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Employee charity spotlight: iManage software engineer Vela Shanmugam Co-Founder of SelfEducate

Kelli Ryan

Internal Communications & Engagement Senior Manager

Looking to make a meaningful charitable impact, Georgia-based software engineer, Vela Shanmugam co-founded his own nonprofit to deliver the most value to the individuals and communities it serves throughout India.

In 2007, Vela and two friends founded SelfEducate, a nonprofit organization that helps provide access to education in low-income communities in India. Since then, SelfEducate has grown beyond its initial goal to serve even more individuals, families, and villages in need of support.

How does SelfEducate support students? 

Founded to help provide education in poor parts of India, SelfEducate had the initial goal to help high school age students pass their standard exams and continue in their education. In Vela’s experience, he witnessed many young adults failing their standard exams and then having no choice but to quit their educational journey and join the workforce. SelfEducate sought to change this.

SelfEducate helps students past this obstacle by providing additional learning resources through night schooling and providing scholarships to cover tuition, books, and other supplies. By helping students pass their exams, these individuals have more opportunities to stay in school, learn important social and communication skills, and even continue on to college and have the chance to change their career path and improve their earning potential. SelfEducate also helps buy school supplies for underserved schools in Atlanta and provides scholarships to high school graduates.

What additional causes does SelfEducate support? 

Seeking to support underserved communities beyond access to education, SelfEducate responds to current events, natural disasters, and other matters plaguing the communities they serve.

For example, SelfEducate responded to the Kerala Flood in 2018 by purchasing bedsheets and other supplies to provide for around 300 families in rural villages, unaided by other relief organizations. Likewise, when a Cyclone Gaja hit, SelfEducate partnered with another organization in Chennai to distribute food, medicine, and basic supplies to 1,000 people across 12 villages. The team returned to the affected area several weeks later with additional supplies and school materials to distribute to 300 students in the area. Additionally, SelfEducate helps visually challenged people to start their own small businesses.

More recently, SelfEducate worked with health centers in smaller villages to address their needs to combat Covid-19. SelfEducate provided rations to over 3000 families covering 20 villages during the first Covid-19 wave. During the second, SelfEducate donated medical supplies (ICU beds, wheelchairs, N95 masks, oxygen masks, flow meters, medication, etc.) to six government-run public hospitals.

In a similar theme that Vela has seen all throughout his philanthropic journey, these smaller villages off the beaten path were not receiving public assistance or charitable donations and needed help from small-scale, grassroots organizations such as SelfEducate.

Whether helping students prepare for their exams or providing basic supplies to communities impacted by natural disasters, SelfEducate delivers on its mission to uplift underserved communities and help individuals achieve a better quality of life.

 What motivated the foundation of SelfEducate?

At his first fulltime job in the United States, Vela was impressed with the philanthropic efforts of his colleagues and company, and began making paycheck contributions to a corporate charity fund. While this helped sparked his passion for philanthropy, it was difficult to see the impact of his contributions through a large corporate foundation.

Thinking back to the community Vela was raised in, he considered the families and friends still in India who would benefit from financial support. With an ignited interest in giving back to his roots, Vela was eager to maximize the aid provided through his gifts and be able to make a meaningful impact in the lives of friends and family in need.

What inspired your passion for education? 

Raised in a poor family in Chennai, India, Vela was the only one of his siblings to go to college due to the financial demands of higher education.  Most students from such rural villages did not even graduate from high school or pass the standard exams to continue through the college education system.

In his first year studying engineering in college, Vela struggled to pay for basic expenses, such as fees and textbooks, and without guidance in this uncharted position, Vela considered dropping out of college. Through self-educating by reading books, focused studying, help from family members and friends, and putting in the time and effort to improve his academic standing, Vela not only finished college, but went on to earn his Master’s degree before coming to the United States in 1997.

Vela has harnessed his own experience and is now paying it forward, helping young adults gain access to truly life-changing educational opportunities.

How has SelfEducate grown over the years? 

While keeping to its down to earth beginnings, SelfEducate has expanded since its inception fourteen years ago through word of mouth as it spreads through the powerful network of Vela and his cofounding members. With a special thanks to Vela’s close friends and collegemates, the important work of SelfEducate and the support that the organization provides has spread beyond what its founders could have ever dreamed.

Likewise, the number of individuals that SelfEducate is able to support has grown exponentially. Starting with just a single student, SelfEducate now supports around 250 students each year, helping them access education and the resources needed to open up new opportunities and careers prospects.

By scaling the efforts of SelfEducate and relying on trusted partner networks in India, SelfEducate works with multiple project leads and team coordinators, supporting between eight to ten cities at a time, each with between five to ten villages where SelfEducate can deliver real value and change.

The grassroots, community-based approach of SelfEducate has ensured that the organization stays true to its original mission and continue to deliver support and resources where they are making the greatest impact.

How do individuals and communities qualify for support from SelfEducate? 

Through network references, SelfEducate will consider new students and charitable causes to take on. What does the team at SelfEducate evaluate? First off, they work with the involved parties to truly understand where the need is and what kind of support will be able to make the biggest impact. Throughout the course of the working relationship, the team at SelfEducate will check-in for feedback and any areas where they can improve their engagement and support.

For students, this means submitting report cards and exam scores, allowing the team at SelfEducate to offer guidance and areas of focus. For other organizations, SelfEducate works to ensure that the support provided is, in fact, having its intended impact, or they will shift their focus and tackle the issue from another angle.

How can I get involved? 

If you are interested in supporting the impactful, local work of SelfEducate, or have a partnership proposal for the team to invest in, check out the SelfEducate website and reach out to Vela and the team for more information!

Thank you, Vela! Your work with SelfEducate exemplifies the iManage Way in action, challenging existing systems by asking yourself, “Is there a better way?” and creating an effective and impactful solution to enrich the lives of others.

About the author

Kelli Ryan

Internal Communications & Engagement Senior Manager