By any standards, I’ve had a peculiar career. Its been a journey that has taken me from boardrooms, to brothels and beyond. I first worked with captains of industry –and then moved to working with leaders of another kind – commercial sex workers, and now, with women who deliver health services in remote villages.
In 2003, I left McKinsey and Co. as a senior partner, excited by an offer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) to create Avahan , a program to stem the growth of HIV in India. An offer impossible to refuse.
Immediately I was plunged into another India. In my recent book
A Stranger Truth I describe it as “..a grinding place, where women sold themselves for fifty rupees, and heroic battles were being fought every day for a barely decent life”. Later, working with mothers in ghunghat in distant villages, I saw the same wretched struggle of women in another disguise.
During the ten years that I lead Avahan, I learnt that the solutions to most public health problems are often well-known. The real challenge is delivering these solutions at large scale. Avahan went on to become the world’s largest private HIV prevention program credited with averting over 600,000 new infections (Lancet, 2013).
In scaling up HIV prevention we linked up three key elements : supply (data use at the frontline), demand (mobilzing communities) and advocacy (data to voice). Could these principles be taken as universally relevant in other spheres of public health delivery? In 2015, I set up my own NGO,
The Antara Foundation (TAF), to find out, in the context of maternal and child health and nutrition.
We launched our program ‘Akshada’ in Rajasthan, in partnership with the Tata Trusts, and the Government of Rajasthan. In four years our program has come a long way. Key innovations are being rolled out to every village in the state. The potential to save lives and avert needless illness is huge.
We have commenced work in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in partnership with the respective state governments.
I believe life, and career, should be approached as a grand adventure, with frequent leaps into the vast unknown. It’s been exhilarating going from the dizzy heights of the corporate world to the harsh realities of sex work and villages in India.
Ashok lives in New Delhi. His wife Anjali works with Mobile Creches in early childhood development with children on construction sites. Their sons Ashwin and Aman are married and live in New York.