Name: Nani Sahra Walker
Day Job: Filmmaker
Location: Mountain View
Nani Sahra Walker emigrated from Nepal to the U.S. as a child. So when the April 2015 earthquake struck, she knew she had to find a way to help. In her free time, she created athenasaraswati.org. The upstart organization facilitated the delivery 35 tons of relief goods from New Delhi to hard hit regions in Nepal. Her team also coded a Facebook app to help get needed items to the right places during times of disaster.
Now, with a global network of corporate and nonprofit partners, Nani and her team are building a Cloud Learning Center in her mother’s ancestral village in Nuwakot, Nepal.
Q: How did the Cloud Learning Center idea get started?
NSW: I realized that a major concern is rebuilding, and the transition after the immediate devastation. I read in the New York Times that 3,000 schools had been demolished, destroyed. And Reuters said something like 32,000 classrooms had been damaged. When I heard these numbers, I was shocked. This is already a place where in the 1950s, the literacy rate was something like five percent. I had seen this TED talk by Sugata Mitra, and that completely inspired me. I immediately wrote to him saying I would love to do this in Nepal, especially after the earthquake. Although we’re not taking the curriculum of School in the Cloud, he was a heavy influencer.
I had called up my mother’s maternal village in Nuwakot, which was struck by the earthquake quite hard. During those days of calling everyone and seeing if everyone was ok, we had called a distant relative of my mother’s, and they had said, “Well luckily we are all alive, and our buildings are fine because our homes were built pretty recently, but there are a lot of people who lost their homes, and the school has been damaged.” Immediately it hit me, that’s a place that I can access, I know someone there — this can be possible. So I got in touch with a teacher at the local high school and told him I had this idea to bring a transitional school to the village.
Our partner in London, Extremis Technology, is working with a local manufacturer to build a pop up center in Nuwakot. It will consist of a HuSH shelter that will be include computers, a toilet, and running water.
Some of the infrastructure is there; some of it we are still working on. The aim is to create a sustainable educational model that can be replicated in other places where there are displaced populations.
Q: How many students are you planning to serve?
NSW: I think that when it launches it’s going to be really exciting for that entire village, if not also the surrounding areas. I’d like to start out with 50 kids and provide everybody with a computer and mentoring. And not to leave anyone out. If 100 kids end up coming, we’ll just have to create a rotating system.
Q: Where do you want to be a year from now?
NSW: I’m hoping that people around Nuwakot are actively using the resources on the internet and building resources for their communities through apps. And that they are excited to be connected to the world. I hope that they have a feeling like, “Wow we are a part of the world, and here I am talking to someone from the south of Italy about, I don’t know, their agricultural techniques or something.” I think there is a lot to learn from each other.
Five years from now, I’d like to replicate the model. I’m hoping that we have a pretty solid sense of what works and can not just have it in various communities in Nepal, but throughout the world. In rural communities like Nuwakot, but also in places where there are displaced people. It could be a transitional school for refugees, for displaced populations. I would like to see in five years that we have one on every continent.
Q: What has taking on this project meant for you personally?
NSW: It has a huge meaning. My mom and her two sisters lost their parents before the age of 10, and in Nepal, as women, there was just no hope for them. They were going to school, because they grew up in a city, for as long as their parents were alive. However, from the moment that their parents passed away, they were unable to complete school. Education has always been something really important.
My mother left her comfort and her world in Nepal to come to the U.S for our education, for my brother and myself. I am among the first women in my mother’s family to have the opportunity to pursue higher education. So to go back to her maternal village and create that school — it feels like something that I was destined to do.
Q: What advice would you give to others looking to build a nonprofit in their spare time?
NSW:Be passionate about what you are doing, and use every situation as an opportunity. I had interviewed for a job at Udacity, and I didn’t get the job. There was a moment of feeling, “oh, I’m getting rejected for something.” But I put two and two together and wrote to the CEO of the company, Sebastian Thrun, to tell him about athenasaraswati.org. He put me in touch with Alper Tekin, who was really responsive, and now Udacity is providing 30 scholarships to support young people we are partnering with in Kathmandu.
So that’s a real twist of fate. Be open to different opportunities, and see every situation as a way to grow, to develop your vision and bring it to life. And don’t be afraid to knock on doors. That’s been a real advantage of being based in Silicon Valley — being so close that I can do that.
What’s the best next step for someone interested in getting involved?
I’d say go to the website, and keep following us.We’re currently recruiting students in Nepal for the Udacity scholarships.
And donate! We’re supported by a mix of cash and in-kind donations and services. Right now, we’re looking for 50 computers, and for help with internet connectivity. We’re also looking at installing a solar generated system. We’re trying to create something that’s limited in monthly costs — that is sustainable.