Ayush Agarwal is a social entrepreneur and high-school student based in Silicon Valley, California.
At the age of 16, Ayush co-founded ClosingTheDivide, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to battling the digital divide, the technological gap between low-income and high-income families through the donation of devices to low-income families, underprivileged students, and Afghan/Ukrainian refugees.
Founded by Ayush in March 2021, the objective was to provide students with devices to attend virtual learning during the pandemic. Since then, CTD has distributed 712 devices with a donation value of $128,304 and received $64,100 in grant funding. CTD’s initial goal was to give 100 devices to schools by May 2022, but Ayush’s marketing and grant obtainment model allowed CTD to multiply that by seven times, and expand the reached community to Afghan/Ukranian refugees as well, turning CTD into a disaster response organization along with the help to low-income families. In addition, Ayush turned CTD from a Bay Area startup to one that has been replicated in 29 regions globally, generating a mobilization of 160 volunteers closing the digital divide in their respective states. Ayush’s innovation of an organization that mass markets to residents has ensured that not a single old device goes to waste, transforming the lives of thousands of left-behind minorities, students, and refugees of color.
Where did the idea for ClosingTheDivide come from?
My father, working in the Chromebook distribution industry, told me about the thousands of students who could not attend school during the pandemic without the internet or a laptop. This digital divide, I later learned in his AP Environmental Science class, was tied to the issue of e-waste, or high/middle-income families throwing away devices with the release of every new iPhone, in turn polluting the environment, while the underprivileged could not access these same electronics. The intersection of these issues, I realized, could be a revolutionary way to solve both problems by intercepting the devices being thrown away, refurbishing, and donating them to low-income families to provide the underprivileged with technological access.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I like to keep my days short and action-packed. I’d rather have a day that’s 14-16 hours long with 8-10 hours of sleep, which for me is the driving force behind my productivity, than a stretched-out day in which I’m too tired to do anything or my work sees a significant decrease in quality due to a lack of rest. What I don’t like to do is once I’m awake, waste any time, as if I’m going to be awake for less time because of my prioritization of sleep, the time I am awake must be as productive as possible. I’ll wake up around 7 AM, get read and go to school from 8:30 to 4. My school is around 30 minutes away from my house, so both on the way to school and on the drive back, I don’t waste that time and use it to send emails for new partnerships and sponsors (the advantages of living with your parents as a high school junior – someone to drive you everywhere 🙂 I finish my homework in school, so after returning I have about 6 and a half hours to just work on ClosingTheDivide, eat dinner, and spend time with family. So, I’ll work on CTD from 4 to 7, eat from 7 to 7:30, and work some more from 7:30 to 10:30 before retiring. In terms of what I actually do, I’ll usually hop into a quick check-in meeting with every member of Core Admin to see what have been the updates over the past week in terms of grant applications and marketing and from there, advising on future tasks. I’ll then check in with each of the branches as well and go through the same process with them, focusing more on how they are reaching out the community and distributing devices more than anything else. Finally, I focus my efforts on my own outreach – reaching out to new partners, sponsors, filling out grant applications, etc.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I believe delegation is a key factor in being successful in bringing ideas to life. I used to be that one guy who tried to do everything by himself for personal satisfaction, whether it be in a group project or a sports game. Over time, through managing CTD, I realized the importance of what my Boy Scout leader had been telling me to focus on for years – the concept of delegation. The reason this concept is so difficult is not because of the delegator trying to think of tasks and distribute them among people, but rather because of how it required me to put that personal satisfaction, which was really just ego, aside for the entire team. Once I started to do this, bringing ideas to life became significantly easier, as delegating the tasks required to make that idea a reality to 100+ allowed me to make significant strides towards that goal rather than attempting to do it entirely by myself. I learned to bring ideas to life simply by recognizing that I have a team of people for a reason.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited that the issue that I champion, the digital divide, is growing in awareness on an exponential scale because of the impact that it had on students during the pandemic. People are now realizing how large of a problem this is, and legislation is proposed to solve it. In California, there are more than 10+ bills in the State Capitol dedicated to revamping high-speed broadband in the state, gifting high-quality devices to low-income families, and more. I’m hopeful that over time, through the work of leaders, broadband and the internet will not be the only aspects of technology that are democratized, but rather renewable technologies, smart cities, college-level STEM education, technology jobs, and more will overtime reach the underprivileged and people of color.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’ve created a sleep schedule for myself that is, in my opinion, close to flawless. There is a huge stereotype that entrepreneurs wake up at 5 AM and sleep at 2 AM, or sometimes even frequently pull all-nighters. After all, they are only so successful because they are always grinding, right? WRONG – If you take away one thing from reading this, I would recommend doing what I do and making sleep one of your utmost priorities. I sleep at 10:30 PM every night and get up at 7 AM every morning – even on Friday nights and weekend mornings. While that level of consistency does require discipline, not only is it far more healthy than the classic two-hours of sleep entrepreneur, but also it does wonders for your productivity. You realize that you no longer feel tired because you are sleeping and waking up at different times every day meaning your body cannot adapt. This allows you to on net be far more productive than those getting two hours of sleep but working all the time, because while they might be working more, you are being far more efficient.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to ensure that I am slowing down and making decisions with deliberation, really assessing the pros and cons of them before just delving right into the process and assuming that I have to think of an answer right away. I think sleeping over large decisions is incredibly important in that there are dozens of factors that could be impacting you externally at the time you make your decision.
There’s that common saying, “never shop with a hungry stomach.” I think that applies massively in terms of company decisions as well. Do not make a decision when you are stressed out because of personal problems or because you are trying to rush to get something done. Always feed your hungry stomach in the sense of getting that problem out of your head or even waiting until it is resolved completely before making that decision.
I could guarantee my young self looking back at it, that the consequences of me making a great decision a few days late would have been far less severe than the consequences of me making an ill-informed decision on time.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
STEM Education should be coupled with a strong humanities discipline as well to create a person that not only has hard skills, but also the soft skills of understanding other cultures through history and the ability to communicate with people through English courses.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Checking back in on your co-workers about how certain events for them went is the surefire way to build relationships and trust between you and your colleagues/employees.
For example, if your college skips a meeting to take his son to a basketball game, the next time you see them asking about the game allows you to illustrate to them that you care and thought enough about them to remember what went on in their life.
I do this repeatedly with my organization, and it is particularly beneficial because everyone is a high-schooler so they constantly have something or the other going on. Asking them how their SAT or debate tournament went not only creates a friendly work environment where everyone is friends and not just there to get the work done and leave, but also motivates your team to work harder because they believe that they are recognized and a vital member of the community.
Doing this over and over will allow you to become a well-liked person and one that everyone is willing to help out.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Always striving to create partnerships that are long-term as opposed to one-and-done deals is the easiest strategy that I’ve used to grow ClosingTheDivide and that I believe is the best method to grow a business in general.
For example, Welcome.US is an organization that our non-profit has worked with extensively. Our non-profit strives to close the digital divide by getting those without access to technology online, and Welcome.US helps situate the Afghan refugees coming to the United States with resources, shelter, and job opportunities. So, we started donating devices to the organization so they could distribute them to Afghan refugees.
Instead of just stopping at a one-time donation. we strived to create a long-term partnership and started donating devices to the organization on a monthly basis, issuing press releases regarding the partnership, bringing in other non-profits into the collaboration to increase impact even more, and in general just take steps to make this a more influential partnership than a one-time donation.
I would say by far forming these long-term relationships such as the one with Welcome.US is how our non-profit has expanded.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The largest failure I had was the first attempt I made to start the construction of computer labs in developing countries to not only close the digital divide between low-income families and the rich in the US but the more general trend of the gap between developed and developing economies.
However, this ended up being extremely difficult due to regulations on international money transfers, lack of a credible on-the-ground partner team, the money involved in the construction of the actual building, and more bureaucratic hurdles.
However, over time I realized that this could all be solved quite easily. The easiest way to construct these overseas labs would be to provide financial grants to local organizations on the ground in these places to buy devices and utilize assistance from our additional volunteers and experts for setup. Through this process, we are currently creating computer labs in areas such as Malawi, Nigeria, India, Egypt, Uganda, and more.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
In this post-COVID economy, many people are struggling to adjust to coming back to work in person after two years of being able to take care of their kids, pets, home, etc by themselves at home. Any business related to helping out in any of these fields, such as petsitting/babysitting, homecare on a mass scale, etc, will be extremely profitable I think at least for the next few months because of the huge spike in demand and while people are still figuring logistics of getting back to work out.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently spent $100 on pants marked as clearance at Macy’s. I’ve become a huge fan of buying things on clearance, because in this instance, due to pants being offseason and summer clothes such as shorts being the staple, I was able to buy some pants for more than half the price. I would recommend everyone follow this strategy as much as they can.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I’ve talked about the importance of networking, so let’s continue with that theme. I’d say Linkedin is a software that I’ve used to a great degree for productivity in terms of making connections, as while face-to-face connections are important and can serve to deepen individual relationships, social media relationships allow for mass-scale ones with people all over the world. That being said, I use it in a way that a) ensures I am not degrading my own self-esteem by keeping in the back of my mind that achievements on the app are in many cases exaggerated and b) ensures I don’t get locked in a wormhole and end up spending hours on the app.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
How to Win Friends and Influence People is quite a staple/cliche, but the lessons it teaches I believe cannot be understated. Networking and talking to people are the two most important factors in determining whether your business will fail or succeed, and this book gives you practical tips that you can apply to real-world conversations immediately to build better relationships and use those towards growing your business.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
– African Proverb
- The single most important key to succeeding in your entrepreneurial ventures is networking and talking to people.
- The more you care about your co-workers and illustrate to them that you care, the more they will be invested in the success of the organization/company.
- Striving to create partnerships that last for the long-term instead of being one and done will take your company to the next level – guaranteed.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.