Creating futures

Self-described ‘accidental social entrepreneur’ Clary Castrission has played a vital role in improving the lives of impoverished students in India –a journey of many highs and lows.
Clary Castrission

Two years ago, Clary Castrission and his 40K Foundation faced a crisis. The opening of the foundation’s Banyan School, near Bangalore in southern India, should have been a moment of celebration after five years’ hard work. Instead, Castrission felt exhausted and discouraged.

“Building the school actually left quite a hollow feeling,” says Castrission, who set up the Sydney-based foundation in 2005, to help educate some of the 110 million children in India who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. “It consumed my life, but we really didn’t do enough strategy on what was next after building the school.”

Castrission calculated that, at most, he would be able to build another 30 schools, for about 6000 students, and he wanted to make a much bigger difference than that.

In hindsight, the crisis was a blessing. It forced two major changes to 40K, which have been implemented over the past 18 months. Rather than building more schools, the foundation now provides after-school lessons in existing village buildings, through its 40K Plus program. And it has set up two for-profit businesses to support the work of the foundation and eventually make it financially self-sustainable.

Castrission, who travels to India four or five times a year, describes himself as an accidental social entrepreneur. He came from a private school background where, he says, the understanding was that students would become professionals and “make a truckload of money then at some point give something back”.

His attitude changed under the guidance of Professor Sam Blay in his UTS law course, who urged students not to wait to make a difference, but to go to the developing world and get their hands dirty.

Dream becomes a reality

During the 2004/05 summer holidays, Castrission and his then girlfriend threw on backpacks and headed to India. His family background is Greek, not Indian, but he says India “seemed like a cool place to go”. After seeing the devastating impact of extreme poverty, and deciding that education was the best way to change lives, he established the 40K Foundation to raise $40,000 to build a school for the children of impoverished stone quarry workers near Bangalore.

“I was very naïve and thought we only needed $40,000,” says Castrission of the project that eventually cost $400,000. “I had no business plan and no idea how to raise funds or register and build a company.”

"I’ve learnt that you don't commit to a massive five-year project when you’re just being born."

While 40K focused on building the infrastructure, it teamed up with a local partner for day-to-day operations. But the partnership was difficult to manage; creating tensions that eventually saw 40K leave the project after the school opened in October 2010.

“It ended on a bad note, we got divorced and they got the kids,” he explains, adding that the relationship is now good and the school has 300 children aged between six and 12. “We learnt a lot about the complex relationship of donor and recipient, and that any kind of welfare arrangement creates that dependence.”

After much soul-searching through 2011, 40K came up with a new strategy. Rather than building schools to compete with the government schools, its 40K plus program uses Android-based computer tablets to give children two hours’ extra training after school in basic literacy, numeracy and life skills. Castrission describes it as a “gameified learning program”, where children work in groups of three to progress through various levels and earn badges to pin to their shirts.

Now, 11 villages have “pods” of about 30 children each. Castrission’s vision is to have 40,000 children learning in 1250 pods within five years, and to eventually have thousands of pods in multiple countries.

Riding the highs and the lows

UTS students as 40K Globers teaching women in the Maranahalli Bande quarry to make Roka jewellery. (Bottom left: Katie Ball and Tegan Dennehy.Underpinning the 40K Plus program are two for-profit businesses that build on 40K’s expertise in addressing social problems in developing countries. 40K Globe is a social entrepreneurship program for university students, who pay $1800 for four weeks in India developing business plans to help villagers. In 2013, 100 students completed the summer program; about half of them from UTS; for 2014, 180 are enrolled.

40K Consulting is a fee-for-service advisory business that helps budding social entrepreneurs in big companies develop projects within their company to help a social problem. The goal is to offer younger, emerging leaders a meaningful project that goes beyond charitable fundraising. For example, its first client, an Australian construction company, is developing a $15 million project to provide ultra low cost, high quality dormitory accommodation for Singapore’s many foreign workers.

Eventually, Castrission hopes the consulting and Globe divisions will substantially fund the 40K Plus program. At present, parents pay $1 a month, but the cost per child is $3.80. The shortfall is met by donations and fundraising events such as 40K’s Big Night Out in Sydney, but Castrission says the personal cost of trying to raise philanthropic dollars is high. “You will essentially burn out every contact. I got to the point where I just couldn’t pick up the phone and ask for more donations – I was burnt out.”

Castrission has somehow found time to run marathons and three ultra-marathons, including a 100km run through the Blue Mountains. Piano playing is another way he relaxes, teaching himself Beatles tunes from YouTube. And he keeps a toe in the legal world by delivering a torts lecture on Friday nights at the University of Sydney.

If 2011 was the hardest year, Castrission says the past two years have highlighted how business can be the most powerful tool to change the world. “I still like the idea of being a bit naïve and having a crack, but I’ve learnt that you don’t commit to a massive five-year project when you’re just being born.”

Words Lucinda Schmidt
Photography Steve Brown