Indian American implements educational goals for Bill Gates

Friday, 26 December 2003, 08:00 Hrs
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NEW YORK: Traditional educationists may find the radical ideas and unconventional vocabulary of Indian American Shivam Mallick Shah surprising, but these fit in well with the goals of Bill Gates and his wife Melinda.

The billionaire couple has hired Harvard graduate Shah to implement their education goals in parts of the US.

Pennsylvania-born Shah has dabbled in high finance and political activism, but found her real niche in the philanthropy of education. She was recently hired as senior programme officer in the Education Division at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Shah said she has met both Bill and Melinda Gates.

"They are really amazing people. What you are struck by is how much they care about the issues and while neither of them is trained in health or education, these are the issues they have fully immersed themselves in. They are very highly engaged which makes the work effective. Most striking is how incredibly brilliant they are about these fields."

Her new job also means she moves from Washington DC to Seattle, Washington, where her husband Jay Shah already works with the same foundation.

"I will focus on grant-making and investment activities in New York and the northeast," Shah told IANS in an interview.

The foundation helps public schools, charter schools as well as awards scholarships.

"Our effort is to help public school districts trying to turn very large high schools into smaller high schools; helping charter schools which are autonomous public schools numbering about 3,000 in the country; and giving scholarships - of which the Gates Foundation has a large amount - helping high school kids get into college," she said.

Prior to her new appointment, Shah worked as associate partner in the Washington DC office of the New Schools Venture Fund, a non profit investment fund that invests in education entrepreneurs creating solutions for public schools.

She is also cofounder of Project IMPACT to raise political awareness among South Asians. Earlier, Shah worked for Edison Schools, a privately funded school system that catered to some 75,000 pupils.

But before going into the field of education administration, Shah was a management consultant in the New York office of McKinsey & Company.

She has also worked as an intern for the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach, as a summer fellow for the Philadelphia Mayor's Office of Policy and Planning, and as a financial analyst for investment bank Bear, Stearns & Co.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Shah grew up in the East Coast. Her father is an engineer in the Department of Defence and her parents live in New Jersey.

When Shah was in investment banking in New York in what was her first "real job", she realised it was not her cup of tea. "I knew this is not what I want to do in my life and I wanted to do something that would have more social impact."

She and some friends started Project IMPACT after she joined graduate school. "We wanted people to be more involved in politics. I knew I wanted to do something in that vein but also wanted some professional training."

So she attended Harvard Business School and while there, "I really tried to think of new ways I could work that was professional but also service-oriented."

"I became interested in education and wanted to get more professional skills."

She did contracts with New York City Public Schools and developed her interests. "Those were things that made it clear to me that there were new and innovative ways to work in education."

She wanted to have an impact at the systemic level rather than at the classroom-based level. She left McKinsey to join Edison Schools, the for-profit school system that also introduced television in classrooms and tried other innovative approaches to schooling.

"It's a very controversial company but has the idea that public schools should be managed better and that would lead to better education," she noted.

She left Edison to join the New School of Venture Fund, a San Francisco based "venture philanthropy" fund.

"It's kind of a new field of social enterprise - a cross between traditional foundation and traditional venture capital. It merges two business models," Shah said, noting that the cofounders of the company were Internet billionaires.

"A 'venture philanthropist' makes smaller investments at initial stages and work with the social entrepreneurs. There's a lot of diligence required," said Shah.

"New York has the largest public school system and Los Angeles the next. We need to make sure that kids have tonnes of opportunities. Even though the US has a great higher education system, that's not the case for middle and high school."

The ills of the public school system are known, for instance, the need for smaller class sizes and the need for accountability.

"We know what the indicators are and when you see a 2,000-student school, you know that school is not going to perform as well," so the objective is to help build more manageable and accountable public schools.

"We grew up knowing we could conquer the world. We see constraints but we don't see the limits. That belief in one's self helps kids to perform," Shah maintained.

Shah earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 1999 and her bachelor's degree in government and economics from Georgetown University in 1995. She also studied economics at the London School of Economics

Source: IANS
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