Features / charity

Talking Passions: Vashsti Seth

By adam chisman, Monday Oct 17, 2016

Vashti Seth founded the Bristol-based charity, Deki, after the sudden death of her father. He left her a gift of £2000 along with a message to do something special with the money. This, along with meeting the Tibetan refugee Deki Dolkha her father had sponsored, inspired her to set up Deki in 2008. Since then it’s grown in size and transformed the lives of thousands of people. Adam met up with Vashti recently to hear more about her remarkable story. 

Adam Chisman (TP). “As a young girl what did you want to be when you grew up and how did you get to where you are now?”

Vashti Seth (V). “I don’t think I had any idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I don’t think I had any idea of what I wanted to do my entire life until this came along. I did really badly at school and left with hardly anything, a couple of GCSEs at age 15 with no prospects. I was not the most studious of school girls, so I don’t think my career path was mapped out for me like it might have been for other people. I wasn’t career-minded.

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When I left school I spent a lot of time traveling. I traveled all around Asia, spent a lot of time in India, a lot of time in Australia. I spent more time out of the country than in the country, and that’s where my love of the developing world came from, and my passion to help those that are less fortunate than we are in this country. I then ended up going to Australia and staying there for about five years.

During that time I decided that I did want a career path. I think I was about 23, and I decided that I wanted to be a documentary film-maker, and I was gonna travel around the world making documentaries about really inspiring and interesting things and it was gonna be the most amazing career ever. So I did a course in film-making and started off as a runner on a movie, and then quickly progressed. I was production managing big commercials for Pepsi and Pizza Hut, big names like that, and I even worked on Home & Away for a bit. So my idea of doing documentary film-making and doing life changing stuff kind of turned into quite a commercial thing. It was fun, and it was quite a glamorous lifestyle that I was living in Sydney, but it wasn’t necessarily something that I felt really passionate about. I loved doing it because I loved the industry I was working in. It was fun fun fun, but it wasn’t fulfilling me on a soul level I suppose.

I moved back from Australia and I was living in Bristol, still working in the film industry, and that’s when I got the phone call to say that my Dad wasn’t very well, and everything kind of changed after that.

After my Dad died, I was left some money to do something good with. I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. I traveled through India on my way back to the UK and met up with Deki Dolkha, who was a Tibetan refugee that my Dad had sponsored from about the age of four. She was in a really bad position where she had some literacy, but she wasn’t in school any more getting an education, and didn’t have any opportunities. I guess that’s what inspired me to want to make a difference to her life.

I was sending her money which was totally disempowering, because she was then relying on me and my family to send money. I wanted to do something that would allow her to stand up on her own two feet and not rely on handouts any more. It was at that time that I came across micro-finance, and the whole concept of small business loans. I mean, now I’d call them a start-up loan. We call them micro-loans because that’s what they’re known as in some places, but essentially it’s a start-up loan. I just thought that was a fantastic way for people to be able to help themselves out of poverty and give them a step up in life without them relying on aid, and having the dignity of knowing that they’re doing it for themselves and they’re paying the money back.

I read everything I could find about micro-finance, and Muhammad Yunus, who’s like the Godfather of it. He’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in the micro-finance in Bangladesh. I immersed myself in all of that stuff and then thought right, this is how I can best help Deki. I then wanted to look at the way that charity works in general, and I kind of thought that even that didn’t seem right. That people were just giving money, It was just going into a pot and they didn’t even know what was happening with it. So I wanted to turn that around so that people who were getting involved in supporting the charity would have some transparency of where the money was going. They’d be able to have ownership over where it was going, and that’s where the crowdfunding idea came from, and peer to peer. So you lend money directly to someone else in another country, and that money is 100 per cent going to that person. We don’t take any cut out of it. We’re not pretending it’s going to that person and really it’s going to another pot. I really thought that was a great way of creating a charity, and we were the first organisation in the UK to do anything like that, which was very exciting.”.

TP. “It’s a very inspirational story, and that’s why I loved it so much.”

V. “I then thought right, this is what I want to do, and as an alumni of UWE I went in there and said I’ve got this crazy idea, and they really got behind me and helped me. I had no idea about doing a start-up at that time and they really helped me put together a business plan and all of the stuff that needed to be included in that at the time. I felt really out of my depth but they were really great at holding my hand through that, and off the back of that business plan gave me a grant of £8,000, which is what I used to set up the first Deki website, along with the money that my Dad had left.

We made the first loan in 2009 and I had a baby in 2010, so it’s been my second baby and has grown along with my daughter. Then that Christmas of 2009 I got a piece by Lucy Siegle in the Observer in the innovators column, and that’s when everything changed and we went from friends and family and lending a couple of thousand a month to really ramping up. It was just me part time until about three years ago, and then we started employing people properly and are now a team of five, and things are going through the roof in terms of our growth.”

TP. “Amazing! Getting stronger and stronger every day. Well just briefly, because you were inspired by your father, and part of the reason I started Talking Passions was because of the death of my uncle, so I just wanted to ask what was your father like when he was alive?”

V. “He was great. He was definitely an inspirational guy and he had a lot of zest for life. He lived in Australia and he ran a music festival that he’d set up himself. It was a world music festival so he basically got people from all over the world to come to a tiny rural village in Australia to play music. He was a drummer in a band and he had a boat that he used to sail a lot. He was full of life. He was also a Tibetan Buddhist, hence why he supported the Tibetan refugee Deki in northern India.”.

TP. “What a wonderful character. So Deki.org.uk is the result of his inspirational gift and message to you, and what a wonderful gift you’ve given the world. You’ve already told us the concept of micro-loans, and it’s 100 per cent transparent and everything goes directly to those who need it.What are some of the changes you’ve made in their lives with the money?”

Some of the kids helped by Deki’s start-up loans and training schemes

V. “Well I’ve just got back from Ghana actually, I was just there in July and it was crazy. I was going into villages and they do this amazing dancing when you arrive. They were saying things like, before Deki came along most of the children in the villages weren’t going to school. They would be living on one meal a day, so they’d either choose to have that in the morning or in the afternoon. They couldn’t afford healthcare cards which cost about £20 a year, and that’s the equivalent of buying into the national health, so once you’ve got it you can go to a medical centre. Prior to having a medical card you’d be sent away, and you would have to rely on local untrained doctors, with a lot of it based on myths and things like that. There were a lot more deaths.

In one village we went to they were singing these songs and saying before Deki came along our children didn’t go to school, now Deki is here we’re happy because our bellies are full. So they are the main things, and a medical card was something that really got to me. All those people that were being turned away from medical centres if they couldn’t afford it. £20 a year is nothing, and less for children.

Interestingly one of the things that came out of it is, where we work in Ghana we work with a lot of crops. Lots of the children were really malnourished and the people were saying that now they’re able to grow much better crops and have much better food, and the children are healthier and don’t have to go to the medical centres quite so often.”

TP. “Wow. It’s such a small amount of money.”

V. “Yeah. So a lot of the loans we were giving them in Ghana were as little as £30, but on average they’re about £150. They will be used to train people for three months on how to better farm their land and how to diversify the crops, what crops to plant and when, and then the rest of the money is used to pay for labour so they can dig more land.

We also do a thing called micro-fertilization because they couldn’t afford fertilizer before, and now they’re trained in using the smallest amount of fertilizer possible. So you’ll be generating the soil and also get really good crops out of it. That’s the main thing, and the training is as important as the money. They didn’t know how to do these things so they’re trained, and once they finish the training they’re given the money so they can go ahead and do it.”

TP. “That’s amazing! Sustainability, that’s what we like. Well you’ve picked up a couple of accolades recently too. Last year you were awarded Third Sector Director of the Year by the South West Institute of Directors, and this year you were awarded Woman of the Year by the Bath Chronicle and Bristol Post Women In Business Awards.”

V. “And the year before, in 2014 I was given an honorary MBA from UWE for my entrepreneurship and commitment to communities.”

TP. “Fantastic. How does it feel to know that people really appreciate all the hard work you’re doing?”

V. “Well at first I was like, really?! Me?! Laughs. I don’t think I quite understood. It just feels like such an honour that people appreciate the work that we’ve done, and it has been really hard work, but I guess I just feel really grateful that that’s been acknowledged. It’s always such an honour to win these awards and every time we do, or every time we get some press it makes a massive difference to our lending, because more people find out about us.”

TP. “Brilliant. I know you’ve also got a new project that’s just started, a new campaign to change 10,000 lives in 40 days. Could you tell me a little bit about that?”

V. “I set myself a crazy challenge. Basically, when I started Deki I didn’t have a lot, I started on a real shoestring with a couple of thousand pounds from my Dad and then the money from UWE. It was such a small amount of money to build a whole crowdfunding website on. When I was in Ghana I think I was realising how little money some people have and I wanted to put myself in their shoes again, so I was thinking about how I could do that.

I was inspired by a guy called Bruno whose our ‘Richard Branson’ of Malawi, who started with a £200 loan. He used to sit on the side of the road selling vegetables, just as many as he could afford to sell. He would try and make a living off that, and his children weren’t going to school, and they really struggled to put food on the table. We gave him a loan and he opened a grocery store selling sugar and salt and all sorts of things within the community.

After a while he extended that to a barber shop on the side, and then a couple of years later he then went on to build a restaurant, and after the restaurant he bought a motor for his boat and created a fishing business. So I thought wow, check that guy out! That’s like trading up isn’t it, and working your way up. So the concept of my challenge is inspired by him, and I’ll getting a Deki pin badge and I’ve got 40 days to trade it up into as much money as I possibly can. I might go and swap it for a bottle of wine, and then swap the wine for a restaurant voucher, and then swap the voucher, and in the end I want to have something that’s worth tens of thousands of pounds that we’ll then auction off on eBay, and we’ll use that to be able to change our next 10,000 lives.

That launched on Thursday, October 6 and the final day of the 40 days is November 10. We’re going to be going crazy on social media and we’ve got a whole page on our website so we’re hoping to get some good press out of it. Anyone who wants to get involved should just get online and have a look.”

TP. “Finally then, what else do you have in store for us over the next few months?”

V. “So we’re just having to grow what we’re doing. For example this month we lent £65,000 and that was 50 per cent more than we’ve ever lent in a month before. We’re growing extremely fast which means that we’ve got the nice challenge of then going out and finding enough people to lend to. It’s always a balancing act. Usually we’ve got more people than money to lend to but the tables have turned and we’ve gone the other way, so we’re signing up new field partners. We’ve got a new field partner IADES who started in Togo in September and we’ve got another field partner that we’re going to be signing up in Tanzania just before Christmas, so we’re looking to grow on that side as well to make sure we’ve got enough people to lend to.”

If you’d like to get in touch with Vashti and help Deki then please don’t hesitate to contact them via Facebook, Instagram and of course Deki.org.uk

Vashti and her team are making real change at ground level and really value all your help and support. Thank you. #deki #tradeitlikebruno 

Talking Passions is a Bristol-based interview series that hopes to inspire your creative side by interviewing passionate individuals in Bristol’s arts and music scenes. The driving force behind the series is a belief that within each of us is a creative soul with untold capabilities. It’s not always easy to follow your dreams and try to make it work, and it should be celebrated!

Started by local journalist Adam Chisman, and with links to various collectives in the city including Liquifyah, The Coconut Collective, as well as Irish online magazine Ceol Caint, Talking Passions comes in two weekly parts, with brand new written interviews on talkingpassions.com and Bristol24/7 and audio interviews on BCFM’s The Bristol Music Show and Soundcloud.

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