Kozhikode-based Nikita Hari is a doctoral scholar and a students' union leader at Cambridge who is known for her social entrepreneurship work which aims at making a Silicon Valley out of our slums
In the last few minutes before she goes to sleep, Nikita Hari, exhausted from another hard day’s work, sits down to answer a long-distance interview. She has been working for 20 hours a day but patiently answers questions about a past that’s been celebrated in media and the present day honours that keep coming to her. It was only months ago that she entered the Telegraph list of top 50 women in engineering in the UK — the first Indian citizen to make it. She was, after that, invited to the Buckingham Palace as a global ambassador for the ‘Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering’, won the ‘DevelopHer Emerging Entrepreneur Award 2017’, and last month, got elected as the Vice-President of the Cambridge University Graduate Union becoming the first Indian to hold the post.
“It is a full-time paid post (£21,000) as a student officer. I engage and address the problems faced by graduates by working with the different bodies of the university like the VC, Pro VCs, colleges and over 25+ admin units, departments and my team of seven part-time officers to propose and initiate policy changes, conduct events and thus act as a channel between the university and the students,” explains Nikita.
Hers is not an overnight success story. If you imagine a successful young woman’s life is going to be a step-by-step hurdle-crossing ladder-climbing journey, you are not far off. At least in the case of Nikita, whose interest in academics goes back to her school years in Kerala. She was unsurprisingly the first in her district — Kozhikode — to be an all-India topper for the CBSE, in tenth grade. College brought more medals — gold for B.Tech and M.Tech. “Doing M.Tech, however, was the turning point of my life wherein I developed a special interest in research and this encouraged me to continue my pursuit of knowledge by doing a PhD,” Nikita says.
After her M.Tech, she joined as a lecturer at National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode. Then she got into IIT-Delhi as research associate, but was disappointed with the research atmosphere and returned home after three months. “With encouragement from people like Gayathri chechi (whom I met there), I made up my mind to apply abroad.”
“After a year-long process of applications, interviews and so on, I got into Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester.” She chose Cambridge. The many scholarships and grants she got amount to 120,000 GBP to conduct her research.
It’s been three-and-a-half years at Cambridge now. She has had many honours, including becoming an interviewer for selecting undergraduate engineering students for Churchill College, Cambridge. “As recognition to my achievements, Cambridge University, The Engineering Department and Churchill College have profiled me on their websites as someone who dared to live a dream and as a role model for women in science and engineering. I’m very humbled and honoured to have walked from Kerala to make it to the privileged pages of University of Cambridge’s profiled people,” she says.
The journey doesn’t stop. Nikita, a scientist by profession, is also a social tech entrepreneur. She has co-founded two start-ups – Wudi and Favalley. She co-founded Wudi with her brother Arjun Hari, who is the brainchild and CEO of the firm, based in Kozhikode. “Through our AI educational software for schools, we aim to transform India’s educational space by helping students identify their real talents and thus encouraging students and parents to think outside the obvious careers of engineering, medicine and management,” Nikita explains. “We also aim to make Artificial Intelligence (AI) products accessible and affordable to small and medium enterprises across the globe.” She wants to establish in schools a training centre to expose students to world class universities, and make it accessible for those who wish to join Ivy Leagues.
Nikita is also the co-founder of Favalley, with three PhD students at Cambridge - Paulo, Stefano and Martin. “Our mission is to turn the slums into the next Silicon Valley by engaging and training marginalised youth there and bringing a digital revolution. We aim to pilot this project in Wayanad, Chennai and Dharavi and work along with Wudi to achieve our vision.”
She wants to tell young girls to not allow societal stereotypes to stop them from pursuing their passion. “Let nothing stop you from doing what you love the most. Nothing and nothing but hard work is the secret of success. Always believe in your dreams, believe in your heart and believe in your story!”