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My Experiences with SIFE

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By Chetan Krishna

As one of the people who got to see ENACTUS-IIT Delhi (or SIFE as it is still fondly remembered) being built up from scratch, I must say that the chance to write this article brought back more than a little bit of nostalgia.

Life in IIT seems to be made up pretty much of the small moments and the various little communities on campus that you share them with – and my two years with SIFE IIT Delhi were, happily, filled with a number of such moments. And hence, this article came as a way for me to not just paint a picture of SIFE for the curious among you, but also to share some of those brilliant moments of fun, work, achievement and team-bonding that I carry with me even after graduation.

Back in 2010, there were few avenues on campus apart from NSS that could get social-service inclined students out of campus to engage in “real-world” problems. On the other hand, yes, there were clubs centred on entrepreneurship and fests galore where one could get a PoR and some valuable experience. Apart from those, options were severely limited for students in the more or less cloistered IIT community to get out and do <em>some</em>thing. Anything. This is really where SIFE fit in …

A  bunch of my batchmates who had heard of this international student’s organization that combined business, technical expertise, social service and just plain running around doing good work, saw the opportunity that it afforded to restless IIT students. SIFE/ENACTUS was about doing something quite different from other clubs - providing a taste of the corporate world as well as the world of poverty, while giving students a platform to grow as leaders. And so, thanks to 5 extremely passionate individuals, SIFE came to IIT Delhi.

Back in 2010, I was a 3rd year student, with an interest in working for a social cause, still interested in mechanical engineering and with a dilettante’s interest in business and entrepreneurship. I had no idea how I was going to combine all of that into a meaningful activity. And then I remember attending the first SIFE recruitment presentation that took place on campus in one of the lecture theatres and thinking “I’d like to do this.” A couple of days and some hastily scribbled application forms later, I found myself in the slightly uncomfortable position of being the only 3rd year student who was picked for the team. (And mind you, I wasn’t part of the founding core team). And boy was I in for a steep learning curve.

The first 2 months were jerky, but full of eye-opening experiences. No two SIFE field visits are quite the same – I still remember my first - to the nearby ragpickers’ community of Khanpur, where three of us were welcomed into people’s homes and fed like honoured guests as we learnt about their daily lives. In one afternoon, we learnt more about Delhi’s unofficial and highly efficient waste disposal system, powered by thousands of men and women who, looking to feed their families, go individually from trash bin to trash bin, colony to colony and home to home, making sure that our city stay clean and that the MCD achieves its goals. This was more than what a lifetime of reading newspapers could have shown.

With each successive field visit, our team grew closer. Some of best friendships at IIT were made through SIFE – I met amazing people from other hostels and departments and years with backgrounds, personalities and interests vastly different from my own, befriended them and now, can’t remember IIT life without them. Diversity was truly the strength of our team and I learnt something from everyone – people skills, discipline, a love for humour, patience, ambition, creativity, a willingness to work hard and grit to see it through. With this lot, work could be play and we would grow together or not grow at all.

Because that’s what SIFE was really about – growth through personal leadership, during every field visit, every meeting and at every stage of our projects. We had explored the possibilities of everything from technical projects to waste management within IIT Delhi to small businesses for craftsmen, meeting tens of communities and tempers were running short before SIFE IIT Delhi found its way to the Burmese refugee community in West Delhi. This was the birth of its flagship project for the next two years – Aarambh. The journey after this was one that has defined SIFE and its team more than anything.

The community in West Delhi consisted of an extremely diverse populace of over 10,000 refugees, most of them unemployed, facing discrimination from neighbouring Indians and subsisting on UN hand-outs. Resourcefulness had been forced on them – for example, during one of our visits we saw a rudimentary clinic which was maintained by volunteers who had been nurses or doctors in Myanmar, purchasing medical supplies on donations from kind individuals. Experiencing situations like these was what brought drive and purpose to our project.</p>

Working over two years to set up projects within the community that would help raise the standard of living, we met a number of firms, made friends with refugees, dealt with crafts organizations and international NGOs, we attended fairs, built up small handicrafts businesses for women, caught glimpses of highly complex community politics, met Burma’s parliament-in-exile, delved into the informal labour market to work against discrimination, and over this entire gamut of activities, had one hell of a time. SIFE would not stop for minors or holidays, and the more you worked, the more you wanted to work. And the more you got out of it – in your daily successes. The successful exhibition at the Dastkar Bazaar, the successful meeting with a funding agency, the happy smiles from hopeful refugees, the rekindled willingness to commit and work for something better – these really are the things that make your day.

But it wasn’t just all work – and for even for guys who were more than quite your average IIT-style-Bacchanalian, SIFE parties were more than legendary (and more than frequent) to say the very least. But I’m going to leave it at that.

In two years, I worked both as a general team member and team leader. I learnt not just from my batch mates, but (sometimes more so) from my juniors. I learnt how to influence, about teamwork, ethics – both business and human, about failing and getting back up, about succeeding and not resting on your laurels; most of all I learnt a lot about myself. And this went on all year long until the SIFE regionals and nationals. For a team which had been working their asses off through the entire year, the month before the competition is what really tests your mettle - and builds your team. I can’t even remember the number of nights we stayed up till 4 a.m making presentations, videos and writing scripts, trying to cram all our year-long work and experiences into a tiny 20 minute presentation designed to show how well your project measures up to the SIFE criteria. I can’t even begin to count the number of times legs were pulled, laughter rang, anxiety was handled, crises were averted and moments were shared during those weeks. I remember the pre-presentation anxiety and restlessness, I remember the show we put on for ourselves and our team, I remember going numb for a minute as SIFE IIT D was announced regional winners, I remember stepping onto the stage at the nationals in Mumbai, the celebrations after the first round and the bittersweet disappointment as we came 3rd across India (and effectively lost our chance to compete at the world stage). I remember coming back to Delhi and celebrating our successes and then the next year, working with the team again, just before graduating, hoping that they had a taste of the same or better. These are things that I carry with me today.

This, in a nutshell, was what SIFE (now ENACTUS) IIT D for me was about. I hope, dear reader, that this gives you an idea of what SIFE <em>can</em> be about. And in the same spirit – why don’t you take a risk and see for yourself?

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