“You don’t need permission from someone else to be empowered,” Alka Bhargav said. “You are empowered.”
For many years, Alka Bhargav knew she wanted to help young women realize their potential — she just didn’t know how at first. As an immigrant from India, she initially imagined returning to her home country to start a school for young women. But this dream would morph into something different.
“The thought suddenly struck me one day,” Alka said. “Why am I going all the way across the world when there are girls here in my own backyard who need help?”
Without funding, however, starting a non-profit organization would be difficult. That’s when Alka’s husband stepped in.
“He sold his company in 2013 and told me he would like to see the funds used for my dream,” Alka said. “Without him, none of this would’ve happened.”
So Alka Bhargav founded the AUM Foundation. She had no idea how great the impact would be. The AUM Foundation takes its name from the “aum” sound which reflects three characteristics: creation, preservation and liberation.
“It is a sound more than a word, a reflection of the soul and of the universe,” Alka said.
The Foundation’s flagship program is called Pathway 2 Success (P2S). The mission of this program is, “to empower and support under-resourced female high school students for success.”
As a former human resources professional, Alka knew what companies looked for in high-potential employees, and she developed the course curriculum accordingly. During the program, young women take enrichment classes that teach soft skills, financial skills and more. Some of these classes include etiquette, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and financial planning.
Over the course of the program, participants are also partnered with mentors, female professionals from a variety of backgrounds who live in Madison County.
“The amazing part about this is that mentors get just as much out of the experience as the students,” Alka said.
Additionally, the participants get the chance to pursue job shadowing in their fields of interest. Students are able to learn the day-to-day responsibilities of the job and decide if they truly enjoy it.
Alka said, “It also gives them the real-world experience that they need.”
Currently, upon completion of the program, participants receive a $2,000 scholarship for their first year of further education. In the future, Alka hopes to expand this reward to include a laptop, a necessary tool for most students nowadays.
After completing the P2S program, the Foundation hopes women will be both economically independent and socially responsible. Not only does the program provide them with skills, but also a large network of professionals who desire to see them succeed.
When choosing between applicants, the Foundation has certain requirements that must be met. The young woman must live and attend school in Madison County, be entering her senior year of high school, have a GPA of 3.0 or more, and a household income at no more than 2.5 times the federal poverty level. But beyond these basic criteria, there is another factor that Alka looks for.
“I want to see how motivated they are about their own success,” Alka said.
Those who have already graduated from the program have continued on to college, vocational training and more. One of these women came from a very tough background: Abandoned at age 4 by her parents, she lived a nomadic life, couch-surfing and moving homes constantly. Through the P2S Program, she gained tremendous confidence and valuable skills. She got the chance to shadow at Hudson Alpha, as her dream is to become a geneticist. Eventually, she was accepted to Alabama State in Montgomery on a full scholarship, where she is now pursuing her dream.
Alka likens the effect of each woman who completes the P2S program to a pebble dropped in a pond.
“The ripple effects go far beyond just themselves,” she said. “They grow into professionals who can really give back to the community.”
The support from the Huntsville community has been incredible, Alka said. “I’ve realized just how caring people are, how connected people are.”
There are many ways you can help out. Future students in the program will need businesses that offer opportunities for job shadowing, and they’ll need more women eager to step up as mentors. To keep this organization running and growing, more volunteers must step forward to lend necessary skills such as tutoring, administration, and more. The organization is also always in need of trainers for the variety of enrichment classes offered.
And, of course, the Foundation requires financial support as well.
On October 3rd, 2019, AUM will host an exciting Bollywood-themed fundraiser banquet. This will be a party that you don’t want to miss! (We’ll update this story with more information as we get closer to the event.)
As the AUM Foundation continues to grow, Alka hopes to establish additional locations in nearby towns like Decatur.
“It all adds up,” Alka said. “Each woman who comes through this program will have her life impacted for good.”
The heart behind AUM is simple: Under-resourced young women can actualize their potential, utilizing valuable skills taught in the program. And as the cycle of generational poverty and undereducation is broken, our community and society will reap significant benefits.