Ashna Mahepal, founder of Young Help Suriname (YHS), is a member of the YLAI Network and 2016 YLAI Fellow. She created the organization out of her passion for social entrepreneurial impact. Starting as a project manager with a background in engineering, Ashna launched YHS to develop and implement community projects supporting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals through youth empowerment and eventually expanding with specific STEAM projects using robotics and innovation. As an independent woman with a go-getter attitude, she shared insights with us into her life as an entrepreneur and what it was like getting YHS off the ground, as well as her advice for other young entrepreneurs in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Origins of Young Help Suriname (YHS)
For Ashna, YHS began with a strategic mission: to empower people to have personal success so they would one day give back to others.
At home she had always learned to share and help others, and her desire to support more people evolved over time. Her role as an elected student representative for three consecutive years at university, where she was increasingly being approached for advice and guidance by students, gave her experience in creatively helping solve challenges and launch initiatives as did her growing involvement in several youth activities at church, both guided her to ultimately focus on working with youth.
Before launching YHS, Ashna participated in a number of student leadership activities and was already an active member of her community. As a driven and passionate young leader, she recalls her entrepreneurial journey really feeling like it got its boost when former U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak approached her about connecting with the nonprofit FIRST Global, which promotes Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and careers for youth through robotics competitions modeled on the Olympic Games style.
Formally establishing YHS was a natural extension of her other activities. Adopting bylaws and initiating projects in support of the Millennium Development Goals (later the Sustainable Development Goals) has all been part of the organization’s evolution, sparked by Ashna’s original passion for empowering youth.
In 2016, when she was selected as a YLAI Fellow, Ashna was able to further develop her ideas, and her YLAI Reverse Exchange became a great success that grew her confidence for undertaking international projects. With the insights she obtained as Fellow, and her experience hosting three students from the United States in Suriname during her reverse exchange project, she took on the challenge and opportunity to prepare a student team in Suriname to be part of the International Robotics Olympics (FIRST Global Challenge).
Since then, YHS has successfully empowered more youth as they develop practical STEM skills, increase awareness of the importance of its application through robotics, while an increasing number of youths have had the opportunity to experience inspirational and life-decisions impacting moments abroad by being part of Olympic Style Robotics Game Challenges and obtain global perspective. Moving forward, the organization plans to expand the foundation’s reach within Suriname (and abroad) with the help of strategic partnerships.
How would you like people to remember you and YHS?
“As someone who gave them an opportunity.”
Ashna shares that for her it is important that she and YHS recognize that every connection has the potential to genuinely contribute to the personal success of others, with the hope that each individual will one day give back to their own community and not be reluctant to help someone else, even if that person is a stranger.
Growing the Foundation for YHS
In 10 years, Ashna would like YHS to be known as a credible organization with a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of youth in and outside of Suriname and a platform for leading technology and innovation projects across the entire country while building “skills of the future” collaborating with national and international partners.
Instead of focusing on growing the footprint of YHS, Ashna has been actively engaged in growing the impact of the organization. Of course, the numbers matter, but she would rather have a project involving 25 people from which 10 go out there and grow and contribute to a common purpose than a room with 100 people from which none actively or lastingly do something to give back to their community. She is also focused on projects that have a qualitatively positive effect, with increased chances of continuity or added value rather than merely the quantitative value.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
“I think an entrepreneurial spirit comes from being someone who sees opportunities and then does not wait for somebody else but initiates actions,” says Ashna.
Ashna has always been somebody who sees opportunity and acts on it. When she was in primary school, she started her first ‘business’ which was selling small pieces of tile during lunch to other kids, who used them to play a local jumping game in the sand called “Djompo Foetoe.” At university, she continued to exercise this entrepreneurial drive through initiatives as a student representative. Ashna shares that her inner motivation to do new things has continued to develop and grow through successes and the positive acknowledgement of her work such as the opportunity that was given through YLAI.
Do you think your mindset has anything to do with your success?
“Absolutely! And undoubtedly.” As Ashna shared with us, if you think in terms of limitations, you will always find a reason why something won’t work or why you shouldn’t do it. You have to just go out there and take the risk and go for it. But don’t think it is all up to you, else you won’t leverage the support available from others which can help you save valuable time and resources. Also, if you only trust in the abilities of other people and their support, you will also be dependent on people and their gestures toward you. You have to find balance.
However, Ashna shares, “if you believe in educating yourself, in working hard towards goals, if you believe in a limitless God, who wants you to be successful, then things look differently; they don’t look impossible but rather achievable.”
Interested in growing your entrepreneurial mindset? Check out these reflections and insights from Professor Michael Goldberg, author of Beyond Silicon Valley.
Obstacles and Lessons Learned as an Entrepreneur
Ashna shares that “being the new kid on the big boys” field made it quite difficult to find supporting partners. As a nonprofit, especially when starting off, you need financing. It was definitely a challenge, but one she has overcome to help her organization gradually grow.
How did Ashna overcome this challenge? She changed her strategy from soliciting support from big, well-known donor organizations to cultivating and developing potential partners that were open to identifying a common interest to create a win-win relationship.
Most YHS projects are supported through strategic partnerships. Before approaching potential donors for funding, YHS goes in search of partners who can provide material contributions or needed skills (i.e. “in-kind support”) instead of financial contributions. Once these strategic partnerships have been established, the focus shifts to encouraging other potential partners to commit. YHS presents projects that are already in place to these potential partners; projects that could benefit from additional support, including financial support to cover remaining expenses.
“For robotics, YHS has had a specific supporting organization who funds the Robot Kit and Team Registration. But for covering additional costs, we make use of available opportunities to submit proposals for funding. It is continuous work and effort to fund YHS projects.”
You can learn more about developing public-private partnerships with the YLAI Network’s online course Basics of Public-Private Partnerships.
As Ashna reflected on where she started with YHS and where she is now, one of the biggest lessons she learned as a young entrepreneur was to just take that first step and do what you want to do (even when all the support you would like is not present). Unless you start, your ideas will remain only ideas. Time passes and nothing gets achieved… and that’s a waste. It’s also important to be deliberate about the early decisions — for example, what to name the organization, building your team and the timing on when to actually formalize and get your documents in order.
Did other people encourage or discourage you when you started?
“I feel I am lucky and blessed in this area,” Ashna says. She had enough people who encouraged and supported her and this built her self-confidence. “And even though I’ve also had people close to me who did not, I had my faith in Christ. My very first youth pastor, Erick Drielinger, was someone who encouraged me the most to believe in myself and what I could achieve.” Ashna’s faith in having a specific role to fulfill in life has been a driving force to initiate and implement things.
In the big picture, Ashna shares, “the encouragements surpass the ones that discourage.” This is why it is important to remain connected with the right people and disconnect from negativity and especially where there is no trust. Trust is the basis of making things happen together.
Obstacles are a given in any line of work, but especially when you are starting and growing your own business. Overcoming adversity and growing as an entrepreneur can be tough, but with each challenge there is something to be learned.
Check out the advice other YLAI Network members had on the challenges entrepreneurs face and the Top 10 Tips on Staying Motivated.
Ashna’s YLAI Fellowship Experience
“YLAI gave me evidence of young people who believed in pursuing things, in finding ways to be successful, in working hard, in supporting each other, in selflessly giving back to communities, and in believing in your dreams,” Ashna reflects. The positivity found in each individual she met would carry on as a foundation of inner empowerment that helps Ashna get up and keep going when something doesn’t go as planned.
We hope that by sharing Ashna’s story, we can help inspire you on your own entrepreneurial journey.
Along every path there are hurdles that you, as an entrepreneur, need to be able to overcome. If you don’t know how to keep yourself motivated and positive after setbacks or disappointments, which are bound to occur, you won’t be able to continue helping others. If your scope is limited (or just localized) it becomes difficult to innovate and grow. “This is why I support and advocate having (at least one) international exchange experience, because it allows to expand one’s view and experience support from others in a totally different way. I encourage people to be curious to look beyond their country borders, in the hope that an exchange experience will not only empower the person from within but will trigger a genuine interest to also empower others just as they were given an opportunity to be empowered themselves,” says Ashna.
The Importance of Mentorship
“I’ve had guidance and have benefitted from advice from a number of people in various stages of my life,” Ashna reflects. At each stage, the guidance was exactly what Ashna needed in that moment.
As for role models, “I admire Jesus Christ of Nazareth for being an example.” Ashna’s decisions are grounded in her Christian faith and her study of Christ’s teachings in the Bible. She likes the fact that those teachings give her the freedom to be an authentic person, who can decide to pursue whatever she likes and be who she wants to be while having the opportunity to ask and receive all the needed resources.
Finding the right mentor can be a challenge, but it can be one of the most valuable professional and empowering relationships as an entrepreneur.
Learn more about how to develop a productive relationship with a mentor here.
Advice for Young Entrepreneurs
Ashna’s advice: “Work on your mindset. Identify your source of empowerment and encouragement.” Time is valuable, and the sooner you know how to receive and deal with both setbacks and successes, the less time and money you will waste.
“Surround yourself with the people with the right mindset as well,” says Ashna. Seek out people who encourage you to pursue your interests, to be ambitious, and who you know are not motivated by self-interest. Surround yourself with people who can be supportive friends and whom you can also support in the things they do.
Lastly, “don’t waste time with unsure relationships of any kind, and take the time to know yourself, go places, become aware of ‘who fits you’ and then invest in that relationship.” Be aware of your own time, and don’t be influenced by peer pressure. You ultimately want to have a healthy balance between your career and personal life.
Interested in learning more about a balanced lifestyle as an entrepreneur? Check out this advice from YLAI speaker and entrepreneur Emilie Airies on sustainable success.