The many lives of social entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria
Nestled amongst a row of corporate headquarters at the edge of Amsterdam’s leafy canal belt, the layers of security greeting visitors to Child & Youth Finance International’s (CYFI) office provide a visible reminder of the building’s traditional occupant, De Nederlandsche Bank. The austerity of the entrance exists in stark contrast, however, to the warm, buzzing interior. It is here, presiding over an energetic, multi national start-up team, that I first meet the NGO’s head and heart, Jeroo Billimoria. Already a serial ‘social entrepreneur’ before the term gained the currency it enjoys today, Jeroo – as she is seemingly universally known – has at this specific moment one thing on her mind: lunch. Communal staff meals are a thrice-weekly tradition, and to see Jeroo marshal her youthful charges towards the basement meeting room-cum-makeshift mess hall is to witness a genuine familial affection for her ‘kids’ that reflects a lifetime spent working to protect and empower children and youth globally.
As a non-profit enterprise yet to celebrate its first year of operation, CYFI remains in a nascent phase. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has followed her career to date, however, Jeroo walked away from her former position as Executive Director of Aflatoun – a respected child savings and financial education NGO she founded and still serves as a board member – in order to focus on what she regarded as the logical progression in her quest to ensure children’s ‘economic rights’ are recognized and upheld internationally. “We had a lot of kids saving in Aflatoun, so we were able to disprove the myth that poor kids don’t save. But I think what was really, really interesting for me was that we couldn’t take children to the next level because there were [often] no banks – it’s like teaching a child or woman to cook, and not providing a stove.” The activities of both CYFI and Aflatoun are underpinned by a realization Jeroo arrived at early in her professional life, whilst working with street kids in her native India. Namely, that to “change society” – and more precisely, hope to break cycles of inter generational poverty – one has to work with young people. She embarked upon her first major venture in Mumbai in 1996, launching what later became the Childline India Foundation with just $6,000 in seed capital. This emergency phone based outreach service for homeless youth now operates nationwide and as of mid-2011 had fielded over 21 million calls. In 2003, Jeroo founded Child Helpline International as a 147-strong member network of national child helplines able to leverage its global reach to share expertise, influence policy and strengthen coordination on child protection. Collectively, network members presently handle almost 15 million calls annually. The way Jeroo tells the story, her shift in focus from broader child empowerment and protection concerns, to the more specific issue of financial inclusion and education, was in part a natural evolution, but in part also a legacy of her own childhood experience. The middle-class daughter of a philanthropic minded accountant and stock exchange administrator and professional social worker, Jeroo explains that “if you’re brought up in a family like mine, the first thing they teach you is duty, duty, duty, duty.” When her father was incapacitated by a serious illness during her teenage years, household responsibilities were reassigned. “There were times when we were really tight financially. We had huge hospital bills and I learned how to make sure we could meet [them], and [managed] pretty much on my own, from the age of twelve till when he died.” (Jeroo was then 19.) She continues: “when you know about money at a young age, you have a confidence that is far bigger. It’s a sense of ‘I can do it’.”
In time, the personal dovetailed with the professional. Jeroo noticed a recurrent theme in the plight of street kids phoning in. “If you boiled down the calls a lot of the abuse stemmed from economics. I felt like if we could get a handle on that, then we would be able to break the pattern.” Having already initiated parallel projects in Mumbai focused on empowerment and life skills, she became convinced that a comprehensive approach was required – an approach that combined empowerment, rights education, social education, financial education, livelihoods and a catalytic ‘concrete activity’ or ‘hook’ in the form of saving. Maintaining a non executive role as a board member of both Childline India Foundation and Child Helpline International, Jeroo resigned her other duties to launch Aflatoun from her newly adopted marital base in Amsterdam in 2005. Observing the relaxed banter and gentle teasing that ricochets around the lunch table at CYFI, it is clear the atmosphere is not only refreshingly free of hierarchy, but also tight knit in a way that can only develop through the binding dynamic of shared experience. The core group of permanent staff has followed Jeroo from Aflatoun, and there is a collective sense of the still undervalued importance of the newer organization’s work. At the same time, it also begs the question of why start afresh – again – instead of expanding the activities and focus of Aflatoun?
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by Alexis Kalagas
photography by Pascal Dolémieux for The Global Journal