Shaheen Mistri

A School Called Life

“Father, my life is in your hands.” pleaded the young 18 year old girl to the principal of St. Xavier's College Mumbai. She begged him that she be admitted 3 months after all admissions were closed.  


She was born in Mumbai, in circumstances of privilege, and had lived in 5 different countries already by that age. She had come to India for a couple weeks to meet her grandparents during the summer break. However, a chance encounter with some street children at a traffic light in Mumbai, stirred her heart deeply, and she decided she had to stay back.  


As destiny willed, the principal agreed and the girl stayed back. Her work since last 30 years and counting, has led to two phenomenal institutions -- Akanksha Foundation and TeachForIndia. 


This is the story of Shaheen Mistri, a story of dreams, hope and magic. She founded the first Akanksha (meaning aspiration) Center in 1989, enrolling 15 children and employing college friends as volunteers. The center eventually evolved into the Akanksha Foundation, a non-profit project that provides after-school (and school) tutoring to children from low-income communities. Over the past 30 years, the Akanksha Foundation has expanded to 9,800 children in 21 schools across Mumbai and Pune.

As the recognition of Akanksha’s work grew, Shaheen saw an opportunity to expand her reach even further and work for more transformative changes when she met Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America. Along with five colleagues, Shaheen launched Teach For India in 2008. In last 13 years, more than 120,000 among India’s brightest and promising youth have applied for the 2 year fellowship program. 3,400+ Fellows have spent 2 years of their life teaching in low income schools across India. Directly, they have impacted 1million+ children and the Fellow Alumni base through their subsequent initiatives, reaches an estimated 33million children (1 in every 10 children in India).  

Shaheen has also created projects like the Maya Musical, the Kid's Education Revolution which explore student leadership, creating platforms for student voice and partnership, and TFIx, which is a year-long incubator program for passionate entrepreneurs who are willing to adapt Teach For India’s model to their context and region in rural areas.

Seeing the stark inequities due to difference of opportunity everyday, has led Shaheen to seed this huge movement and yet has also brought her humility. “It taught me that there really is very little that you can change. But it also taught me at the same time that what I really can change is myself and there is a lot of power in doing that.  And there is a ripple effect.” 

As she set-out as a teacher, some of her most transformative life- lessons came from her children, like Lateef who taught her about depth of human generosity. In between all the compelling responsibilities of strategy, funding, talent management, etc. that come with building and managing organization of such scale, the most important thing for Shaheen still remains staying close to children. “What do children need? What can we do to support their dreams, hope and magic” is a question which she holds closest to her heart. 

Her vision for education is one where children are not only provided quality education, but we create “safe spaces for their voice” by deeply listening to them, to engage “kids and educators as partners” by seeing them as equals and ultimately, to support young “kids as change-makers” to help them rise to their potential in service to the society. That way, instead of seeing a seemingly impossible task ahead of educating 320 million Indian children, she sees it as a magical opportunity of 320 million partners to create the “greatest show on Earth”. 

In this long and audacious movement, Shaheen wisely remarks that the biggest challenges are not funding, staff etc, but we ourselves. “Inner work is most challenging in staying on the path. External challenges are always there. As you solve a few, more and more will keep coming. To keep going, to find the strength and love in my heart a little bit better each day is the bigger challenge.”  

For this inner work, she emphasizes on the importance of little things to transform ourselves and to keep love at the centre of leadership. “If we are grounded in love, we can figure out the rest” whether it is quietly arranging everyone’s slippers outside a classroom or whether it is mobilizing a country to transform education.  

Shaheen is an Ashoka Fellow (2001), a Global Leader for Tomorrow at the World Economic Forum (2002), and an Asia Society 21 Leader (2006).  Recently, she was awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for promoting Gandhian values, community service and social development.  Shaheen also serves on the board of Akanksha Foundation and Museum of Solutions (advisory board). She is the author of the book, Redrawing India and the Miss Muglee Children's Books. She has a Bachelor’s Degree from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai and a Master’s Degree from the University of Manchester.

Also see, 5 questions we asked Shaheen.