When Sindhura Sarikonda stepped onto the campus of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, she did so with intention and purpose. While an undergrad at NYU’s Stern School of Business, Sarikonda, 28, saw a documentary called “The Day My God Died.” The film explores and portrays some of the world’s evilest atrocities—millions of girls as young as seven being trafficked and sold as sex slaves.
Sarikonda sat in her dorm room and stewed. She wanted to help. The ensuing summer, she bought a plane ticket for India to visit a few red light districts and shelters for trafficking victims.
“There were girls lining the streets just to lure in men,” she recalls. “And in the shelters, some of the girls were five- or six-years-old. Some of them were around 13 and had babies. Some of them have tried to commit suicide and have been forced into back-alley abortions.”
INDIA’S CULTURE SWEEPS TRAFFICKING ISSUES UNDER THE RUG
What’s more, according to Sarikonda, India’s culture often sweeps the trafficking issue under the rug, resulting in some victims being hidden from the rest of society. “I’m of Indian descent and I didn’t even know there was trafficking in India until I saw the documentary,” Sarikonda points out. “And that’s incredible because I go to India a lot and my family is in India.”
But it was the shelters, which were at best, not what she was expecting, and at worst, not much more than a small step up from the streets, that ultimately pushed her to doing something about it. “When I went to the shelters, I had initially planned on volunteering with them,” she recalls. “But none of them were exactly what I was looking for. A lot of them just had 10 by 10 rooms with about eight girls in them. The girls didn’t really do anything. They weren’t allowed to leave the rooms because trafficking is such a stigmatized issue in India.”
And then Sarikonda found a shelter on the outskirts of Kolkata that had about 40 girls and a lot of land and, according to her, a lot of potential. The shelter was Sanlaap India and has been rescuing girls from the streets and brothels since 1987.
‘NO ONE WANTS TO GIVE MONEY TO A 21-YEAR-OLD’
Once back to the states, Sarikonda wasted little time filing for her own 501c3 and founded Sanlaap North America. A quick problem Sarikonda ran into was funding—for her newfangled nonprofit and herself, alike. “Our first year was kind of slow because no one wants to give a 21-year-old money to run a nonprofit,” she says.
Indeed. Also, a degree from NYU isn’t cheap. So Sarikonda spent five years doing regulatory consulting and researching development options. The first big break came in the form of a $100,000 grant. “We were able to build our first shelter in India and rescued about 50 girls,” Sarikonda says.
After the victims are rescued, they are housed and receive any needed medical attention, counseling, and education. Then they are given the opportunity to attend Zesa Academy where they learn vocational skills in jewelry and fabric design and personal finance. Upon graduating they may apply for jobs in Zesa Retail. All profits from Zesa Retail go back to the girls in the academy and each employee is offered full funding for a higher education degree if they choose to pursue it.
GOING TO WHARTON WAS ‘ABSOLUTELY THE RIGHT DECISION’
Now lots of people want to give money to Sarikonda. The organization has taken off. It has more than 40 volunteers and 1,000 donors and despite having a bachelor’s degree in business, Sarikonda felt the need to develop better managerial and quantitative skills to properly run her company full-time. So she went to Wharton and hasn’t been disappointed.
“It was absolutely the right decision,” she says. “I’ve grown so much in this past year as a leader and I think the resources Wharton provides have been incredibly helpful for my organization.”
To date, Sanlaap North America has rescued more than 300 girls, and through Zesa, has helped educate more than 1,100, and raised about $548,000—the most recent being $10,000 from CommonBond’s 2nd Annual Social Impact Award. This year, CommonBond whittled down more than 600 nominations to three finalists who competed last Wednesday (August 5) at Project Space, a New York City-based coworking space.