Sriram Ayer quit his job at a software firm in 2004 to run NalandaWay, a foundation matching poor kids with mentors from the booming professional class in and around Chennai, India. Then, on December 26, the water walls rose. "Of 375 children [we knew], 175 had died," he says.
That's when Ayer began his new part-time gig: managing logistics of installing public toilets in 16 coastal villages near Chennai. Until now, seaside residents have been accustomed to relieving themselves on the beach, creating public health hazards. Now, Parryware, part of a large Indian company, plans to install 10 commodes for every 50 families. Ayer volunteered to oversee the project.
Ayer sees his emergency project as a lever: If villagers adopt new hygiene practices, he thinks, they'll be more receptive to mentorship. "Getting to terms with their conditions and prejudices will definitely take time," he says. "But by being more acquainted with their needs and having gone through their disaster, there is an appreciation of our agenda and our approach."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.