Balaji Navaneethasundaram has spearheaded volunteer efforts to help cultivate a new generation of computing talent during 13 years as a BNY Mellon technologist in Chennai, southern India’s technology hub. He was recently featured in BNY Mellon’s 2017 People Report and honored as a BNY Mellon Star, an honor reserved for the company’s best of the best. Balaji chatted with Behind the Scenes about his involvement with Project Wings, an initiative that is providing a path toward economic independence for disadvantaged and differently abled children across India.
What’s your role at BNY Mellon?
I’m a Senior Development Manager for the Depositary Receipts team at iNautix, an arm of BNY Mellon’s Client Technology Solutions. Our team is based in Chennai and Pune, India, and our role is to support the application technology that is used by the Depositary Receipts business to assist clients on a day-to-day basis. We are engaged in developing new components and enhancements to these applications.
A lot of IT firms operate in Chennai because of the technology-related education that is available here. BNY Mellon employs more than 5,000 technology professionals in development centers here and in Pune. Continuous training and development are part of the culture in this company, which makes it a very attractive workplace.
How does iNautix work to create computing environments for students?
When I joined iNautix in 2004, part of the orientation was a session on community partnerships, focusing on technology in schools. I had been doing volunteer work privately and I immediately saw the advantage of being part of a group effort. By banding together, we can accomplish big things.
At iNautix, we operate several community partnership programs under the banner of “Project Wings.” The programs have a shared goal of helping less privileged children excel academically. I have actively participated in all the community partnership events here, from taking children on field trips to offering educational classes.
What are some of the programs under Project Wings?
We provide summer internships, weekend instruction, sponsorship for higher education, and field trips. We also donate and install computers in schools. We salvage end-of-life equipment that would otherwise be destroyed. These PCs are donated to schools in Chennai, the surrounding region, and other cities. Last year alone, 70 volunteers worked together to put 900 desktop computers in 49 government-run schools in the state of Tamil Nadu.
How do desktop donations impact these students?
It helps to correct a social imbalance. My children, like children of many professionals in India, are privileged to be able to use computers at a very young age. By age three or four, they are already familiar with how to turn a computer on and off, how to work the mouse, and how to use a computer for entertainment or learning. But many children don’t have access to a computer or haven’t even seen one. They get to know what a computer is only when they reach the tenth grade in school. They may be reluctant to touch it because they know it’s an important and valuable piece of equipment. Children who have seen a computer earlier in life have a lopsided advantage over these kids.
In many schools, you’ll have 60 to 70 kids doing a computer course with just five or six computers to share. Hands-on learning can happen, but slowly. By bringing computers into the schools, we are maximizing the potential of the school to deliver this education and increasing the children’s opportunity to actually use a computer.
What is it like when you go into a school to set up computers?
The day we set up the computers is pretty exciting for all of us. The children will rush up and talk to us. They are so happy to get something new for the school. In many of the schools, we make a one-time visit to set up computers, and we come back once to check on them. But there are some schools in Chennai that we work with continuously, including Little Flower School for hearing-impaired children and Avvai Home School for underprivileged children.
We have known some of these children from the time they were in sixth or seventh grade. Often, their expectations are very modest – they want to get a job in a shop when they grow up. But as an IT hub, Chennai has bigger opportunities for people with the right preparation, and we help students raise their sights.
How do you help students prepare for a technology career?
Through internships and weekend teaching projects, we expose the children to computer skills, and we show them our world. When we see that children are good at computer skills, we do our best to make sure that these children are taking up higher education. They come to our office, and they realize that if they work hard, they could be part of something like this.
We have two-week summer internship for girls from the Avvai Home & Orphanage, during which we train them on using the internet, spreadsheets, and word processing programs. We also help them with soft skills such as how to behave and talk in a workplace.
Also, every Saturday, about 100 employees spend time teaching children at seven charities we are involved in. We coach them in computer science, English, mathematics and science. One of the seven charities serves hearing-impaired children, and two serve visually-impaired children.
One of the most important steps is to meet with their parents or guardians, most of whom haven’t had much education and don’t know what is possible. We let them know that we can help their children set goals and select courses, and we sponsor their education with financial support from the corporation. Every year, BNY Mellon provides sponsorships for about 25 children in our programs to pursue higher education. We guide them even after they graduate.
Today, I’m proud to say that we have several iNautix employees who came to us through our school initiatives. It is very satisfying to see our community partnership with schools coming full-circle.