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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Spamming for a cause

    Ray Umashankar, the assistant dean of the college of engineering, works for the ASSET Foundation, which gives training to victims of sex trafficking in India.
    Ray Umashankar, the assistant dean of the college of engineering, works for the ASSET Foundation, which gives training to victims of sex trafficking in India.

    While the majority of spam e-mails are dedicated to duping recipients out of their money, one family with strong UA ties is committed to putting the mass e-mail technology to good use.

    Ramon Umashankar, an assistant dean in the College of Engineering, is spamming for charity.

    It all began when his daughter, UA alumna Nita Umashankar, took a trip to India before she accepted admission into a PhD program, he said.

    “”When she came back after a year, she dropped this bombshell that my wife and I were totally unprepared for,”” Ramon said. “”She said of all the people that she worked with, the children of sex workers and girls rescued from trafficking, they were the most marginalized.””

    While there were already non-governmental organizations in place that taught girls skills such as bag making and sewing, the Umashankars wanted to take a different approach, he said.

    “”They were all fine except they didn’t produce the kind of income that would motivate these people to get out of the trade, or not even go into the trade, because there was no way the incomes were comparable,”” he said.

    The Umashankars said they considered forming a non-profit organization that would teach conversational English and information technology skills, which they thought could lead to jobs in the IT industry.

    “”India had already established itself as a major IT powerhouse,”” Ramon said. “”Every company in the world was sending work to India.””

    Around that time, he saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the chairman of Microsoft India.

    “”I spammed him,”” he said. “”I said, you know, this is what we are thinking of doing, and I just want verification that if these people had the training … that there is a lot of potential to hire these students.””

    The chairman e-mailed him back and said “”absolutely.””

    To capitalize on that, the Umashankars formed ASSET, which stands for Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology. Through this program students are taught conversational English and IT skills.

    Over the past two years 120 students have been placed in jobs after completing the program. There are currently 439 students enrolled in the program, Ramon said.

    “”We cannot wait for the government to solve these kinds of problems,”” he said. “”The whole idea is that if I or anyone else, because of what we do, saves one girl from this, it is worth it. So it is the involvement of individuals that can really solve the problem.””

    Since Ramon had his first successful spamming experience, he has continued to spam.

    While it was Nita’s idea to do something about the sex trafficking in India, the spamming was “”completely his idea,”” she said.

    Ramon admits that spam is “”kind of an ugly word,”” but clarifies that “”it’s not just spamming blindly … It always is addressed to a specific individual.””

    “”All my spare time goes to research … I approach them (entrepreneurs), saying ‘you have become very successful and you can also help these children become successful in life,'”” he said. “”The response has been very good.””

    Ramon turned to spamming because conventional modes of fundraising took too long.

    He said he may use an unconventional way to seek funds and support for the program, but the Umashankars said they feel that their work is worth it.

    “”Sex workers are just poor, abused, have a lack of education, and I think being raised by such a strong mother, I felt that I was so privileged … so I really had a soft spot in my heart for them,”” Nita said.

    Karna Walter, a UA professor currently teaching a course on human trafficking, said it’s difficult to estimate how many people are trafficked because they can’t all volunteer to be counted.

    “”The problem, even … if you accept the lower estimates, … is still massive,”” she said, “”Especially because many Americans believe slavery ended with the abolition of the slave trade.””

    Still, the Umashankars said they are confident their work is making a difference.

    “”The biggest thing is that spreading awareness and that these issues in countries like India and China, a lot of people talk about the development … but these are also very poor countries, and so the bottom of the pyramid is not growing,”” Nita said. “”We have huge social problems.””

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