FirstLeap Programme (UMEED), India

  • Date published:
    14 April 2023

Programme Key Information

Programme TitleFirstLeap
Implementing OrganizationUmeed (Hope in the Urdu language)
Language of InstructionHindi, Telugu and English
Date of Inception1 August 2019
Programme PartnersMajor partners included Roots College, Loop Education Foundation, Learning Resource Centre, TopChop, Snacker Street, The Conscious Store, Period Hub, and Vaachya
FundingThe private sector was the main source of funding for this programme. Major donors included UnLtd Hyderabad, (a UnLtd India chapter), BalaVikasa International Center (BVIC), the U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad, and individual donors.
Annual Programme CostsUS$13,000-20,000
Annual Programme Cost per LearnerUS$130-200

Country Context and Background

Traditionally, Indian society is organized along patriarchal lines and women in traditional families are exposed to constant reminders of their economic value and social purpose, which reinforce patriarchal norms and gender inequality (Hazarika 2011; Vishwanath & Palakonda, 2011; Singh et al., 2021; Boudet et al., 2013).

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, India ranks in 114th place, with a female literacy rate of 59.7 per cent. Additionally, it ranks 151 out of 156 countries for women’s economic participation and opportunity. The estimated income of women in India is a fifth of that earned by men, a fact directly correlated to a recent decrease in female participation in the labour force, which was found to have fallen from 24.8 per cent to 22.3 per cent since publication of the previous report (World Economic Forum, 2021).

This lack of participation in the labour force is a result of various economic and social factors which interact in a complex fashion at both the household and macro levels. Based on global evidence, educational attainment, fertility rates and the age of marriage, economic growth/cyclical effects, and urbanization, as well as social norms determining the role of women, are all likely to be key factors (ILO, 2014). Despite the rise of international funding for women’s empowerment and the flourishing of the Indian economy, which has started to pave the way for improvements in local services that target gender gaps (Kilby, 2011), the participation of women in the labour force has seen a steady decline.

Against this backdrop, the organization Umeed was founded in 2015 by two teachers from a public school in a low-income community in Hyderabad, the capital city of the state of Telangana. Its main aim was to promote women’s empowerment by training them to create and sell simple eco-friendly newspaper handicrafts. The women were also given exposure to life skills such as planning, budgeting and teamwork. The organization was founded as a response to another complex social issue – child labour in India. Children from the school were regularly absent and, upon investigation, the founders discovered they were engaged in child labour in order to alleviate financial difficulties at home, while women were expected to continue with domestic chores rather than do paid work outside the home.

Hyderabad has an approximate population of 7.6 million and, in the past decade, has emerged as an IT hub (Hyderabad District, 2020). The literacy gap between men and women in the city has been 16.6 per cent since 2011 (Census 2011; 2020). In the community served by the school, women are bound to their roles as caregivers and their activities are limited by time spent doing domestic chores, resulting in their financial dependence on male members of the family. With the aim of providing services to women and expanding their levels of influence from the household to political, economic, and social arenas, Umeed initiated its first programme, Karigari (training in making handicrafts) in 2015. Four years after the Karigari programme was implemented, many learners have entered the job market. In 2019, the FirstLeap programme was initiated as a strategy to enhance women’s employability skills in Hyderabad.

Programme Overview and Development



Figure 1: Overview of the First Leap programme (source: Umeed, 2021).




FirstLeap is a basic training programme that helps low-skilled women develop basic literacy and functional skills to improve their job readiness. The programme includes three main components (figure 1): (1) skill development (functional skills, basic literacy and numeracy, etc.); (2) mindset development (self-awareness, self-worth, self-love, respect); (3) exposure (physical and mental health, rights and duties, digital and financial literacy). Over a period of two months, learners are taught to build relevant skills and mindsets through participating and engaging in workshops and training.

Umeed partners with various organizations that support women’s empowerment and participation in the labour force, providing learners with the skills and attitudes needed to succeed in the job market. To prepare learners for the world of work, Umeed first assesses their existing knowledge and skills, and identifies the training required to enable them to meet industry standards. Umeed’s curriculum is designed to help bridge this gap in skills. In addition, Umeed partners with local entities such as grocery store chains, schools, large retail organizations, and pharmacies, to establish career pathways and access to employment opportunities after completion of the programme.

Aim and Objectives

The key objectives of the FirstLeap programme are:

  • 1. To build employable skills with a strong focus on bridging the gap between women’s skills and aptitude, and local industry requirements.
  • 2. To build self-awareness about values that support women’s personal and professional growth.
  • 3. To develop women’s knowledge and awareness of fundamental rights, employment rights and duties, along with an understanding of how to apply them in their personal and professional lives.

Target population

The FirstLeap programme aims to reach 100 women every year, targeting low-skilled women aged 18 to 35 from low-income communities in Hyderabad. Most of the women are likely to be housewives or engaged in part-time money-making activities such as tailoring or mehendi/henna design. The beneficiary communities include Yousufguda, Maqta, Borabanda, Krishna Nagar, Attapur, Kishan Bagh, Sabzi Mandi Karwan, and Hafeezpet, all in Hyderabad (see figure 2).



Figure 2. Areas served by Umeed (source: Google Maps).




Programme Implementation



Figure 3. A mathematics class in action.




The programme is implemented over a two-month period. Three-hour sessions are held six days per week over the course of the programme. The first cohort of the programme had 15 learners and was conducted face-to-face. The second cohort also had 15 learners and was conducted online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In alignment with the three main pathways described above, the sessions combine both theoretical and practical learning, and include one literacy/numeracy/functional skills class and one immersive thematic workshop. For instance, after a basic numeracy class on counting numbers and addition/ subtraction, learners will experience the practical application of the skill through a field visit to a store, where the sales manager takes them through the billing process.

Umeed’s team consists of two co-founders and two full-time team members responsible for operations and curriculum development. A team of six interns from reputable fellowships and universities around India are also involved in assisting operations. Moreover, staff and alumni from the local alumni network Teach for India (TFI), part of the Teach for All network, participate in the programme by providing support in curriculum creation and course facilitation. FirstLeap has a student-facilitator ratio of 10:1.

The primary source of funding for the programme comes from private incubators and accelerator programmes. In the past, FirstLeap has also received seed funding from national and international NGOs such as UnLtd Hyderabad, Bala Vikasa International Center, and individual private donations. Other sources of funding come from the Karigari handicrafts programme, employee engagement activities with Umeed’s corporate partners, and Umeed’s fundraiser activities. These funds are used to support day-to-day programme operations and implementations. In addition, guest speakers, facilitators, and subject matter experts usually work voluntarily to provide additional support and assistance to learners.

Participants in the first cohort of the programme paid 1,100 Indian Rupees (INR) in two instalments comprising 200 INR for registration and 900 INR for training sessions. The fee was used to cover the costs of learning materials, learners’ stationery kits, and refreshments. FirstLeap’s second cohort was taught online and free of charge.

Teaching and Learning Approaches and Methodologies

At the beginning of the programme, FirstLeap facilitators conduct a Beginning of Programme (BOP) assessment in order to identify participants’ learning needs and plan the curriculum. This assessment includes survey questions on values and mindsets, basic literacy and numeracy skills, awareness about personal grooming (e.g. dress codes and personal presentation at work), goal-setting and prioritization, teamwork and collaboration, negotiation, financial literacy, work ethics, labour laws, and digital literacy (Umeed, n.d.b.).

Basing its approach on the outcome of the BOP assessment, FirstLeap applies a two-step strategy to curriculum development and implementation: 1) key components of elementary education in terms of both content and delivery style (e.g. structure of learning in a classroom setting) to address the absence of formal education; 2) exposure to content/situations/speakers to build job readiness.

To address the range of knowledge among learners, facilitators provide extra support for those with lower skills levels, and encourage those with more advanced skills to support their peers. This practice reinforces the spirit of women supporting women. For instance, during the Basic workplace communicative English sessions, facilitators often conduct an activity in which learners introduce themselves to one another in English. Learners who are more fluent in English will assist their peers in forming sentences or prompting them with the correct word/phrase.



Figure 4. A learner presenting her work in class.




FirstLeap draws its teaching/learning approach from the concepts of constructivism, andragogy, and the gradual release of responsibility methodology. The teaching process also reflects the inference and inquiry-based learning methodology.

Applying constructivism and andragogy’s principles regarding prior knowledge and experience (Dagar and Yadav, 2016; Knowles, 1972), the teaching process builds on what learners already know. For example, during the session on fear and courage, learners are encouraged to share past experiences of facing a difficult situation and what they did to overcome it.

Furthermore, FirstLeap implements the gradual release of responsibility methodology. Through the guidance of the facilitators, the learners gradually reach a point at which they can take complete ownership of a learning activity, including responsibility for self-monitoring (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983). The teaching/learning process includes four steps: learning new knowledge or skills (supported by the facilitator), guided practice, collaborative learning, and independent work. For example, in a numeracy class focusing on calculating percentages and discounts, a facilitator could employ the I do. (new skill/knowledge learning driven by the facilitator), We do.(guided practice and collaborative learning), You do (independent practice) approach. Facilitators first model how to solve the problem, then partner with learners to work through some example questions together and, finally, learners are asked to solve the problem independently.

FirstLeap also applies the exposure approach and the inference and inquiry-based learning methodology. Learners can visit different industries, analyse case studies, and listen to talks given by experts (see figure 6). To help with learning, facilitators will ask questions and encourage learners to draw conclusions from what they have observed and experienced (see textboxes for the examples).

For example, as part of the values and mindset component, facilitators first present a textbook example and encourage learners to start a discussion. Building on these conversations, facilitators can address the topics of conflict and conflict management. To teach skill-building, facilitators first introduce the relevant skills and concepts to learners. During a field visit exposure, learners are asked to pay special attention to how items are standardized in a particular company. Afterwards, facilitators lead discussions on participants’ observations to reinforce learnings.

Finally, FirstLeap assumes an inter-cultural negotiation approach by encouraging learners to define their boundaries, offering alternative ways in which to deal with any dilemmas they face in their interpersonal relationships.

Additional alternative classes are held to meet the needs of women who have diverse spiritual and cultural beliefs. For example, Muslim women in India want to keep wearing hijabs in the workplace and they prefer to stay at home during menstrual cycles. Facilitators will lead alternative classes on discussions around the available menstrual hygiene products. The programme also invites community leaders from representative sectors to share their experiences of addressing emerging issues such as work/life balance.



Figure 5. Learners during a field visit to a retail outlet.




Programme Content (Curriculum) and Teaching Materials

The programme curriculum is developed by subject specialists from national education associations, including Teach for India and Young India Fellowship, and content specialists from educational organizations such as Firki and Teach for India. Each component of the curriculum encompasses themes based on the results of learner assessments and industry demand, as well as a contextual adaptation of Sicinski’s (2008-2021) self-worth framework for the mindset component. In addition, FirstLeap addresses the entry barriers that might prevent women from participating in and completing the programme by involving male members such as fathers, husbands and children in some of the sessions, and including discussions on women’s rights in the curriculum.

The following table illustrates the topics that each core component encompasses:



Table 1. Curriculum components and themes.




FirstLeap’s learning resources include the following teaching materials:

  • 1. Learning material on self-worth, which was adapted from Sicinski (2008-2021) (see figure 7).
  • 2. Bank forms, withdrawal forms and demand draft forms, for financial literacy.
  • 3. A ‘River of life’ activity, which helps participants understand themselves and others in the team. During this activity, learners take 20 minutes to draw a river and to mark highlights of their life along the river (positive and negative experience). Then, learners present each others’ ‘rivers’, and reflect on how some rivers are more curved than others, but none of them is straight. The analogy shows the flowing character of life between challenges and achievements and deconstructing the understanding of it as flat or static.
  • 4. Formal letter forms, leave requests, résumé templates for Basic English. 5. Skill India government programme material for digital literacy. These resources align with the standards of the National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology from the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, Government of India. 6. Labour laws from the Government of Telangana, India. 7. Teaching-learning material for elementary/primary maths, which includes the number line, fractions, decimals and percentages, discounts, and conversions of weights and measures (see picture 8).



Figure 7. Self-worth learning resource sample.
Figure 8. Numeracy learning task.




Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Recruitment of facilitators is done through word of mouth, social media posts, and notices posted on hiring portals. Facilitators for literacy and numeracy classes are recruited locally. Facilitators who teach specific skills such as digital or financial literacy, work ethics or communication are recruited from industry according to their areas of expertise.

The minimum requirements for facilitators include knowledge of the local language and context, subject matter expertise with the requisite academic credentials, and seven to eight years of field experience including lesson planning. Some non-negotiable values for a facilitator, which are assessed during the interview process, include a non-judgemental attitude, empathy, patience, and a holistic approach towards women’s inclusion.

Upon selection, facilitators attend an orientation training workshop for a month depending on their needs and learning curve. Training covers several components such as goal setting, lesson planning (including diverse instructional approaches and learner context), lesson material preparation, and monitoring and evaluation of learning.

Enrolment of Learners

Former programme graduates are encouraged to promote the programme among other potential learners. Those interested in the programme join a WhatsApp group managed by FirstLeap, where information about the programme is shared with former and potential learners. Additionally, parents learn about the programme through word of mouth at their children’s schools.

There are usually no entry requirements for learners. However, during the pandemic, when the programme was delivered online, a phone and Wi-Fi/internet connection were required. Before the pandemic, learners would usually go to the training site to register for the programme (see figure 9). During the pandemic, registration was done through Google Forms.



Figure 9. Registration of learners on site.




Assessment of Learning Outcomes

The assessment of learners is based on the three curriculum components (functional skills, values and mindset, and exposure). Learners are also assessed on their attendance, punctuality and classroom participation. At the end of the programme, FirstLeap issues a performance report to individual students (Umeed, n.d.c.), which includes their grades for each curriculum component, class performance, any company that shows interest in hiring them, and notes on their strengths and values.

Assessment tools include results from the BOP assessment and End of Programme (EOP) assessment. For assessing the mindset component, learners take a pre and post-test assessment of the adapted version of the Self-Esteem Scale for Women (SESW, Kapadia and Verma, 2000)(see Endnote 2). This approach allows facilitators to compare learners’ learning outcomes against their baselines. The following strategies are also taken into consideration when assessing learning outcomes:

  • a) Self-assessment activities These are formative in nature and conducted throughout the programme.
  • b) Practical assessments These are also formative assessments and comprise hands-on tasks in which learners apply what they have learned during the sessions. For instance, learners will be asked to participate in mock interviews before attending job interviews with programme partners.
  • c) Assignments These are summative assessments, and include the worksheets that need to be completed at home after a particular concept has been taught during the sessions. After their submission, learners can self-assess their assignments based on answers provided by the facilitators.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation is done internally via ongoing assessment to ensure the programme is relevant and achieves its goal. The monitoring process begins with a review of the curriculum before each cohort starts, and any necessary adjustments are made accordingly. This allows the programme team to ensure the curriculum can meet new learners’ needs according to their BOP assessment results, as described above.

Monitoring and evaluation is done internally via ongoing assessment to ensure the programme is relevant and achieves its goal. The monitoring process begins with a review of the curriculum before each cohort starts, and any necessary adjustments are made accordingly. This allows the programme team to ensure the curriculum can meet new learners’ needs according to their BOP assessment results, as described above.

Engagement of learners is monitored daily by tracking class attendance, punctuality, participation, and assignment completion through various methods of record-keeping. To increase class participation, learners are given a token each time they make contributions to the classes based on the frequency and quality of their participations. At the end of the programme, learners with the highest number of tokens receive an acknowledgement before all their peers, family members and the programme team.


The programme encountered various challenges/risks during the implementing process. Among these, building a relationship with the community and gaining acceptance, and developing an engaging and relevant curriculum to improve the retention of learners, were the most significant.

  • 1. Community mobilization: Since the aim of the programme is to improve the economic and social well-being of women, and their ability to make choices for themselves, there was a lot of initial resistance from the community. To gain their acceptance, Umeed worked on building rapport with key stakeholders, working with a large sample of the community, and creating multiple reference points.
  • 2. Curriculum development: Challenges such as misalignment of curriculum rigour, differences in learning capabilities, unfamiliarity, and safety concerns with classroom learning and field visits, led to low retention rates. Umeed has taken steps to create multiple assessments, hire additional trainers, and adopt multiple instructional planning strategies for ensuring customized and experiential learning.

Programme Impacts and Benefits

Benefits for learners

FirstLeap learners are employment-ready, and have access to suitable employment opportunities. After completion of the programme, they can contribute economically and start participating in family decision-making. As a result of their participation, learners demonstrate an increase in their levels of self-worth and self-confidence. Eventually, they develop the ability to make informed decisions.

Table 2 illustrates the programme’s major impacts on learners, based on results for 14 indicators. In this case, assessments included data from the post-programme interview, the EOP assessment, mock interviews, employers’ feedback, results from the psychometric test, communication through the WhatsApp alumni channel, and each learner’s CV at the end of the CV session.



Table 2. Programme’s impact on learners by indicators.




Benefits for facilitators

This programme provides facilitators with an understanding of the contextual factors that affect women’s lives. Facilitators become more aware of learners’ needs, allowing them to better build, implement and assess the curriculum. Moreover, through improved teaching skills, facilitators can generate social impact by leading learners towards a more inclusive and empowered life path as described in the testimonies section.


Benefits for communities


Industry clients become equal partners in creating a movement of change towards gender equality and giving more opportunities to women in their respective fields of work. The programme’s beneficiaries not only become immersed in a learning context but also become advocates for their own communities.



Figure 10. Community learning circle in progress.





The following testimonials demonstrate the impact of the programme on participants and their communities.

‘I learned daily life manners, which are important for us, and the basics of spoken English, among many other skills... I am also now aware about my rights at a workplace, and it is giving me lot of confidence. I thank Gauri didi; she is like a friend to me.’ Jasmine (name changed due to data protection rights)

‘I am Zehra, and I have three children. I joined Umeed to get a job for my children’s better future. I want to contribute to the household budget. I learned basic math, basic English – how to write and how to speak. Before, I don’t know what percentages and decimal system were, now I have learned, and it is helpful for me when shopping. I learned good manners, values and my self-worth, self-growth. I learned how I should be with people when I get a job, how to talk at the workplace, and if I have a complaint to directly talk with the manager, and not gossip. I learned that it is important to be punctual, to be on time, and teamwork. I am very thankful to Gauri di, Udita di, Ashish ji, Megha ji and the Umeed team. I am also thankful to Gauri because she gave me this opportunity to meet, to learn, and to travel. Before, I was afraid of travel and of going small distances. Now I’m not… Thank you Umeed.’ Zehra (name changed due to data protection rights)

Lessons Learned

Outreach for the programme: It would be advantageous to make greater use of information channels within communities to publicize and advocate for the vision of the programme and to reach women who are keen to learn, grow and work. The programme is publicized through virtual events in which facilitators meet past, present and future/prospective beneficiaries online, to hear their issues and concerns.

Execution of the curriculum: The programme team has observed that not all learners have the same level of skill, or ability to understand new concepts. To address this gap, facilitators are planning to create lesson plans that integrate the technique of differentiation. This will ensure that each participant is learning content that is aligned to their level, and that there are enough challenging learning opportunities to enable participants to develop their individual potential.

Retention: Programme staff noticed that learners were generally positively receptive to content that challenged their long-term cultural and religious beliefs. Therefore, dropouts were unexpected.


During the pandemic, FirstLeap switched to an online mode of delivery. Through the COVID-19 InfoSeries shared on its WhatsApp group and the organization´s YouTube channel (https://bit.ly/UmeedforwomenYouTube), learners and members of the community accessed relevant topics affecting women during the pandemic. In total, 12,300 women watched the video on pregnancy and childbirth and 20,020 women watched and engaged with two videos on domestic violence during the pandemic.

Umeed has also started to implement the programme in low-income private colleges in Hyderabad, and aims to work in all government colleges across the state of Telangana. The heads of these institutions have identified a critical need for programmes such as FirstLeap to help build a more informed and empowered next generation. Students also recognize the need for the training that FirstLeap provides in order to boost their confidence and allow them to perform well during job interviews. Other changes include customizations in the curriculum and training methods which take differences in the needs of each cohort into consideration and incorporate feedback given during the need assessment survey.

Umeed has also added more components to the digital literacy module, covering LinkedIn and the basics of Microsoft Office applications such as Word and PowerPoint. Additionally, exposure sessions with subject matter experts have been modified to reflect real-world work experiences. The new elements include ‘payslips’ in the Financial Literacy Module, and mock interview sessions with corporate volunteers from companies such as Salesforce and Google, to give particiapants meaningful exposure to the professional world.

Finally, Umeed has established new partnerships to support the programme’s outreach and placement procedures. After realizing that training was one of the programme’s main strengths, Umeed recruited more staff members to join the team. This allows facilitators to continue receiving training while ensuring the successful operation of the programme.



  • 1. Chit funds are popular South Asian saving schemes that don’t involve financial institutions. Typically, funds are collected periodically from a group of people for a duration based on the number of group members. The amount collected is given to one person, selected through a lottery system or auction.
  • 2. The Self-Esteem Scale is a psychometric test for women that assesses their esteem level through the areas of anxiety, helplessness, expectation of success/failure, self-satisfaction, self-confidence, self-derogations, feedback from others, and social comparisons (SESW Kapadia and Verma, 2000).
  • 3. Most learners are not in employment before their participation in the programme. For those who worked previously in the informal sector, the switch to formal employment also represents a significant change in terms of financial stability, since salaries in informal settings usually fluctuate according to the employer’s discretion.



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Name: Gauri Mahendra & Udita Chadha
Job title/Position: Founders, UMEED
Telephone: +91 8886020919, +91 8106230147
Email: ,
Website: www.umeedforwomen.org
Full Address: 19-4-332/C-1 Kishan Bagh Rd, Al Fateh Colony, Ali Nagar, Kishan Bagh, Hyderabad, Telangana 500064, India

For citation please use

Last update: 14 April 2023. FirstLeap Programme (UMEED), India. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 23 September 2023, 05:40 CEST)

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