We were lucky to interview the inspiring Anu George Canjanathoppil, Director of the Google Interventions project at the International Justice Mission (IJM) in India.
Anu heads a team of ten in rescuing bonded labourers across India. Her team operates across seven states, travel frequently and often work long hours.
We spoke to Anu on a Saturday around 11pm Indian Standard Time and she was full of energy. Anu, 28, was born in Kerala, in the south west region of India. She majored in Law at Dr. Ambedkar Law College in 2006 but from a very young age she was committed to helping people less privileged than she was.
She kicked off her first business at the age of 16 after working as a flyer distributor for a diaper company that paid 200 to 300 rupees a day. She noticed that the boys received just a quarter of the pay of girls. She decided to do something about this and so started her own company where she paid all her employees equally.
Anu set up a company which helped organize branding campaigns for bigger companies. Her first job came when she approached a mobile phone company and offered to help with on-campus marketing They told her that if she could bring in a hundred people to do the job she would be hired.
She mobilized a hundred people, mostly students from her law college and was able to increase sales of the firm's sim cards. She also provided feedback on how the company could redesign its marketing by offering tariffs that were attractive to young people’s needs.
Anu ran her business very differently. She told us, “I paid the entire salary to my team and did not take a commission. My income was a small percentage of the total expense as agreed by the company. Not only did I feel that only that was ethical, it also ensured that the team was loyal and had almost no attrition.”
Anu enrolled on the Edith Cowan University MBA in 2008 because she wanted to build skills to venture further into the social sector. Anu joined the India office of US non-profit the International Justice Mission as Legal Director in May 2011.
Her MBA specialism was in International Business and she says that it has helped in her role with IJM. She became director of the Google Intervention project in January 2012 - the Google Foundation has given the IJM $11.5 million to fight slavery in India.
Anu's typical day involves meeting with government officials to explain bonded labour, making sure cases are filed, and co-ordinating with partners on the field to help bring rescue and relief to bonded labourers in rural areas.
A person becomes a bonded labourer when his or her labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The person is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, often for seven days a week and the value of their work is invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed.
Bonded labourers are not allowed to work for anyone else or sell goods. Their spouses and children also become bonded labourers automatically and this can last for four or five generations.
Today the International Labour Organisation estimates a minimum of 11.7 million people are in forced labour in the Asia-Pacific region, and Anu works with government bodies in India to combat this and bring freedom and restoration to the victims. She also works to rehabilitate workers who have been rescued from bonded labour.
Anu’s team have trained more than 400 government officials and reached out to more than 2,000 people. Her work is spread around nine states in India so it’s pretty intensive but Anu has always been good at multi-tasking. “I travel for 25 out of 30 days each month and in India, the taste of the water changes every 33 kilometres. The local language changes are so vast in India; In fact, even in Kerala, where I was born, there are so many dialects that I don’t understand!”
In addition to working for IJM in India, she also runs WeCe, a not-for-profit organization that works to rescue children from child labour and provide education through theatre. Other roles since 2009 include working as a news anchor for NDTV Hindu, being a professor of law at Bangalore Management Academy, heading a legal studies programme for University of Aberdeen, and teaching law and management at the Indian School of Business and Economics.
She lives by the mantra the more on your plate, the better you do. “I take on as much as I can because I feel like I’m running against time and when you begin to see the vastness of the area to be covered, you want to do more,” she said.
To wrap up our conversation, Anu shared some important qualities for leadership: integrity, dedication and passion. Integrity comes above everything else, said Anu: “Your team has to have a sense of respect. My father always told me that if you don’t lie you don’t have anything to fear.
"Dedication is another thing that has taken me through, even when there were many challenges in the way.
"Passion.. is extremely important. I was paralyzed when I had to take my final exams and I needed a scribe... I had an amazing support system from the school and I still gave it my fullest. This was where the passion that I had, took me through at the most challenging time.”
Read more stories about students, alumni and programmes at Edith Cowan University, here