Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar

Founder & CEO of the Red Elephant Foundation | India

I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents' home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of "helping people", until I realised that I could do that with development, too.

I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father's practice. Once I left law school, I began working - I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation - they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception.

That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai.
To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit), began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives.

With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs and what have you.

That was when it hit me: there's so much sitting on one domino: gender inequality.
If we knocked it, this enormously global burden of inequality could just, just be knocked out.
You can see that I imported an idealistic mindset into my adulthood - I was an idealist as a child, I used to dream of a world where we would all sing songs together and eat muffins (food of choice then, haha!) and just be together without fighting. I try to hold onto that little girl's ideas even today. My mission: I live to give. I live to serve.

How I became an Enrepreneur?

In all honesty, you could say that the idea was in the making, but didn't quite catalyse into the form and shape until June 2013. But the story, though, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria.

When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite - because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of "We are like this only".

It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child. I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story.

Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe; two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began, and finally, that people were beginning to talk, openly, and get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open.

The vision was to change the landscape through storytelling - but by about a year, we realised that we had reached a plateau.
Great, people were talking. But what about the solutions?
We then decided to get down to doing sound research (legal and policy) that we now use to suggest and inform change, AND, we also work with the youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets through interactive and educational workshops to make them internalize gender equality as the norm.

Then came a time in the journey when we realised that try as we might, the shift could only provide massive ripple effects in the future. But in the present, there is a desperate need to address the state of violence against women. One aspect of this has been to help women get out of a violent environment and get help.

  This led us to work on developing a tech tool (http://saahas.redelephantfoundation.org > soon to become an app), that maps organisations across 197 countries (right now, out of these only Syria and North Korea remain information blackholes for obvious reasons), providing medical, legal, resource (food, shelter, clothing, crisis response), education and employment, police and medical services and consular establishments (this alone will be added this week) so that women can access them, get help, and stay safe.

My most important achievements:
I’ve looked at my career journey as being one that centered around learning so far, and one that will continue to center around learning - I suppose the goal of giving back to the world around me remains a driving force. I don’t believe that I have accomplished as much as to really talk about anything as an achievement - because when you’re working for gender equality, you’re also really talking about being part of a movement today that will have its results a generation or two from now - and it’s really important to make all that change starting now.

What challenges I see that we, as women, may face in the future?

This is a tough question, honestly.
You have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn't always turn into a payforward, that it seems like the resistance is gaining greater ground.
From our work, I can safely say that we've had both, receptiveness and rejection, and have, TOUCHWOOD, been blessed to have turned the resistance into receptiveness through education.
But in the greater landscape is fraught with a lot of obstacles. I think society can make a turn around if all the influences on society honestly dovetail into the same message of gender equality.
It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent and sexual violence and personal boundaries, if pop culture is going to normalize the objectification and stalking of women. This, again, can come only if we collaborate.

My greatest grief comes from the competitive nature of organisations working in this domain.
We are not in competition, we can make a difference only if we collaborate.

Women are tremendously influential changemakers. We’ve got phenomenal potential to not only change the world, but to truly make a difference.

My statement: Believe that you can make change happen. And then chase that belief!


Traditional bio:

Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist, entrepreneur and writer from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peacebuilding initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She also founded and runs fynePRINT, a feminist e-publishing imprint. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD.

Kirthi is an author, and released her debut novel in 2017, titled The Doodler of Dimashq. Her second book, The Dove's Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers' Literary Award.

Kirthi coded an app for survivors of gender-based violence called Saahas, which works as a web and mobile app. She taught herself to code and created a web app, a mobile app and a Facebook ChatBot to support survivors of gender-based violence across 196 countries, and to assist bystander intervention.

In 2016, Kirthi was invited to Michelle Obama's United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated changemaker. In 2017, she was one of the youth activists invited to attend President Obama's Town Hall at New Delhi.

Kirthi has spoken at TEDx Chennai, addressing Peace Education as a means to end Bullying. She has also spoken at FICCI FLO, as one of the youngest speakers to address the members. Kirthi has also had the distinction of addressing the UNV Partnerships Forum on her work as an epoch-making online volunteer with the United Nations.

Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, from President Barack Obama. She is the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). She received the 2016 Orange Flower Award from Women’s Web, the 2016 World Pulse Impact Leader Award and the 2017 Empowerment Leader Award from the Dais Foundation. Her work has been published in The Guardian and the TIME Magazine. She was recognized by EuropeAid on the "200 Women in the World of Development Wall of Fame in 2016." She received the Digital Women Award for Social Impact in 2017, from SheThePeople, the Person of the Year (Social Entrepreneur) 2017 from The Brew Magazine. Kirthi is a recipient of the Yuva Samman from MOP Vaishnav College, in January 2018.

Besides her professional engagements, Kirthi is a Zen Doodler, and runs a HerStory project called Femcyclopaedia. Her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over. She wrote and acted in Frankly Speaking, a play that takes off from where Anne Frank's Diary ended, and also wrote and acted in two other plays, named HerStory and Dolls.