Growing up in Mumbai, India, Ashish Gadnis witnessed firsthand a stark inequality in the world around him and, from an early age, began to question the very foundation of those fault lines.
“I was especially curious about the caste system, about why children of different backgrounds couldn’t play together,” Ashish says. “I wanted to figure out why this inequality existed.”
Ashish, now the co-founder and CEO of BanQu, a blockchain application that gives sellers control of their transactional data, says much of this work stems from his time as volunteer CEO for social enterprise at USAID in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
While at USAID, Ashish organized, among other initiatives, a project to build a water tower in eastern DRC. To do so, he used volunteers, namely unemployed youths, to build the structure and partnered with technology and fundraising volunteers in the United States to complete the project.
“I noticed a lot of aid organizations were bringing free stuff to the DRC, but, in doing so, were creating a dependency,” Ashish says. “It felt like pity versus dignity.”
To counter this, Ashish made a point of involving volunteers in the water tower–building project from the start.
“How you message your campaign is critical,” Ashish explains. “You are not positioning yourself as a foreign organization that will give out sandwiches at the end of the day. You are saying, ‘This is your community, and the work is worth the effort.’”
Ashish stresses, too, the value of close observation in planning a meaningful volunteer event.
“We sat down with farmers in their homes and observed what it’s like to work in their villages,” Ashish explains. “If you ask a lot of questions, people might be shy, but if you’re in learning mode, you’re just listening.”
“If the farmers sit on the ground, you sit on the ground,” Ashish adds. “Eat whatever they eat. Otherwise, you are never going to understand what is meaningful to them. You are going to design a project and leave; and it will be of no use.”
It’s important to identify too, Ashish underlines, a single issue that will drive the project forward.
“You are not going to solve every problem, but you need to pick one and start solving it.”
As a leader, especially, Ashish underlines that you have to be willing to do the work yourself, to be a model in your community.
“You have to be willing to get your hands dirty,” Ashish says. Even with the help of fellow volunteers, he stresses the need to “be willing to do the work yourself.”
For Ashish, justifying these and other projects comes down to a shared humanity, one of mutual benefit to community members.
“To me, volunteering is less about giving back and more about a fundamental human responsibility to make sure our world is an equal one.”
Interested in Ashish’s work? Learn how you can volunteer to serve Africa on our YALIServes page.