Using Technology and Education to Break Down Barriers
Growing up in New Delhi, India, Upasna Sharma never considered attending college in the U.S. She hadn’t even heard of the SAT until she was in 12th grade.
But for Sharma, a creative youth with almost too many interests to count, the idea of a broadly focused liberal arts education was appealing. In the six months leading up to the college application deadline, she researched everything she could about the U.S. process and then applied to Harvard, even though she had never traveled outside of India.
That Harvard education, and the full scholarship she received, set her on a path she never could have imagined during childhood—and she is now paying it forward as co-founder of the international nonprofit organization Education Without Barriers, which provides free online tutoring for orphans.
“Given my exposure to so much poverty in India, I wanted to give back to society, but I wanted to do it in a different way than through the public sector,” said Sharma, A.B. ’15, an applied math concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Tech disrupts the status quo and helps bring about change in a non-traditional way.”
At Harvard, she combined her analytical skills with her passion for international development and social impact, taking classes that enabled her to apply a quantitative mindset to social, health, and environmental problems.
After graduation, Sharma joined a nine-person team at a nascent, New York City startup that experimented with building tech products and provided tech consulting to small and mid-sized firms. The fast-paced world of entrepreneurship helped her build confidence.
“It really is a volatile environment, but it is an environment where you can make anything happen,” she said. “What really matters is what you can do with your skill set right now. Can you be scrappy and learn things quickly?”
She is now relying on that entrepreneurial mindset as an associate product manager on the pricing team for the Walmart e-commerce group, where her team deals with user-facing, dynamic pricing.
“Prices change all the time, our competitors change their prices all the time, so we have to ensure that we are always quick and nimble and offering value of our own in the marketplace,” she said.
As a product manager, Sharma’s work involves analyzing the competitive landscape, interviewing stakeholders to understand their needs, and testing various hypotheses, while working towards a fully automated pricing system.
One major challenge is analyzing a truly massive amount of data, since the retail behemoth records millions of customer transactions each day.
“As pricing is crucial to the success of the company, it’s an exciting place to be. Walmart’s motto of ‘Save Money, Live Better’ also blends with my passion to make a positive impact on the world,” she said. “Walmart really enables people to have more economic freedom by not having to burn a hole through the pocket for basic, necessary items.”
She continues to fuel that passion for social impact through Education Without Barriers (EWB), which she launched in 2016 with her former roommate Dan-Dan Li, A.B. ’15, a chemical and physical biology concentrator. EWB draws on the popularity and user-friendly nature of messaging apps to enable dedicated volunteers, located anywhere across the world, to provide one-on-one virtual tutoring and mentorship for orphans in China.
Volunteers provide academic and life lessons for 300 children at two orphanages and three schools via video chat. Since 2016, 200 volunteers from eight countries have offered 15,000 hours of free, online tutoring.
The children they serve are underprivileged, and many have been abused or neglected, so the relationship they build with their tutor/mentor is important from both an academic and a social point of view, Sharma said.
“Not only is that relationship a great experience for the volunteer, but for the mentee it serves as a sort of check-in to make sure they are OK,” she said. “Even beyond education, for these children, this is about personal growth.”
Volunteers are provided with a curriculum and receive several rounds of training and oversight before they begin video chatting with their mentees.
Tutors offer liberal arts style lessons on subjects like math, biology, and English. The nonprofit recently launched several more diverse seminars, such as tips for traveling the world, self-protection and hygiene, art, and mannerisms.
Looking to the future, Education Without Barriers is dealing with almost more demand than it can handle. Schools and orphanages across China continue to reach out, and the organization plans to expand its services to 100 more children in the near future.
Sharma is excited for that growth, and she is preparing for the challenges of ensuring the technological platform can keep pace with the expansion. Using her tech skills to improve the lives of others is a deep-running dream come true.
“Education transformed my life,” she said. “It is something that, once you give it out, the agency is in the hands of the beholder to take their life forward from there. We can provide education for these kids and they will be enabled to make change happen in their own lives and in the world. It is really rewarding to think that we are having an impact on all these lives.”