Mumbai slum girls innovating where governments can’t and markets won’t

I watched Slumdog Millionaire many years ago and cried. I grew up in India and routinely saw little, maimed beggar children on crossroads and never thought how they got there. That movie completely shattered my protective glass.
Now I have two little girls and cannot bear to watch violence against children.
So when I heard about a group of driven young girls and mothers in Dharavi (the same slum where Slumdog Millionaire was shot), I was so energized that I could finally help right some of the hellish wrongs that we perpetrate against children.
Nawneet Ranjan, a very motivated and talented young filmmaker, approached us and told us about this group of women who were making laptop bags out of old sarees and were interested in learning about technology, so that they could make apps to market their products.
He told us a little about his own journey. His initial goal was to interview the Dharavi residents for a documentary he was making. As he started talking to the women, he was struck by their entrepreneurial spirit and their desire to improve their daughters’ future. He realized that just interviewing them for the documentary was going to be heartless, if he didn’t do something to help them as well. 
That was inspiring.
And then hearing the girls talk about it in their own voices was even more inspiring.
That was last year. I shared some tablets, phones and asked Nawneet to keep in touch.

A few months later, he contacted us again and said that he had a group of 20 girls who wanted to participate in the three-month long Technovation program, and learn to create mobile apps to solve problems in their community and launch their apps on the market.
This is why this undertaking is so inspiring.
Dharavi is one of the world’s largest slums with a population greater than that of San Francisco. It is in the heart of Mumbai. Most of the girls work as house-help in people’s homes and earn $3 – a month. They go to a local government school.
They didn’t have a safe place to meet, so we helped Nawneet rent a classroom space and hook up internet, so that they could access the Technovation curriculum.

Language is a just another barrier as they are not very literate or comfortable in English.
But they have grit.
The girls’ enthusiasm to learn has inspired their mothers who have formed Mahila Mandals to help further support the girls.
The three apps that the girls are working on are to solve very real problems:

  • Water access – water comes only once a day to Dharavi and only for half an hour. Children (particularly girls) have to skip school to wait hours in line. Fights are a daily occurrence. The girls are creating an app (for a cell phone) that will help families register and secure their place in the queue. The app will notify the families (via sms) when their turn is coming up, so that children dont have to waste time waiting in lines.

  • Security – Rape in India is a huge problem and one that the country is struggling to address – ineffectually.  The girls are creating an app that will help users press a “scream” button that will notify others — through the alarm as well as through a call made to the police.
  • Health Education – Women do not have access to information — really basic information regarding personal hygiene and around more life-threatening instances, like child birth. They have no support systems or resources. The Gates blog has a great post on the state of India’s sanitation problem. The girls are working on a health education app that can provide basic health and hygiene tips to users via cell phone sms.  The Mahila Mandals want to get tablets so that more women and girls can access videos and more comprehensive health education resources.

The Dharavi girls and mothers are unusual because they have the courage to seek help and the desire to fix these problems themselves. They are also unusual in that they want to befriend technology to drive this change. They want to share their stories and problems with the rest of the world – through video blogging.

We can’t wait to hear their voices and ideas. 
That is the only true way to right the situation – not to look to governments, big corporations or nonprofits – but the girls. Empower the girls.
    Pictures and Video by Nawneet Ranjan

    200 girls learning how to program mobile apps – in a 2500 year old Indian city

    Over the past few years, Iridescent has been growing and I dont have as much contact with participants as I did before. I miss that fuel.
    But thankfully, every few weeks, some stories of people come through – that just make me stop and stare in amazement.
    Like this one.
    Senthil Kumar is an engineer at Qualcomm in Bangalore. His sister, Mani Mala, is an educator in Madurai, one of the oldest cities in the world (actually 2500 years old).
    They learned about Technovation and took it upon themselves to bring Technovation to the young women of Madurai.
    The logistics of this undertaking are what makes this story of grit so inspiring. It really brings perspective to first-world petty griping!
    Some background on Madurai. It is famous primarily for its old, old, old, beautiful temples. People grow rubber and the city is known for its cultural traditions.


    That is from a tourist’s point of view. But what about its youth? They aspire just as young people all over the world. And that is the story of Senthil. I did a quick interview with him trying to understand how he became so driven and motivated. Listen and be inspired!

    Senthil and Mani Mala wanted to provide more opportunities to the young women in Madurai and recruited more than 200 women from two local universities to meet on the weekends and work through the Technovation curriculum.

    They dont have internet, but that doesn’t stop them!
    Senthil takes the night bus every Friday night from Bangalore (a 10 hour bus journey), reaches Madurai on Saturday morning. Teaches the girls. They work around the internet issue using an offline version of App Inventor. Senthil downloads the girl’s code on flash drives. He does the 10 hour night journey on Sunday night and goes straight to work on Monday.

    He has been doing this for weeks. (The Technovation program lasts 12 weeks).
    Their biggest need right now is for mentors who can help ease the load on Senthil and Mani and support the young women towards completion of their apps and business plans.
    Imagine if these young women came to Silicon Valley to present their technology solutions for a better world!

    Food Science: Make a pH Neutral Drink

    Are you ready to teach your kids about the building blocks of life? Excited to begin conversations about atoms and molecules? Let’s get started creating a pH neutral drink! 

    Our ingredient table

    We love teaching about science through cooking–if you missed it, check here for a discussion about the benefits of using this strategy. 


    • litmus paper (available online, or find instructions to make at home here)
    • blender

    The following are all suggestions–just choose things you have in your kitchen. Try to have a blend of some spices, sweeteners, juices, fruits and vegetables. Without a blend you won’t be able to get the drink to be pH neutral.

    • spices like cloves, or cinnamon
    • vegetables like beets, spinach, carrots
    • sweeteners like agave nectar, honey, sugar, cocoa
    • juices like apple, carrot, pomegranate
    • fruits like kiwi, oranges, apples, bananas

    Making Your pH Neutral Drink

    Making these drinks will be a fun time for your family to test their senses of taste. Talk with your children, maybe even have them taste, the earthiness of bases (think tea, cocoa) and the sourness of acids (think lemon juice, vinegar). After this, let them know that you are trying to make the drink neutral, or with an equal taste of both acids and bases.

    1. Blend different types of ingredients, tasting and making changes to mixture
    2. Once you think you have a neutral taste, test it with the litmus paper. If it is around 7 and turns purple, it’s neutral!
    3. Keep trying different variations, like one without sugar, one with lots of vegetables, etc.

    Science of a pH Neutral Drink

    Here are some science concepts you can talk about with your families while making drinks:

    • Atoms are like very small building blocks–they work together to make bigger things. There are many different types of atoms that build a diverse array of things. There are so many tastes because everything is made from different combinations of atoms.

    • Atoms form together to make molecules, we can make lots of combinations
    • Acids and bases are a type of molecule
    • We’re trying to mix our atoms and molecules together in the drinks to make it pH neutral
    • You can change the taste of a dish if it’s too bitter or sour by changing the ingredients you put in it, since each ingredient is made from different molecules. For example, if tomato juice is too sour and acidic, you can add sugar to begin making it taste more neutral.


    pH Scale (note that alkaline means base or basic)

    Food Science: Make Noodles to Test Viscoelasticity

    How do you get your children interested in science at home? What can a parent with kids of varying ages do to get everyone excited about STEM concepts? At Iridescent, we’ve learned that food is an amazing tool for elevating a child’s interest in science! Cooking is an interactive, messy and (hopefully) delicious thing you can do at home to teach science concepts and conduct experiments. Kids of all ages enjoy making food with their family–2 year olds can help stir, 10 year olds can help with reading the recipe and teenagers can help with the hard stuff, like cutting. This is the first of four posts where we’ll discuss our food science recipes.

    Ready to learn about viscoelasticity through noodle making? Happy cooking–be sure to let us know how it goes!

    Our Food Science cooking supplies 

    Teach your children how food impacts their bodies and about the property of viscoelasticity by making noodles!


    • multiple types of flour–you can try wheat, gluten free, almond flour, white flour, etc.
    • multiple types of salt–you can try pink, sea salt, table, etc.
    • water
    • wax paper

    Making the Noodles:

    Noodle making is a great way to let your children explore measurements and different kneading/pulling techniques. Have them guess how much flour, salt and water to add to their mixtures and encourage variation. Giving them this freedom will greatly impact the way the noodles taste and their viscoelasticity–hopefully kids will start making the connection that different mixtures will produce varied results. So, in the vein of exploration, I’ll only give very basic instructions for this recipe.
    1. Mix your ingredients into a bowl, guessing how much of each will work best and adapting the measurements as you go.
    2. Knead everything together until dough isn’t terribly sticky
    3. Place dough on wax paper and pull the noodles into the shapes you’d like
    4. Put noodles in boiling water, boil until they float to the top
    5. Pull them out, let cool and enjoy!
    6. Make a new and improved mixture

    Science of Noodle Making

    Here are some ideas you can talk with your children about during noodle making:
    Checking the viscosity (notice the lack of elasticity)
    of different ingredients
    • Basic conversation about chemicals and the periodic table–food is a chemical that we put into our bodies to help build muscles and skin. Different types of food, i.e. proteins, sugars, grains, will create different results for our bodies.
    • The “chemicals” in noodles are starch and protein. Starch is special because it gives us lots of energy, protein helps us to strengthen our bones and muscles. Proteins also help us build enzymes, which do lots of things in our body like digest foods and make new cells. 
    • Viscoelasticity is a concept we see in noodles. Visco is the ability to resist deformation, elasticity is the ability to change back into into their original state after being deformed. When we pull noodles, we rearrange their molecular components and eventually will change their shape from a big dough ball to a recognizable noodle.


    You Can Inspire Girls to Be Technology Entrepreneurs

    When I volunteered to speak with high school girls about my own experience founding a tech startup, I didn’t know how much that short talk would change my life.

    By Samantha Quist (Senior Director, Technovation)

    Back in 2012, I took a few minutes out of my schedule as a busy startup founder to speak with a room full of high school girls about my experience. I was hoping to inspire them to become technology entrepreneurs and found startups of their own one day. These girls were participating in Technovation, the largest global technology entrepreneurship program just for girls. What I didn’t know at that time was how much that brief experience would go on to change my own life.

    We all know that there’s a shortage of women in technology. But I didn’t really understand the problem until I founded my own technology startup in 2011. I looked for role models who were women tech entrepreneurs. And looked. And looked. I met a few, but mostly I learned how hard they are to find. I discovered that just 4% of Y Combinator founders were female (though the numbers are now said to be up to a whopping 10%). When I joined the Board at AOL’s First Floor Labs startup workspace and helped to screen applicants for that program, I experienced the challenge of finding promising female founders first hand.

    After I spoke with those high school girls back in 2012, over 1,000 people went on to watch my talk online, and my own credibility as a founder increased. Prospective clients and mentors started to open meetings by telling me that they had already seen my talk online. My own career path completely changed. I don’t know how much I succeeded in inspiring the girls, but the experience of speaking with them certainly inspired me. Just over a year later, I put my startup on hold and signed on to run Technovation.

    Technovation’s intensive technology entrepreneurship curriculum has 1,300 alumnae in 19 countries already, and growing. During the 3-month course, girls work with female mentors from the tech industry to design, develop, and build mobile app prototypes, and then pitch them to prospective investors for $20k in awards. If I had experienced such a program when I was younger, I think that my own winding career path that I described to that classroom full of high school girls would have been a much more direct one.

    Technovation is looking for volunteers now, to help grow the program for the February to April 2014 season. Women 2.0 members are especially well qualified to be inspiring coaches and role models for young women worldwide. In particular, the program needs:

    • Female Mentors. Work directly with a team of girls, either in person or through videochat, to guide them through designing, developing, and pitching their mobile app prototypes. Past mentors describe a highly satisfying and transformational experience that helped them develop their own leadership and product management skills. No mobile app development experience is necessary. The commitment is 2 hours per week for each of 12 weeks. (Or, make half of that commitment and be a co-mentor.)
    • Teachers / Group Leaders. We call them “teachers” on our website because many of them are middle school and high school teachers who open up their classrooms for after-school meetings — but anyone with a safe space for girls to meet with reliable wifi can oversee a group of girls and their mentors as they work their way through the curriculum. Teachers can be men or women. The commitment is 4 hours per week for each of 12 weeks.
    • Regional Coordinators and Volunteers. Help recruit girls and mentors to Technovation in your community, speak to groups of girls about your experience as a woman in tech, or help us spread the word about Technovation to local press outlets. The commitment can be anywhere from 5 to 100 hours between now and March 1st.

    I remember my own experience as a Technovation speaker, pitch coach, and volunteer back when I was a lonely female startup founder, and how it turned out to be a far more fulfilling experience than I ever could have imagined. Perhaps the same will turn out to be true for you.

    You can sign up to be a volunteer mentor, teacher, or coordinator today. Or, reach out to me ([email protected]) or sign up at with questions.

    ps. Got technical skills? Help Technovation’s parent science education nonprofit, Iridescent, by applying to be the Director of Software Engineering or a Software Engineer and help develop the technology that will deliver science education to more students globally.

    This article was also cross-posted at Women 2.0


    Samantha Quist is the Senior Director of Technovation and founder and CEO of Copywriter Central, and internet startup incubated at AOL’s First Floor Labs in Palo Alto. She was previously a Product Marketing Manager at Google, founder of her own editorial business, and Director of Marketing for a high-growth internet startup. She’s a self-taught Ruby on Rails developer who is passionate about using technology to make the world a better place. She graduated from Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter @samanthaquist.



    Youth Hack Day Challenge in L.A.

    The L.A. Youth Hack Day Challenge kicked off national Computer Science Education Week as part of Hour of Code—a massive movement to introduce 10 million students to computer science. Technovation partnered with the UCLA Community School, Hack for LA, and Girls in Tech LA to bring together over 80 volunteers, students, and mentors for the event. The event used Technovation curriculum to expose students to coding and entrepreneurship for the first time. After kicking off the new MIT App Inventor 2 tutorials with students, teams of 4 students created mobile app ideas and business. At the culmination of the day, teams presented a 2 minute pitch to judges to win prizes in the middle school and high school categories.

    The theme of the challenge was to create an app that solves a problem in the community. There were 17 app ideas that teams pitched to the panel of judges and a room of their peers. Students rose to the occasion of learning to code, write a business plan, and create a fast pitch for their idea. All of the apps were great ideas and showed the potential of students creating solutions to local problems. First, second and third place teams from the middle school category and first and second place teams from the high school category were awarded prizes. The first place winner of the high school category, Girls in Motion, was a 9th grade team from the UCLA Community School. Girls in Motion presented an app idea called Anti-Procrastination App which would help girls complete homework and other assignments on time by setting up phone locks and time out until the tasks are completed. Great job ladies!

    A huge thank you to the volunteers and students who attended! Also a thank you to the judges that volunteered their time: Patricia Dao, Managing Director, Girls in Tech Los Angeles and Tech Entrepreneur; Gohar Gharibyan, Developers, Target Media Partner Interactive; Snehal Vadvalkar, Developers, Target Media Partner Interactive; Charles Hwang, Managing Director, Tango Mobile. Prizes that were donated: mobile phones from Sprint, L.A. Clippers tickets, designer headphones by House of Marley, and a robotics workshop at Rolling Robots. Sponsors of the event included’s Foundation, Sprint, Tango Mobile, the Los Angeles Staples Center, House of Marley, Rolling Robots and L.E.A.F. Leaders of Environmental Action Films.

    A case for parents as the best science educators

    We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. – Carl Sagan

    I am an aerospace engineer and I have founded a science education nonprofit, Iridescent. Our goal is to inspire children to observe the world around them, to ask questions, to try and solve problems and to invent new solutions.

    Over the past seven years of working with thousands of children and parents, one truth has emerged – that parents are the ideal science educators.

    Science – contrary to how it is taught in many schools – is actually a creative pursuit – just like painting, writing and music. The basic steps are as follows: 

    • You observe the world carefully around you
    • You learn to observe details and patterns
    • You begin to notice discrepancies
    • You ask questions
    • You try to find an answer by conducting experiments, building models (in real life, on the computer or in your head)
    • You find out that the road you traveled on was a dead end
    • You retrace your path and ask a better question
    • You repeat the process of exploring new paths (often reaching many more dead ends). Although you’ve hit countless dead ends, you learn more and more about the world around you, about yourself and you become an expert
    • And, finally, one day you find the answer to why the neurons in your brain, like trees, branch.

    The skills you develop after so many hours of practice are critical life skills: curiosity, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, courage and persistence. The combination of these skills is what sets apart leaders in different fields – writing, painting, sports, music, research, hi-tech or engineering.

    Science at school
    Schools lay a terrific foundation for scientific learning. However, the structure and prioritization means it’s very difficult to support this kind of creative pursuit of each child, over many years. One teacher cannot provide ongoing individual feedback to 20+ students with 20+ unique projects, while also ensuring they learn the fundamental material that provides the vocabulary and conceptual knowledge they need to understand the world.

    Prioritization is necessary in this system, and science is taught as a collection of known facts and recipes. Many children go through school thinking that almost everything is known about the world around them or that there are a series of definite steps that need to be followed while doing science.

    Herein lies the opportunity for parents – to pick-up the baton and carry it on a long journey of true discovery with their kids, bringing to life the foundational concepts that may have sparked their imagination.  

    Parents as the ideal science educators 
    “Children spend much more time at home than at school. Their parents know them intimately, interact with them one-to-one, and do not expect to be paid to help their children succeed. The home environment offers ‘teachable moments’ that teachers can only dream about.” –David Peterson

    The home environment is a wonderful sandbox for children to nurture creativity, critical thinking and courage. Parents are also very used to playing and being children themselves. Thus they can learn alongside their children, make mistakes, fail, get up and try again – modeling the scientific process authentically.

    They can also connect learning fluidly across different mediums and environments – reading, cooking, gardening, playing with toys, hiking, traveling and shopping.

    Unanswered questions can become the norm, not the exception, since the emphasis can be on an open-ended process of model building rather than on the elaboration of a mass of “known” facts.

    Finally, many parents have the opportunity to provide continuous support for almost 18 years. The routine at home can prove to be a stable anchor for scientific exploration. For instance, families devote significant resources to the practice of sports after school and on Saturday mornings over 5-10 years (1000-2000 hours). A similar number of hours spent on the weekend in pursuit of a problem or engineering project can result in the development of impressive critical thinking abilities that may even lead to the child contributing an original and valuable solution to the world’s knowledge base.

    Below are some ideas to help you get started at home.  

    Cooking experiments

    Questions to ask while walking in the garden or going on a hike

    • What type of creature do you see?
    • Where on the body are the legs attached?
    • How many legs does it have?
    • What type of tracks does it make? What type of tracks do you make?
    • How many legs are on the ground at one time?
    • Do the legs overlap when the creature walks?
    • What do you notice about the “gait” of the creature? Gait is the pattern of movement of the limbs of animals. Most animals use different gaits, depending on speed, terrain, the need to maneuver, and energetic efficiency.
    • What do you notice about the speed of the creature? Does it change with the surface it is moving on? How does its speed compare with other creatures you have observed on the walk?
    • What is its range of speed?
    • Can this creature jump? Can you jump? How are the jumps different?
    • How many joints do you see on its legs? How many joints do you have on your leg?
    • What is the range of movement of your leg joints?
    • Why do you think it the creature is moving? Is it chasing something or being chased? Is it looking for food, resting, or playing or finding a friend?
    • What are some body features that help it to stabilize?
    • Can it climb vertical surfaces? What helps it to climb?

    What questions can you ask your child to help her think more creatively?


    Technovation 2014 is Here! Register Today

    By: Samantha Quist, Technovation Senior Director

    Registrations for Technovation 2014 are officially open and you can sign up today!

    Like last year, we challenge this year’s teams to develop an app that solves a problem in their local community in one of the three following categories:

    • Creating apps for local organizations
    • Teen issues (suicide, peer pressure, teen pregnancy, etc.)
    • Women’s issues (domestic violence, eating disorders, underrepresentation)

    The program doesn’t officially start until the week of February 3rd, 2014, but we encourage teams to start forming now so you’ll be all ready to go when the season begins. (You can even start working on app ideas early. We won’t tell.)

    We’ve made some improvements to our course this season:

    • Online Recognition for all participants
    • Special Recognition for teams that submit complete app prototypes and pitches
    • Long-Distance Mentorship opportunities for rural and global teams
    • Curriculum Improvements on the way before the program officially begins on February 3rd

    As always, it’s free to participate and we can’t wait to see what great app ideas will come out of the program next. Check out what a difference our participants made last year:

    Whether you’re a student, a teacher, a mentor, or you’d like to get involved but you’re not sure how — Register for Technovation 2014 and help us show the world what the next generation of women can really accomplish.