This interview with Anita Rajan is part of the Asia program’s Women’s Voices from the Indo-Pacific Project, produced by Senior Fellow Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Research Associate Clare Harris, featuring influential women in India’s political, economic, technological, and social fields whose work matters for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and India’s relationship with the world.
Anita Rajan is the chief executive officer (CEO) of Tata STRIVE and vice president of Tata Community Initiatives Trust. Tata STRIVE is a leading skill development player in the social sector. Ms. Rajan has been with the Tata Group for twenty years. She worked closely with the CEO of Tata Consultancy Services for thirteen years and has been with Tata STRIVE since its inception in 2014, initially serving as its chief operating officer. Her experience in skill development comes through supporting the advisor to the Prime Minister on Skill Development and the chairman of the National Skill Development Corporation. She holds a BA in math from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, a BA in education from Mumbai University, and an MBA in marketing from the Sydenham Institute of Management Studies.
Ms. Rajan cares deeply about providing opportunities for India's youth to acquire the education and skills they need in order to lift up both themselves and their families.
What do audiences in the United States commonly misunderstand about the intersection of education, employment, and the youth bulge in India?
I think it is important to understand the potential of India’s young talent if they are provided with the right skills, the right education, and the right opportunities for employment. Young people in India today want a better life for themselves and their families and are willing to work for it. They view education and training as their pathway to better livelihoods.
This workforce has huge potential not just for India, but for the world. Indian talent has already made a significant contribution to the information technology sector in the United States, demonstrating what this talent can do.
700 million people or fifty percent of our population are now technology-savvy. With the increasing pervasiveness of the internet, our children are becoming much more aware about the jobs available to them. For example, in smaller towns we have a lot of young girls who are aspiring to become cybersecurity experts. This would have been unheard of a few years ago.
Another important point to understand about India is its growing middle class. We have a large middle class who are huge consumers and drivers of domestic growth. India is therefore a great place to invest.
All these factors point to a nation with huge potential.
At the same time, given the numbers entering the workforce each year—over ten million—the current level of jobs will not suffice. Moreover, India’s youth bulge is in regions where jobs may not be, causing migration to urban areas. The issue is thus how to make these young people aware of all the growth sectors in India, both rural and urban, and the different kinds of jobs they can choose so that they are able to explore and rise to their potential.
What are the most consequential factors in your field that you think will play a role in India’s relationship with the United States or the world over the next three to five years?
India is a country on the move, with a youthful population. This young, aspiring, and skilled workforce can become a powerhouse of talent for the needs of the world, including the United States. This is the most consequential factor in my field of skill development.
India is currently a service-led economy. However, the manufacturing sector also has the potential to create many jobs. We are trying to focus on this sector.
There is a “Make-in-India” movement that has started, through which global manufacturers and companies with global products and services can manufacture or assemble their products in India. An environment is being created to make investment attractive, whether it is through policies or the provision of basics needed for manufacturing, such as land and electricity. There are huge investments being made by the government in building infrastructure—roads, airports, and ports—and driving greater and greater connectivity throughout the country. All these initiatives need investments and are generating a lot of jobs.
Furthermore, countries with an aging population that face a workforce shortage in certain sectors, such as Japan, present an opportunity for our talented youth. Under a more formal arrangement, India and Japan have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation that promotes the movement of skilled workers from India to Japan for employment on a contractual basis. Similar conversations are taking place with other countries. If we can progress to a level where we have a government-to-government contractual basis for exchange of talent, that could well be a way for the future.
Can you speak to the status of women in the work that you do?
Indians are becoming more egalitarian about the status of women, but social change is a process, and we are on a journey. We have a long way to go to get more women to participate in the workforce. This is a matter that is deeply cultural and rooted in the attitudes of families.
Within families, often there exists a positive bias towards males, especially in the economic sphere. When it comes to employment, a woman’s decision is never hers alone. Usually it is her family, especially her parents, that plays a major role in her decision-making. Often, from their perspective, getting married should take precedence over a career.
Marriage can also mean moving locations and not being able to hold a job. States in central India are not those with the highest number of jobs. Young people must move to other states for employment. Women do not have that freedom of choice. It is a family decision, not just her decision.
Having said that, I think there is a big shift in the past ten or twenty years in the way that women are involved in the workplace. In recent conversations with young women, I sense a greater realization of the importance and benefit of economic independence. A lot is being done in terms of encouraging and incentivizing women to take up careers, get educated, and move, as well as providing them with the enabling conditions to do so. Many more first-generation women learners are taking our courses at Tata STRIVE, which is evidence of the evolving attitudes towards economic independence within families. Our goal at Tata STRIVE today is to achieve fifty percent female representation.
In a vast country of diverse cultures, the pace of social change is not uniform. But this is a journey. We are getting there. Do we need to do more? Yes, we do need to do more.
What inspired you to pursue your career path in vocational education and skill development? How does your personal background inform your work?
Actually, vocational education and skill development chose me rather than the other way around. Right from the beginning of my career, I have been associated with young people.
I started my career as a teacher. Why did I choose to become a teacher? My husband was in a transferable job—he was in the navy—so we moved every one or two years to different locations. Teaching was something that I loved to do and it got me a job, so it was a sort of happy mix of that wherever I went.
Working with young people in the area of learning, I was always fascinated by the impact of good quality education and how it can make a difference to young people. They say teachers mold children’s minds. When you are a teacher, you see the power of what you can do in a class, sitting and communicating with young children. That’s what makes the difference. That’s the magic of impacting young minds. And when you experience that, it fills you with a lot of excitement about the potential of this work.
In working with youth in education, addressing the national challenge of training the millions of young people entering the workforce, it’s fascinating to see how young people think, what they absorb, how they develop their plans for the future, and what technology can do in terms of impacting their abilities. So, when the Tata Group started Tata STRIVE, for me it was a sort of calling. It brought into play everything that I’d learned so far about young people and about using technology to address the education gap problem.
When you look at the state of employment and education in India, what concerns you most or brings you hope? What are the most pressing priorities for you and your colleagues?
We have a window of two decades of demographic advantage, and we need to act with greater urgency.
India is, as a matter of fact, working on all fronts to leverage its demographic dividend. I'm hugely positive about what is happening. I see the aspirations of young people. I see the hard work they’re willing to do. I see them moving from small towns to large towns, working hard to earn a better life—not just for themselves, but for their families. If I ask a young child what they want to achieve through the skill development program, they tell me, “I want to earn a name for myself and my family. I want my family to look up to me. I want my family to do better.” When you have that kind of aspiration in your heart, and you have a talent that’s so willing to work to get a better life, you’re going to find a way to get there. The youth just need an enabling environment, and that environment is being provided today.
I am filled with hope and optimism when I look at India’s growth, which holds the promise of employment and needs skill development to succeed.
The pressing priorities for us now are to focus on rural entrepreneurship and wage-based employment. Jobs are not necessarily available where large numbers of youth are present, and migration is not always possible for youth, especially women. We need to promote entrepreneurship from the ground up.
I think we are doing well. At the same time, can we do better? Should we do this faster? Of course we can and should. Technology will help us along the way. I think that once we get to a sort of tipping point, we’ll race ahead.