Global Conversations With: Dhairya Pujara, Founder of the Ycenter

Gabrielle Lantieri, for GPA -- When Dhairya Pujara graduated from Drexel University with a Master’s of Science in Biomedical Engineering, he could not foresee the path he would ultimately take. It led him to Africa and eventually, back to Philadelphia. He was inspired by his experiences in school, abroad and his native India to form the Ycenter, a non-formal learning program that seeks to inspire fundamental changes to quality of life abroad.

Your career path has taken some twists and turns. How similar is your job today to what you thought you’d be doing as a student?

When I graduated in 2012, I got a job in healthcare and I was very grateful for that. On my first day, I worked from 9 am to 5 pm. By 5:30 pm, I decided to quit because those eight hours made me realize this was not how I wanted to use my Master’s degree. I joined Drexel’s international program and lived in Mozambique for five months. This was never a part of my plan; I was set on getting a job, taking a trip to Europe and just enjoying myself. But I realized I wanted to see the world. Especially coming from India, I was already excited about seeing another part of the world. Now, I am in Africa and it was surprising even by my own standards.

I went there initially to solve key problems in healthcare. I was located at a hospital fixing biomedical machines. What I found was that a lot of assumptions were made by nonprofits and charities regarding the community's healthcare needs. These organizations donated money to Africa not entirely based on the facts. They donate these machines and assume no one was using them because they were not working. But in actuality people were not taught how to use them; no one bothered to ask them “do you know how to use this machine?”

No one is creating capacity and the Ycenter seeks to fill this gap between the intention and the action. I began training programs for doctors and nurses to teach them not only how to use the machines, but also how to fix them. After five months in Africa I came back and started my company, the Ycenter. I did not want to start another charity, I wanted to connect the money that is being spent in countries like Mozambique and make value out of it and create something. Let's talk about technology and innovation, utilizing it better to make sustainable change. I am still using my degree in healthcare by using medical technology for healthcare management, just in a different way.

My community in Mozambique skipped a generation of technology and began using the internet on phones, as opposed to computers. They are faster at adapting technology and faster in their use of technology. They are using phones to buy food and transfer money. They are directly experiencing technology and there is a lot of potential there. We need to focus on that.

The Ycenter has a particular approach to teaching that is hands-on, non-formal and focused on social value. Can you talk about how you developed that structure and why it is important?

The idea that I went to Mozambique and just started fixing things is not true. I was not a guy with a cape. I assumed having a Master’s degree would allow me to fix everything. But I had a realization that my education brought me to a certain point but beyond that I needed more hands-on experience. I was not prepared to fail and in a way I had a big ego. I found myself asking, “Why am I here?” I found a need to create a better learning program because I found I was learning so much by plugging myself into this community. I looked at American students abroad, for example going to France and not learning French. I felt there was a need for the students to match the needs of the community. Let’s match up both of them.

What is an example of a project that had the most impact on you, a project you saw come out of this program structure you developed?

One project in particular was our “Impactathon.” Similar to the “hackathons” done by Facebook where it gives 48 hours to employees to come up with something brilliant. I loved that, that is such an amazing way to have a bunch of heavily caffeinated students create something. So we did our version of that called “Impactathon.” Students had 48 hours to make something brilliant and Drexel students came in first place for their SMS-based system to fight Malaria. Now, these students are getting credit for their coursework and supplementing their learning experience with a senior design project. They were able to take those four years of higher education and put it into those 48 hours. Out of that they created something they didn't even know they were capable of. This is what I wanted for the Y-Center.

Why did you choose Philadelphia as the headquarters for the Ycenter?

To be honest, I was thinking about going to New York City or California. Everyone told me to go to either of those two places because there is capital. For me, Philadelphia has some of the best higher education institutions in the U.S. This is one of the most academically active hubs after Boston. It was important to me to access this student energy and social enterprise. I couldn't be in a better place and I am getting so much support from Drexel, Penn and Temple. There is a sense of community in Philadelphia rather than competition. It is easier to meet and connect with people looking at a big company like Comcast to a small startup like mine.

I feel amazing because I am going to South Korea in October to speak at the Social Enterprise World Forum. Everyone from around the world is going to be speaking there, and I am the only Philly guy. I call myself a Philly guy and I was born in India! I want more Philadelphia companies being talked about in London, in Mumbai and around the world. How many Philadelphia companies are known around the world? I want to be that company, I am very ambitious.

Where do you see the Ycenter in 10 years?

Thats a powerful question. Since it is a young startup, I’m still thinking about what is going to happen 10 days from now. Right now I have a personal challenge of raising enough money to get my visa status because there are no startup visas being issued in this country.

Beyond that, I see it working one-on-one with governments for healthcare around the world. I believe that if you are to make a real change and impact in these communities, we have to be inclusive. We cannot blame one system; we need to work with all systems. In 10 years, we will be an agency that can work with larger organizations, like the U.N., on global healthcare and educational issues. My true goal is for my community in Africa to tell me they don't need me anymore. That they are able to be self-sustainable and run forward.

It seems like the Ycenter has a strong focus on sustainability. Why did you implement this as your focus?

We have to focus on the problem and look at it in a different way than other organizations do. For example, USAID and the Ycenter are both looking at the same issue from different angles. I am looking at the potential of people to make it happen for their own community, if they are given the right skills, rather than just resources.

This did not always make sense to me while growing up in india. At that time, I was not looking at the aid India was receiving and how it was used. When I look back and connect the dots, it makes sense why my grandmother had to travel 30 miles for a cataracts procedure, despite the fact that there was a machine capable of doing the procedure in her village. No one was taught how to use it. I know from firsthand experience that we need to build capacity and make an action plan, not just give away the aid.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, I began hearing American perspectives about India as only a poor country. I realized there is a difference between an opinion and a perspective. There are a billion people that are ready to work in India; we have the youngest workforce in India and Africa, and if we are having a conversation about the youngest workforce that is below a poverty line, what can we do to uplift them and drive the country’s economy forward? At the Ycenter, we are making this conversation happen and working in this direction.

I organized the first TedX in Mozambique because I met so many people that were doing amazing things, but sharing their story with their own community only. TedX was a great platform for their communities to listen to each other, that wouldn't happen otherwise. We don't take advantage of what’s in our our backyard and seek solutions out in the world. Africa’s solution does not lie in America, it is there with its own people and their strength. Let’s bring everyone together to talk about what our solutions are and create leaders within the community to make an impact; powerful leadership is what creates sustainable communities and they are going to make solutions continuously. All we can do is show value in the community and drive it forward. I don’t want to be the one telling them what is right and wrong or what they need, I want to provide the space for them to be articulating this themselves.

This program may have students that may not get it, but at least they are thinking and talking about issues and changing their assumptions about the world and other cultures. What I am doing is not teaching, I am making them curious and creating frameworks by which they can learn. How do you put students in the social context of what they are learning? Whatever you are studying, people are going to be involved in some way.

Photo courtesy of the Ycenter.