New York: A slum boy who now owns a food industry empire in Chennai - thanks to his poverty stricken mother who sold idlis on pavements to educate him - was honoured at a youth conference of the World Bank for his entrepreneurship and leadership skills.
Sarath Babu Elumalai was among the three youth invited from across the globe for the Bank's annual flagship event, the Global Youth Conference, to engage the broader development of community with youth around the world.
The theme of this year's conference was Youth Unemployment: Empowering Solutions through Innovation and Inclusion. Convened by youth experts and advocates, the conference was webcast internally and externally, with online participants from over 20 countries.
Ronan Farrow, advisor on Youth Issues to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the participants. The conference was also webcast internally and externally, with online participants from over 20 countries.
Sarath Babu said that at one time he struggled to continue his school education due to poverty. His mother who worked as a low grade servant at the State Government nutritious noon meal scheme project decided to make idlis and sell them in a pavement shop to educate her son.
Babu did not disappoint her and got admission in merit at BITS-Pilani for a Chemical Engineering degree and landed in top-notch Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad for an MBA.
Today, the 30-year-old youth who was wallowing in abject poverty in the prime of his youth, employs around 300 people mostly from the poor strata of the society and his multi-crore Food King restaurant and catering business has crossed Chennai and operates in Hyderabad and Jaipur as well.
"I was born and raised in a slum in Madipakkam in Chennai. I have two elder sisters and two younger brothers and my mother was the sole breadwinner of the family," Babu told the gathering at the conference moving some of them into tears.
"It was really tough for my mother to bring up five kids on her meager salary. She sold Idlis in the mornings, worked for the mid-day meal at the school during daytime and taught at the adult education programme of the Indian government, thus doing three different jobs to bring us up and educate us. We went hungry many a days and I know the impact of hunger," he said.
After graduating from IIM-A, Babu had setup "Food King" - a food catering services in 2006 with the vision to offer employment to illiterate and semi-illiterate people and improve their standard of living.
"I put values ahead of money and power. And I have learnt it the hard way, rising up from delivering idlis prepared by my mother."
In 2010, he started "Hunger Free India Foundation" with the objective of contributing in his own way to address the problem of hunger in India through various programmes.
In the year of inception, the foundation undertook a food distribution program across 40 orphanage, senior citizens homes and special schools covering nearly 10,000 residents covering Chennai, Coimbatore, Salem, Bhavnagar and Goa. This year he plans to feed 20,000 hunger-ridden stomachs.
After his speech, he was inundated with over 2000 tweets asking his advice on his novel entrepreneurship and how he overcame poverty and developed a business empire before he could turn 30.
"It took time but I replied to all of them in two days," he said.
Over 90 per cent of his staff are either school dropouts or living in abject poverty. He trains them with soft skills and various programmes before positioning them in the organisation.
At the conference, successful youth entrepreneurs shared their stories and brainstormed on how to curb unemployment.
Speakers shared the concern that many young people around the world are frustrated and voiceless and the rich resources they offer to their communities and the world remain untapped.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), youth aged 15 to 24 make up a whopping 40 per cent of the globally unemployed for varied and complex reasons.
"Youth unemployment is an issue common to the developing and developed worlds alike. The effects range from the Arab Spring to violence on the streets of London," says Kavita Gupta, co-secretary of the Y2Y group at the World Bank.
"We, the youth at the Bank, feel for this global problem and can relate to its causes and effects too".
World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey said the mismatch between skills provided by current education systems and skills needed in the work force needs to be addressed.
Youth should assert themselves and take responsibility for their own futures through networking and self-organisation, said Branka Minic, director of Global Corporate and Government Affairs at Manpower, a world-renowned global staffing firm.
But governments and companies should also include young people as honest partners, said Ronan Farrow and lauded youth who are already engaged in the political process and who push boundaries to make them heard.
A common theme among the suggested solutions was the need for a multi-faceted partnership between government ministries, the private sector, academia, and NGOs to create an environment in which youth could be considered honest partners and use their voice in policy making and problem solving.