• Julia

"I became too arrogant" - Sabbaticals, "White Saviours" and Zentopia - An Interview with Aashita

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

The path to making an impact can look very differently - and more importantly, can be embarked on at any point in your life! More and more full-time working people realize this and take a year off to ... yeah... what to do exactly?

"A sabbatical is when you take a break from work/study to reflect, gain perspective, gather life experiences

or spend time on developing a personal project"

Today, I am talking to Aashita, the founder of Zentopia, a resource-platform that tries to answer that question.

Aashita is a Brand Planning Manager in Mumbai, India and currently taking a sabbatical to pursue what she really cares about: sabbaticals. In her interview, she tells us more about these ambiguous Gap Years, shares with us an important lesson she had to learn, her thoughts on the "White Saviour Complex" and her advice to truly make an impact when you are volunteering.

"Schools don’t quite prepare you for life.

Every three in four working people end up in the wrong profession"

Aashita, thanks for talking to us today. Let's get right to it.

What exactly is a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is when you take a break (typically about a couple of months to a year) from work/study to step back and reflect, gain perspective, gather necessary life experiences or spend time on developing a personal project/hobby.

While sabbaticals are relevant across age groups, I think they are particularly important for younger people because schools don’t quite prepare you for life and your social circles limit you from having a larger perspective about the world. The younger you are when you are able to gain that larger perspective about yourself and the world, the better. Another reason why I think younger people, especially ones who have recently graduated from school/college, should consider sabbaticals is that on average, in any country, every three in four working people end up in the wrong profession. Taking time off to carefully consider and experiment with different interest areas before you decide on the right fit can be really helpful in making sure you find your calling early in your career and are able to live a happier, more fulfilling life.

Here is a slideshow of photos from Aashita's sabbatical so far:


Tell us a bit more about the idea behind Zentopia and what your aim with it is? In three years from now, where do you see yourself and Zentopia?

Through Zentopia, my ambition is to create a thriving culture of sabbaticals globally.

In my part of the world (India), sabbaticals are extremely rare, stigmatized and isolating. But having taken one myself a few years into my advertising career, I believe they can be really helpful both personally and professionally. Through Zentopia, I want to make sabbaticals ‘normal’ and curate a portfolio of purposeful and exciting short-term opportunities that people can take up when on a sabbatical.

My ambition is to focus on creating this culture in India (although the opportunities on the platform are open to non-Indians) and three years from now, across the globe.

The Value of Humility

In one of your blog posts, you talk about starting your sabbatical with a very clear idea of what impact you wanted to have. That didn’t quite work out, what happened?

I became too arrogant. And not in a way you’d typically imagine an arrogant person – rude and dismissive. I was arrogant in the sense that in doing my research and preparation for the organizations I was going to work with, I had made up my mind about what I was going to do and how I was going to do it without meeting with the people who work with the organization and understanding the local context. I was arrogant in subconsciously assuming that I was more qualified to solve their problems because I was more educated. In doing this, not only did I miss out on the years of rich experience the locals brought to the table and their understanding of the local realities, I also ended up alienating them.

"I became too arrogant"

I think while it’s important to do your groundwork before going to work with an organization, it’s even more important to spend time getting to know the staff, the local communities and the nature of problems they are trying to solve to be able to really add value. Reminds me of a Chinese proverb that beautifully summarizes this - “Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. With the best leaders - when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves.”

At Generation Impact, we have a lot of young people who want to make a difference – some of who have a pretty good idea of what kind of difference. What advice would you give young people to avoid doing more harm than good?

Before starting the project, honestly evaluate if what you are going to do is going to make a positive impact. In certain cases, what may seem like ‘social work’ may harm the local communities. E.g. an organization that collects donations to provide shoes to local youth sounds incredible on the face of it. But is it destroying local shoemaking businesses? There are orphanages that accept short-term volunteers. But also several cases of volunteering doing more harm than good because the constantly shifting people give the kids a feeling of abandonment.

"Is what you are doing going to make a positive impact?"

There are many such examples. So think about what impact you’re making.

Once you choose a place where you can make a positive impact, start by closing the barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. My advice would be to stay grounded, form a genuine emotional connect with the people you are working with and spend time understanding their social context.

In recent years, there has been more and more criticism of particularly white, Western volunteers being “White saviors” in what Hans Rosling would categorize as countries with many people on the 1st or 2nd income levels.

What do you think of the concept of “White saviors”, have you had experiences with this term in India?

I have heard of the ‘white saviour’ complex. But I’ve personally come across very few white people who were like that in the organizations I was working with. Most have been sweet, humble, open to new cultures and tended to get along very well with locals.

"The German told him ‘You need to give me a project right away,

My time is expensive'."

I did encounter one 16-year old German volunteer who, on the first day of his volunteering, asked the staff head of the organization for a project to work on. When the staff head told him to spend some time understanding the work they do and speak to people involved in different projects, the German told him ‘You need to give me a project right away, My time is expensive.’

This is the closest I’ve come to seeing a ‘white saviour’.

Do you think volunteers (people on sabbaticals or youth on gap years) should just avoid working in countries and addressing issues they don’t have a cultural background in?

No. By that constraint, even people living in the same country but a different social context shouldn’t volunteer. The answer lies in making an effort to understand the social and cultural background. Volunteers who travel to other countries simply have to put in more time and effort to understand the context than those who come from the same country.

Thank you, Aashita, for talking to us today.

If you want to find out more or get involved with Aashita's project visit: https://www.zentopia.in/homepage

or find her on Facebook:


Feel like taking a sabbatical now?

Stay tuned for more resources on how to plan one!

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