, we’re trying to get this done, but what sort of audience are we looking at? Youth? Are we looking at the nonprofits that are working with? Segment it out for me. So all those things have started to come in and it’s really helpful. So for me, I think it’s largely about the lens, and as I said, and the community. My God. Beautiful community. Everyone has so much experience. Some of them are looking to make the switch to the social impact sector, so, because I have been there three years ago, I can relate to them as well. And then there are people as experienced as Charity, who have worked in the sector for so long that they know the challenges that are going to exist and how to navigate them. The overall support and vibe that I get is so positive. I think I actually wrote an article after the convening because I was so high on the energy that was there . Obviously in the last few weeks, I haven’t entered any calls, guilty as charged for that, but just to be able to just look forward to every Tuesday and Thursday is amazing. Because of it, I have started to be more vocal with my friends about my passion for the environment. 


What are some of your greatest accomplishments that you’re most proud of as a student?


Sweeha: I have a strong idea in place for my future organization. It may not be the perfect solution at the moment, but I’m clear on what I want to do. I eventually want to be able to implement policy level changes. I think I’m also very proud of the last project that I did with Nina. I personally love it and it came out so beautifully. I’m also proud of the relationships that each one of us have. I think that’s what CSIS is all about. When I was signing up, I went to multiple resources and spoke with multiple people, and what I mostly heard was that it would help you create your nonprofit. It can help you build the community you need. I think that is what I’m getting, and that that is something CSIS has never fallen short of.

It’s a crazy journey, I feel, at times, but I’m really glad to be where I am. To be honest, I’m actually glad that I’m part of this program. I had always been thinking about doing a masters and I never got a chance to do that because I just felt it would be too redundant, but now I’ve seen how helpful more education can be as it helps me build the different pieces that I need for my career. So yeah, I’m very keen on pursuing it further. I don’t know, maybe I’ll go for it and do a Master’s in NonProfit Leadership (NPL). I haven’t decided. But I definitely know that I want to be here, with this community, at the moment. I’ll take things one step at a time.