Working for Social Impact in India: The IDEX Fellowship Experience

Sep 11, 2020
During her professional tenure in India, Clara, pictured in Mumbai in 2015, focused on women’s empowerment, social entrepreneurship, and improving the quality of education in underserved communities

The IDEX Global Fellowship is for young professionals (21 – 35 years old) from across the globe who want to dive deep into the social impact space and get first-hand experience working in one of India’s most popular and vibrant social enterprise communities, Bangalore. Fellows choose a sector of their interest such as Education, Health, Environment and Energy, Women’s Empowerment, Livelihoods, or Impact Investing, among others, to base their full-time placement within an organization for 6 months in India. The program is committed to enabling immersive learning experiences for Fellows by having them ideate, develop, prototype and test solutions in an environment that encourages co-creation and collaboration, all while also learning from peers, resident mentors and sector experts. The IDEX Fellowship Program tuition is $5950 USD for all program offerings, although scholarships are available.

We talked to Clara Martinez, a 2015 IDEX Fellow, to learn more about the program and get some application tips. 

1. What inspired you to apply for the IDEX Fellowship?

My grandfather, Francisco Martinez-Sariñana*, has been the guiding light and grounding force in my academic and professional career. He was a humble and decent soul; a crusader for the truth. So, the answer is simple: my grandfather inspired me and he still inspires me.  

He was a Mexican national who worked as a migrant labourer in the United States with a work permit in the mid-1950s; he retired and passed away in rural Mexico, and one day, I plan to visit the place where my abuelito is buried to leave some flowers. I explain this to give you context regarding my ancestry, I am a first-generation American: Mexican-American. 

Prior to applying to IDEX Accelerator, I already had about six months of experience under my belt, working in Bombay with a nonprofit accelerator for education. 

I believed that working in India would help me get closer to finding my purpose; for the record, it did. After the IDEX Fellowship, I joined Ador Group’s incubated start-up as a digital marketing/brand manager for a stint (Ador Group, an Indian multinational conglomerate, was my residence-in-training assignment in the private sector as a fellow). The fellowship and post-fellowship stint culminated in a year spent shuffling between Mumbai and Bengaluru; it was transformative, humbling, and quite simply remarkable. 

As a recipient of their InvestWISE Initiative scholarship program, I was able to afford the fellowship experience and focus on empowering the poorest, especially women and girls, to lead healthy and productive lives; educated lives. So, I helped introduce a corporate social responsibility initiative to improve access to water and sanitation in rural communities, among other things. 

*He knew, I think, that I was one of those grandchildren who would inherit his conviction to avoid mincing words; a straight shooter, if you will. And my beloved grandmother, Ofelia Sifuentes-Enriquez, was a force of nature, and I like to think that my so-called “intimidating” nature comes from her.

2. What kind of day-to-day work did you complete as an IDEX Fellow?

Well, I had a dual role: Social Innovation Fellow at IDEX and Public Policy Associate at Ador Group. For example, I helped guide partnerships with Amazon, Google, and Milaap Social Ventures to introduce a new digital marketplace for personal care products within a corporate sustainability framework.  

And my pro bono consultation projects included working with Sukhibhava—a social enterprise—by helping low-income women to secure microloans and helping to end the stigma around menstrual and sexual reproductive health in Bangalore. 

In addition, as a cohort, we helped organize and coordinate the annual TEDxBangalore event with the hosts. We had fun helping out with things! 

All to say, it is difficult for me to pin down what a “typical” day was like, but the uncertainty was consistent. I would have to say the broad brushstrokes of my work as a fellow involved making connections across the public, private, and social innovation sectors.

IDEX Fellows helped host the annual TEDxBangalore event!

3. What were your favorite parts of your fellowship experience? 

Oh gosh, that is a tough question! The IDEX fellows and in-country coordinators were fantastic.  

My cohort (July 2015) was women-led and formidable. There were eight fellows, myself included. And we established everlasting bonds. We dealt with the joys and hardships of an intensive program together. Although several years (well, five years to be precise) have passed; it feels like just yesterday we travelled to Hampi and stayed up late talking about our post-IDEX aspirations.  

Aside from that trip to Hampi, an IDEX Fellow, Malikah, and I went to Rajasthan for a few days. The trip was her idea, and I am grateful she dragged me along.

I rode a camel into the desert that borders Pakistan and spent the night under a cold and pitch black sky with stars lighting up the sand’s silhouettes as far as the eye could see; you know, channelling my inner Indiana Jones. 

Before our group’s trek into the desert, I remember a couple climbing off the camels and saying: “Brace yourself; riding a camel isn’t like riding a horse!” And they were right: it’s way harder than riding a horse! I think that meeting complete strangers and travelling to the other side of the world helped me understand what it means to be free, to be yourself, to survive in a new place that seems inhospitable at times.

My favourite part was learning how to take calculated risks. I guess, what I am trying to say is: take a gamble; the stakes are too high not to take some well-thought-out risks. 

That said, take my advice with a grain of salt.

After the overnight trek in the sand dunes, camels took a break at Rajasthan. They were feisty and had a tendency to spit at people!

4. What were some of the most eye-opening moments during your fellowship? 

Let’s just say: I learned how to paint new horizons, and harness a global, more nuanced, perspective. The fellowship taught me how to leverage those work experiences and bring those lessons back home, to my home state of Washington. 

The funny thing is, though, the memory that stays with me, the memory that keeps playing on a loop in my mind, is from a time before the IDEX Fellowship:

At Atma**, I met a fellow American: let’s call her, Janice. I felt at ease around her. She was in her late thirties or early forties, I think, and we went on consultation meetings together a few times. 

I distinctly remember a time that we sped through the crowded and noisy streets amongst the hustle and bustle in the vibrant, chaotic, and harmonious city of Mumbai, in East Bandra. Inside the autorickshaw, I was concentrating on giving directions to the rickshaw driver with a few words in Hindi that I had learned in the first month or so. She shouted over the traffic and blaring horns: “I would love to meet you again when you’re thirty!” 

Maybe I had a “fresh college graduate” air that she recognized, that resonated with her. It was always unclear to me what she meant. To be fair, I was 22 years old at the time, and well, at 27 years old, I have resigned myself to the idea that I will just have to wait to figure out what she could have possibly meant. 

But, yes, that moment was eye-opening, like many others, and I am still trying to make sense of things, to make sense of the mess, to make sense of the order. 

I bring up that memory because my professional tenure with Atma led me to want to spend more time in India, and my colleague at Atma and good friend, Cindy, was the person who told me about the IDEX Fellowship. She encouraged me to apply, so after doing some research and deciding I wanted to continue working in India, I went ahead and submitted an application. 

**The nonprofit accelerator for education, where I worked, is called Atma, which in Hindi: “aatma” means soul. 

A group of women participated in a workshop about reproductive health organized by Sukhibhava in Bengaluru, India 

5. What tips would you give others applying to the IDEX Fellowship? 

Your personal statement and/or application essay(s), and more specifically, your reason for applying, needs to be crystal clear to the selection committee. Otherwise, you miss out on the opportunity to share your story. The most powerful stories are rooted in honesty; your hopes, dreams, reflections, and meditations should guide your enthusiasm to apply. 

I also recommend reaching out to alumni of fellowship programs that interest you, and before you reach out, make sure you have 3-5 questions you would like answered. We are all busy and juggling multiple things at once, so I cannot stress enough that folks are usually happy to connect with students or graduate students, but please remember to be mindful and purposeful with your outreach efforts. 

As an international affairs specialist, Clara Martinez has travelled to India, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to work and study in remarkably diverse and dynamic places. Her experiences abroad were guided by the principle that it’s incumbent upon us to leave the world a little better than we found it. She has been drawn to problems that need solving in the education, innovation and entrepreneurship, and social impact sectors. Clara obtained a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and her bachelor’s degree in political science and communication arts/ rhetoric from Linfield College. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the IDEX Fellowship program, visit their website here.

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved.