Priya Prakash admits that she doesn’t fully remember the moment when her name was announced as the winner of the 2019 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award. Standing up from her seat in the Royal Albert Hall in London on Dec. 13, she was in such a state of shock that she even forgot to turn around and hug her mother before walking on stage.
"It was a very surreal moment," Prakash told Global Citizen. "It’s one of those moments that I can only look back on through a video to be like, 'I was a part of that.' The award really motivated me and my team because it helped us understand that we’re doing something that’s worthwhile — something that people think is worthwhile."
Prakash is the founder and CEO of HealthSetGo, an organization that integrates technology and health care to empower parents, doctors, schools, and governments to improve the health and lives of children in India. So far, the organization has impacted more than 250,000 students and parents across more than 77 cities through its initiatives, which include in-school medical assessments and health education kits.
As someone who was obese as a child and bullied for her weight, Prakash started HealthSetGo out of a desire to ensure that every child in India could grow up healthy and disease-free.
Since receiving the award last December, the 28-year-old entrepreneur has had to adapt to the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But her goal remains the same: to improve the health and lives of 1 million students by 2023.
"The award really gave us the confidence to dream that big," Prakash said. "As a team, we would’ve never even thought of those numbers. But with the award now, we are going to get there."
With the $250,000 prize money as a source of financial comfort, HealthSetGo has been able to stay afloat during the pandemic, and even expand its team and invest in new projects, Prakash said.
One of the first projects the organization launched in response to COVID-19 was HealthSetGo Academy, a schedule of daily, live, and interactive sessions to engage kids and improve their physical and mental well-being after a full day of online classes.
Conducted by wellness experts, the sessions lead kids through activities like baking, dancing, yoga, storytelling, and arts and crafts. Since April, HealthSetGo has conducted more than 125 of these sessions, with each class engaging hundreds of students. The programming has become so popular that there is even a Facebook group with more than 7,000 members where parents regularly share photos and videos of their kids participating in the sessions.
HealthSetGo has also launched initiatives to help its partner schools plan for safe reopening after lockdown, including a digital platform on which schools can track and monitor their students’ symptoms.
The financing around all of these new projects is coming from the prize money fund, Prakash said.
"A lot of this has been possible because we know that we can invest in these areas right now, thanks to the Global Citizen prize, genuinely," she said. "I don’t think we would’ve been this comfortable coming up with so many new initiatives if it hadn’t been for that."
As for the future of HealthSetGo beyond COVID-19, Prakash has ambitious ideas. She wants to develop a sustainable way to reach children in cities that don’t have access to the internet. She is also excited to get involved in vaccination delivery in schools.
For Prakash, winning the Cisco Youth Leadership Award reinforced in her the belief that children’s health is in fact an essential issue. Now, as COVID-19 puts those with preexisting conditions at higher risk, Prakash thinks that more people have begun to realize that "by investing in health at an early age, they are investing in the future of the country."
"Health is such a neglected thing," she said. "The attitude has always been to cure with medicine, it’s never been about taking accountability and preventing all these diseases in the first place. For us to constantly be talking about this message in India was always such a big fight."
The award has given Prakash the platform and resources to elevate children’s health in her country, and to continue fighting toward the mission of reaching 1 million children by 2023.
Prakash encourages those who have a vision, but lack the resources, to apply for the Cisco Youth Leadership Award.
"It gives you access to a lot of opportunities, a network for life, the resources to expand your vision, and of course a global platform to talk about it," Prakash said. "What else do you want as somebody who wants to change the world? You can’t get bigger or better than this."