Friday, 16 September 2016

Meet Honey Bajaj - The Indian Woman from Siliguri who was recently named Innovator of the Year



She's been a rebel even while growing up in the small town of Siliguri. But today, after receiving the Innovator of the Year Award, 2016 in San Francisco, Honey Bajaj (30) feels her hard-work has paid off with her eternal desire to invent.

Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
Honey, who is currently a researcher and a student pursuing a Masters in science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT) Cambridge, has been in the world of innovation for eight years now. Alexandria - an emergency response device for the deaf and hard of hearing (2016), a low-cost infant warmer (developed in 2010 and available in 16 countries), Kisana – an application for farmers to boost agricultural productivity (2007), a manual and solar-powered water-filter for army jawans that converts snow into drinking water (2006) and a device for autistic children to read and write better (2009) are some of the exemplary concepts, designs and products that Honey has worked on. 
It is AVIR Labs, her latest initiative at MIT, soon to start clinical trials in rural India, which has earned her the award in the field of healthcare at Flight 2 Freedom Summit held last month in San Francisco. 
AVIR Labs’s first project, Udaan, is a low-cost diagnostic mobile kit using a smartphone that empowers a community health worker (known as accredited social health activists or ASHAs) to screen maternal and infant health to bring a paradigm shift in maternal deaths. According to WHO, 830 women die each day due to pregnancy and childbirth complications and 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries.
Remarkable Journey Of An Indian Woman From Siliguri To San Francisco As An Innovator
Honey Bajaj
Currently 700,000 ASHAs are women selected and trained to work in their communities. The ASHAs face challenges such as gender bias, digital illiteracy, lack of resources, insufficient training and limited credibility.

“While for us in cities, healthcare services are available a few steps or even a call away, in most Indian villages, even a weighing machine for assessing a baby’s health is rarely available,” explains Honey over a call from her home in Cambridge. 

“At present, villagers suffering from any illness go about dealing with it on basis of assumptions. For most villagers a primary healthcare centre could be anywhere between 20-50 kms away. People wait for long for their disease/problem to escalate before which they can go and seek treatment as it’s a major task in itself to access this basic facility. Udaan seeks to empower the ASHA so that the screening of a problem can be done at the primary stage,” explained Honey. 
What does the award mean to her? “My journey has been full of barriers and the road less travelled. Making it this far is a validation of all that I have been striving for.” she says thoughtfully. 
What could have been a hurdle for one who has an impressive portfolio of innovations, conceptualising and developing path-breaking products, devices and applications?
“I don't know where to start... girls in our society are expected to fit in a box of what they should and should not do. Be it travelling or riding a motorbike, people have dissuaded me from all, but I went on to do them,” says Honey. There has been a time when she has lived on $10 a day for over two months between 2014 and 2015, but did not give up. 
 Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
Coming from a traditional family, her parents wanted her to pursue an MBA or pursue a career in HR. Though her heart was in design and innovation, she interned with a bank after completing schooling. But soon realised that she was not cut for the job. 

“I never stood first in the class and always questioned the convent education system. We need to contextualise and innovate as per the needs of India.” Honey believes. 

Contextualising requires identifying the gaps and developing accordingly which requires experimentation. “But people think experimenting is synonymous with failure. If you are an experimenter and it does not succeed, you are labelled a failure.”
Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
Wanting to put behind the discouragements and negativity, the lady does not want to recollect how her family reacted to her dreams around 2014. Society can have a huge control over one's life she feels. “They still live in the community back home,” is all she says.
The year 2014 has been the most difficult for her so far she recounts. “It is a personal trait that whenever I'm low, I seek to gain skills and improve myself,” she says. Thus, she drove over 2000 miles from Delhi to Leh – one of the most difficult routes in the country, in 20 days in August 2014, and became a paragliding pilot after doing a short course in it in December of the same year. 
 Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
Honey’s is also a story of sheer determination and perseverance. After completing the first year of English Honours from Delhi University, she realised her heart was totally in design and enrolled for the Product Design at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore. Her last year at English course (2006) ran parallel to her first year of design.

“I was putting 16 hours a day in the design program, but did not want to waste two years of life given to English. Plus, I wanted to get the English degree to help me in pursuing future education,”says Honey. 

In her first designed product – Step Forward (2006) –  she developed a water filter for Indian Army which converts snow into potable water by using manual and solar energy only. By this, Honey addressed a problem that had stayed with her since her early teens, when she accompanied her father to the army camps in Siliguri. She had seen how army men stationed at high altitudes faced a crisis of drinking water. 
Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
In the years since, she has been in the area of innovating products and improving quality of life for people from various segments of society. Nest (2010) – the infant warmer she co-invented as part of Embrace Innovations, is perhaps the best among her innovative designs so far. Nest is a low-cost infant warmer for at-home use in rural areas of developing countries where millions of premature babies suffer/die due to absence of the traditional costly incubators. 
On a field trip to a village outside Bangalore, Honey met family members of a baby girl whose life was saved after being kept in Nest. Full of gratitude, they requested Honey to name the baby. “When I said I could not do that, they asked me if they could name her Honey... that was the biggest moment of my life. I know someone somewhere in this world is named after me,” Honey says. 
Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
All her projects have had a humble starting in India and won her accolades across the globe. Nest, for one, is being manufactured and distributed through a non-profit programme across 16 countries. In 2009, she created a device that helps autistic children learn, read and write better and in 2008, when they were yet to be introduced to iPads, she worked on a project that created a digital tablet. While on a winter break in 2008, she reached out to Wikipedia and worked on a project that helps create linguistic data for the free Internet encyclopedia. 
“The device for autistic kids was shaped out of empathy as I had  done community service for a children society in Bangalore and that had stayed with me... but I chose to do the WikiBabel project to improve user interfaces for budding writers on digital platforms,” explains Honey. 

“The intent of innovation is not just creating something new but also empowering communities and bringing awareness and smiles on users' face,” she says passionately. 

But it’s not all work and no play for this go-getter. “I am a fun-loving, happy person! And I love dancing! I have certificates of dance participation from almost all colleges in Delhi University and have danced at national and international platforms too!” explains the folk and free-style dancer. At present, she's taking courses in fencing and pistol-firing at MIT.
For her second year at MIT, she’s been awarded the prestigious MIT Legatum Fellowship and the excitement shows in her voice and on her Facebook posts. But it’s impossible to believe it when you hear her talking about how she reached MIT. 
  Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
After completing graduation, working with various organisations and doing innumerable design workshops for over 4000 students across India, she wanted to grow further. “In June 2015 I applied to MIT and received an acceptance letter but I had no money or personal assets for a bank loan to take me there,” Honey says.  
Within a week she started a crowdfunding campaign and collected over $2500 in five days, which she realised will not take her to MIT. “With nothing to lose” she reached out to 10 of the world's biggest philanthropists. Some emails bounced while there was no reply to some phone calls. “Then I got a response from Mr Ratan Tata. It changed my life. It was empowering for a small town girl from Siliguri to make it MIT.” said Honey, who got the full scholarship for year one at MIT.
 Siliguri to San Francisco
Honey Bajaj
Then on, there has been no looking back for this girl. She is working towards launching Udaan soon. If all goes well, Udaan should be working in full-fledged mode in about a year's time from now.
She aims to continue working for those at the bottom of the pyramid. “A lot is being done for those at the top of this pyramid. I wish to build a technology company that builds quality products for the bottom of the pyramid. More importantly, empowers women.” 
Source: http://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/meet-honey-bajaj-the-indian-woman-from-siliguri-who-was-recently-named-innovator-of-the-year-261794.html