What helps a person grow and sustain an idea? Here is a story of one woman saying “yes” to young people’s dream for meaningful work.
In 1998, Poonam Ahluwalia saw a mismatch between youth—who ranked work as their top priority—and her employer, EDC’s (Education Development Corporation) focus on education. Young people wanted education, but it wasn’t their first priority. When Ahluwalia delivered workforce development seminars in Namibia, Peru, and India, she observed youth and noticed that they did not feel they had the power to speak at these meetings.
Also in 1998, Ahluwalia studied these population statistics: one billion youth were in the labor market, 85% of them living in developing countries. Ahluwalia reflected on these trends while she considered an opportunity to develop a youth employment program in South Africa to employ 1000 youth. She decided not to pursue this program because she believed it was an inadequate gesture given the alarming numbers.
Poonam Ahluwalia, who was born in Jaipur, India, immigrated to the US in 1986 to further her education. A mother of two, she recognized that the dreams of youth around the world were the same as the dreams of her son and daughter. And her life goal began to take shape: She wanted to create support structures for young people to participate as equal partners with governments and businesses to solve the challenges of youth employment in their native countries.
She wrote a letter to the (then) president of EDC, Janet Whitla, to ask for her support for a global youth employment campaign. Whitla immediately agreed. She told Ahluwalia that she would call the human resources department in the morning to create for Ahluwalia a new position for this important work. For the next eight years, EDC became the incubator for YES (Youth Employment Summit). Ahluwalia and her team developed a 10-year campaign to raise global awareness about youth unemployment, and subsequently built 55 YES Country Networks. During this time, Ahluwalia transitioned YES to become an independent organization.
There are many stories within this story. Dreams are where things begin and it’s the action one takes that makes the dream begin to evolve into a new reality. I’ll share a story about the evolution of YES to YouthTrade in the next blog entry.
In 2009, in Boston, I met Ahluwalia when I was searching for more meaningful ways to approach work. Over a cup of tea, she reflected on her experiences in life and work. Then she invited me to learn about youth leaders—first at a YES Youth Leaders meeting at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and then at the 2010 YES Global Summit in Sweden. “We don’t need to think for youth,” she said. “We need to create the support structures that allow them to participate and solve the problem of employment. Come see for yourself.”
Meeting Ahluwalia was the beginning of a new direction for my own work—researching and writing a book, Creating Meaningful Work, about social leaders who are integrating work, education, and life purpose for today’s challenges. Their stories served to teach me many lessons about perseverance. No matter how impossible a daily challenge feels, I think of the ways Ahluwalia has faced obstacles. And I pause to rethink what is possible for me. That moment of pause helps to open my imagination.
Ask yourself: What is your dream for work? Who can you ask to support your idea? Then find the story, the inspiration that will carry you forward to act on that dream.