4 Takeaways From My Conversation With Shaheen Mistri, CEO of Teach for India

Posted By: Karen Woodin|Dated: January 29, 2014

At inspirED Mumbai, an exclusively education-based conference presented by Teach for India, I had the opportunity to meet with Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach for India and Founder of the Akanksha Foundation. And Ashoka Fellow (2001), Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum (2002), and an inspiring social activist and educator, Shaheen is widely regarded as a leading figure in the education space in India.

Below, you can find 4 key takeaways from our conversation.

1. Her role as CEO falls into 3 categories: Programs, Team & Culture, and Strategy

I am always curious to learn about the main responsibilities of senior executives because I think it is revealing about what is important to the organization and how it accomplishes its objectives. So, I asked Shaheen: “Everybody knows that you are the CEO of Teach for India, but what does that mean? What do you focus on?” “That’s a good question,” she said, and her answer fell into 3 categories.

1. Programs - In addition to running the fellowship, and overseeing training and recruitment, she said something really interesting: “revising and questioning”. With an equal amount of supporters and critics of the Teach for All model, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Shaheen has shaped her role to include self-critique and improvement. This sounds like an obvious thing to do in any organization, but I have a feeling that not every senior executive does it, so seeing Shaheen speaking so truthfully about it was refreshing and inspiring.

2. Team & Culture - “Why is this so important?” And again, her answer was moving and full of commitment: Because we want everybody at Teach for India—students, fellows, and staff members—to have a personal journey. Yes, we want to do good, and we also want to focus on the individual journeys of the people that comprise Teach for India. A clear example of the organization being more systematic about this with respect to the fellows is the Learning & Development framework that is currently being developed and will be rolled out later this year. This is important because the intent for the fellows is not for them to only spend 2 years in education and then pursue something else, but rather for the fellowship to be a stepping-stone in their lifetime contribution to ending education inequality.

3. Strategy - At the end of the day, Teach for India’s mission is to end education inequality in India, and thus it makes sense that the third component of her responsibilities would be to find partners, particularly government bodies that will advance their mission.

2. One of her top priorities is to build the right culture at Teach for India

A good friend of mine, Dhruv Lakra, who like Shaheen is a social entrepreneur, told me that he regretted not taking classes about organizational culture at Oxford. It’s interesting because at the time they just seemed like fluff classes, but now that he has been running his company, Mirakle Couriers, since 2009, these classes seem so relevant. Given this background, it wasn’t surprising that Shaheen mentioned it. What I did find surprising, though, was how much she stressed this point.

3. She builds a culture at Teach for India by living out the organization’s values—“where am I demonstrating these values?”

Building a strong organizational culture sounds like something we could all agree is important, but how do you really do it? Shaheen’s vision for a culture at Teach for India includes: an orientation towards learning, being hungry for more, showing humility and constantly learning. I thought this was very telling of her personality and the organization’s desire to keep improving. For example, she said, if I walk into a meeting, I do not want to have all the answers. Another way in which she builds this culture is by asking herself: “where am I demonstrating these values? In what behaviors am I demonstrating that I am investing in learning more?”

4. Her leadership style is “intuitive” and she throws herself completely into her work.

I am always curious to know how successful individuals manage their days (some people have morning rituals/routines, others swear by a strict calendar, etc.), so I wanted to know how Shaheen thinks about and organizes her days. She described herself as intuitive and her leadership style as throwing herself completely into the work. As a people person, she spends most of her time meeting with fellows and interacting with students in the classroom—this seems like a fantastic way to remain grounded in operational realities and keep her hand on the pulse of the organization.
If you would like to learn more about Teach for India and inspirED, click here and here, and if you would like to learn more about Shaheen Mistri you can follow her here.

About the Author

Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Karen moved to Bombay in June 2011 to join Mahindra as a Global Recruit.  As a member of the Corporate Brand Council, she works on internal and external brand engagement campaigns, such as Spark the Rise. She graduated from Columbia University in the City of New York with a B.A. in Political Science.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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