Vanessa D'Souza - Building Human Capital Is Most Difficult but Rewarding (CEO - Sneha)

I’m a firm believer in giving your absolute best every day, to everything and to everyone. That doesn’t mean you won’t fail or you won’t make mistakes, of course, you will. But as long as you learn from them and grow, you can achieve whatever you want.

Tell us about your background, journey, and upbringing.

I was born and lived in Mumbai all my life. My parents both being in service, I grew up with strong middle-class values of honesty, hard work, and determination. My first 21 years were in a small gated community (my father worked for Esso which later became Hindustan Petroleum) in an eastern suburb of Mumbai (Chembur). 

It was an idyllic surrounding, with just 24 bungalows, sprawling gardens, a clubhouse, tennis courts, and a swimming pool, which provided us good social connections, plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, and a strong sense of community. 

I went to the local convent school and later completed my bachelor (Honours) degree in Economics at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

I started working at 21 years and cut my teeth in banking at Citibank, often called the best “university” in the world, and went on to spend the next twenty-one years in various positions, the last being, Director, Citigroup Private bank.

After completing 21 years, I was looking to do something different and resigned with the objective of finding my second career! During the time, I completed an MBA with a specialization in Marketing and simultaneously volunteered for a non-profit, SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) for two years.

After two years of volunteering, I found my second career as CEO of SNEHA(Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), a Mumbai-based NGO working to improve the health of women and children and reduce domestic violence. 

The social sector and public health being completely new fields, I realized I needed to acquire technical knowledge and completed a Post-graduate Diploma in Public Health Nutrition, which certainly gave me deeper insights into what SNEHA was trying to achieve in the area of women and children’s health and nutrition.

What inspired you to take action in your direction and what are your future plans?

It was 2011 when I got a call from the Founder of SNEHA to volunteer and help raise funds for their work. As part of the introduction to SNEHA’s work, I was taken on a site visit to their urban child malnutrition program in Dharavi. 

As I walked deep into the slums, I was appalled to see the abysmally low standards of living. Homes that were 10x10 feet with at least 5-6 people living cheek by jowl, common toilets, and common water taps were the norm, with of course a rush for both. 

I entered SNEHA’s daycare center to see about 20 children aged between 1-3 years, with moderate to severe malnutrition. They sat there looking lifeless, a two-year-old was too weak to hold up her head. This situation deeply disturbed me, I questioned what those little children had done to deserve such a huge
handicap so early in life. 

I realized that each of us is an accident of birth and I should do my best to contribute to these vulnerable communities ….there began my journey with SNEHA. I volunteered for two years before joining as CEO in 2013. It’s been 8 years now at SNEHA and I now think of myself as a social sector professional!

In the past 8 years, SNEHA has grown its impact from one city to seven cities, from two slum communities to eight slum communities and from 56 public health facilities to 184 health facilities, and from two police stations to 91 Police stations of Mumbai.

As we look ahead, we will continue to deepen our work in Mumbai and the neighboring cities, create a repository of evidence-based knowledge on urban health intervention for vulnerable populations and scale our work in other cities/states in partnership with Government bodies and other NGO’s. 

We will stay true to our mission of improving the health, nutrition, and safety of women and children in vulnerable slum communities.

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What does your typical workday look like?

In the non-profit sector due to resource constraints, we are always looking to allocate as much funding as possible to program implementation work. We try and conserve administrative costs. 

This can sometimes make you feel like a juggler in a circus! That’s why I try and allocate the first two hours in my day to work that is important for the organization because as the day rolls out I know I will invariably be swamped with operational issues and tactical work.

There are some areas that I prioritize:

  • Governance: The social sector suffers from a huge trust deficit because of the errors of a few. It’s therefore very important to allocate time to ensure that all our controls and risk management processes are well functioning. Obtaining accreditations, documenting, and reporting on our work and statutory compliance is extremely important if you want to bring in more donors and secure your current and future work.

  • Financial sustainability: Fundraising is not so much about how many people you know, but how often and how effectively you reach out to donors, how many new networks you open, and how you communicate your work. For any non-profit, having a steady and predictable cash flow is critical to long-term planning.

  • Working with my team: The social sector has a participatory decision-making process and team meetings support decision making and subsequent action because it ensures buy-in. Of course, one has to ensure to limit the meetings to critical decision-making.

Besides the above, I also try and do regular site visits to our implementation areas. This allows me to stay connected with our work on the ground, helps in strategic and tactical decisions for the organization, motivates the field teams and above all, a field visit is a shot of “inspiration and energy” as I speak and learn from my teams and the communities we serve.

What kind of impact has SNEHA created during the unprecedented Covid crisis?

SNEHA is a health NGO working in some of the worst affected slums in the pandemic like Dharavi, Mankhurd, Govandi, Malwani, Bhiwandi, Kurla, Wadala, etc. 

We work on essential preventive health like ensuring pregnant women get antenatal care, children are prevented from and treated for malnutrition, women, adolescents, and children are safe, especially critical in a lockdown when they are often locked at home with the perpetrator of violence.

This critical work could not stop, even during the lockdown. The communities we serve did not have access to credible information on Covid-19 and preventive measures to be taken. Filling the knowledge gap through timely and credible information, in a manner they could understand and practice was the need of the hour.

SNEHA’s Community Organizers (frontline workers), community volunteers, and community action group members together reached out to 72% of our direct beneficiaries for routine health services and COVID-19 messaging to promote Covid appropriate behavior. 

In order to support other non-health NGO’s we also made all our resource material freely available on our website 

As community members needed services (women in labor, illness in children, etc) we coordinated with public health service providers to give them timely care. In the past year, we’ve worked closely with public services staff (Health, Nutrition, Police, District Legal Services) at the city and state level, to promote the continuation of routine health and safety services.

We conducted online training sessions for Government front-line healthcare workers on COVID-19 preventive measures. We also supported Government frontline workers of seven municipal corporations of the Greater Mumbai Region with the provision of PPE kits, masks, sanitizers, face shields, gloves, disposable caps, etc to allow these frontline workers to serve the public at large.

The lockdown saw a large proportion of our community members deprived of their daily wages. Food security became a primary concern. We raised funds and provided rations to over 30,000 families. At the start of the first wave, Covid was raging through Dharavi. 

SNEHA in partnership with the municipal ward office in Dharavi and several donors, distributed fruit and vegetable boxes to 15,000 families living within containment areas. In order to facilitate long-term food security, we also worked rigorously with the Public Distribution System (PDS) and mapped out 100 ration shops across communities where we work to ensure families could access food rations.

As Covid-19 engulfed the slums, we worked with local municipal ward offices for household-level screening for COVID-19 and referral to fever clinics for further follow-up.

The lockdown saw a 25% increase in calls to our crisis helplines and 24/7 One Stop Centre (OSC) at KEM Hospital from women and children facing violence. In the six months March – September 2020, over 1500 survivors of violence received crisis intervention and counseling services.

The education of adolescent children from marginalized families was severely affected by the absence of smartphones to access their school lessons. We set up a smartphone library to allow adolescents to borrow phones to attend school and submit homework.

All the above was possible due to the trained and committed volunteers, supported by SNEHA’s field teams, who went the extra mile to support some of the worst-affected
 slum communities.

How do you handle someone who has lied on their resume?

Integrity is a very important value and I would not want to hire someone who has lied on their resume. However, I would try and understand why the person misrepresented information and I would inform the candidate that this would certainly go against my decision. 
 I hope he/she will consider removing any inaccurate information for future interviews.

How has covid changed things at your workplace & which of these changes do you intend to make permanently?

With the onset of the lockdown, we were constrained to pivot many activities overnight to online platforms. Since we are a tech-enabled NGO, we had the necessary infrastructure in place and our staff was comfortable in the use of technology. 

However, we did have to deal with some mindset challenges because the social sector has a high people-oriented approach to change. I commend our staff for making quick adaptations to the new online way of reaching the communities. 

We have seen that online platforms are very effective for quick communication – reminders for immunization, medication, information on Covid-19, etc which we will continue to use in the long run. 

However, some field activities that deal with sensitive information like counseling survivors of violence, counseling for contraception, addressing stigma and deep-seated beliefs, qualitative research surveys, etc are better suited to in-person meetings. 

The lockdown has been good learning in using a hybrid model of mobile messaging, online meetings/calls, and in-person meetings to achieve our desired outcomes.

Group facilitation like training programs and meetings with external stakeholders, very hard pressed for time like doctors, nurses, etc work very well online, as long as you take care to keep the participants engaged at all times!

Overwork, fear of the pandemic, and health issues created high-stress levels for our teams. We decided to introduce “Learning Fridays” for the senior management team dedicated to personal growth, team building, and fun! 

The topics were varied - learning, unlearning, and relearning; coping with stress; building emotional intelligence; collaboration; improvisation; non-violent communication; micro moves; book reviews; antakshari, etc. 

A survey conducted to understand the value to our senior management team of “Friday learning” sessions revealed that they were an opportunity for self-reflection, team bonding, a break from routine work, thought-provoking, non-judgmental and a safe space, relaxing, an opportunity for self-development, growth, open communication and deep listening with empathy. 

Based on feedback from the participants, we propose to continue these sessions and extended them to middle management.


What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or those eyeing the top job?

I’m a firm believer in giving your absolute best every day, to everything and to everyone. That doesn’t mean you won’t fail or you won’t make mistakes, of course, you will. But as long as you learn from them and grow, you can achieve whatever you want.

CEO’s of an NGO, like any other leadership position, is demanding but can also be rewarding if you see others around you grow. At SNEHA, allowing each one to grow to their full potential, whether at work or in the communities we serve, is what drives us. 

Building human capital is most difficult but rewarding. As people around you grow, you will automatically grow with them and achieve your aspirations.

Which is your favorite book/show and why?

I recently read the book “The Courage to be Disliked” by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, the Japanese phenomenon that teaches you to free yourself from the opinion of others and take charge of your own life if you want to achieve true happiness.

The other book that I particularly liked, though it was very heavy reading, was ‘Sapiens, a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari which traces the human race to the beginnings of time and shows how man came to be the most dominant animal species. 

It was not only very informative but also a grim reminder of how powerful our species is and our potential to destroy this planet!

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