How this Indian entrepreneur is affecting change for youths

By Indira Laisram
Mark Laitflang Stone // TIS photo

From a small town in Shillong, northeast India, to the boardroom in Melbourne, Mark Laitflang Stone captured everyone’s attention last week.

Stone, at the helm of AVENUES Meghalaya, a social enterprise, inked a deal with Australia’s award-winning organisation, Young Change Agents, to equip youths in northeast India with the entrepreneurial skills.

It was the first-ever opportunity and a deal to be signed between India and Australia, where the two organisations hope to combine traditional knowledge and conventional wisdom to foster entrepreneurial thinking.

With a career spanning over two decades as an entrepreneur, Stone believes this collaboration will reshape the narrative for tribal youth, fostering in them a sense of confidence and resilience.

Stone founded AVENUES Meghalaya 20 years ago. His entrepreneurial journey started at a young age when he recognised the potential of his family’s unfinished building in Shillong. What began as a plan to generate rental income transformed into a partnership with a call centre entrepreneur, leading to the establishment of one of the region’s pioneering call centre training establishments.

But he also brings a reputation for resilience and fiscal acumen. Before starting AVENUES, Stone had already “tried various things”.

“The Shillong that we grew up in had bandhs, curfews, militancy. We never knew if we’d attend school the next month. I longed to escape. Also, I think my parents put that seed in me that I was meant for bigger things,” he reflects.

An AVENUES Meghalaya workshop // Pic supplied

So, Stone ended up in Kolkata after year 10, aspiring to complete his A levels and pursue higher education abroad. However, the eventual financial burden of a foreign education and the fees for final exams would have weighed heavily on his family, prompting him to reconsider his aspirations.

Backed by his academic and software programming, he sought an alternative path, leading him to a scholarship program at NIIT in Kolkata and Shillong, where he pursued his passion for coding and computing. “I was made to believe I would be the next Bill Gates,” he says with a laugh.

Amidst the hustle of Ballygunge, Stone stumbled upon his first side hustle at a flower stall. The owner kindly taught him bouquet-making, sparking his entrepreneurial spirit. This humble beginning earned him Rs 3000 and set him on a transformative journey.

During the NIIT program, Stone returned to Shillong and landed with teaching opportunities. As his network expanded, he ventured into computer hardware sales, eventually partnering with a colleague from NIIT to establish his first software company.

This venture, pioneering software development in Meghalaya, proved lucrative but also marked by personal milestones leading him to an exit of the business when he was 20. He also married at a young age.

The turning point in Stone’s career came with the founding of AVENUES, an organisation committed to nurturing life skills, soft skills, and confidence among tribal youth. It has since impacted the lives of over 120,000 individuals.

Mark Laitflang Stone (L) with the Consul General of India in Melbourne, Sushil Kumar, at the signing ceremony of AVENUES Meghalaya’s landmark deal with Young Change Agents in Melbourne // TIS photo

But Stone did have his share of setbacks. Despite success in other ventures like events, designing and public speaking, his major investment in a telecom distribution agency faced challenges when the market segmented. Financial strain pushed him to the brink of quitting, but a chance sighting of a shooting star inspired him to persevere. This marked his return to his true passion: AVENUES.

Something pivotal too occurred. He saw the need to innovate. “People wanted more, and the skills we instilled were being used by our trainees in all walks of life,” he says.

Since then, AVENUES has evolved beyond language and communication training to encompass a broader spectrum of skills, including mental health awareness, talent identification, and recently STEM education. This also led to the development of flagship programs like FastFoward that improves employability on college campuses and Aspire Meghalaya, recognised nationally for its contribution to tribal youth empowerment.

“Transitioning from skilling to crafting a unique curriculum for tribal youth across the Northeast, we gained support from our state government and other stakeholders. We entered competitive tenders, secured funding, and alongside our projects for government also developed a curriculum focusing on values, soft skills, confidence, resilience, and aspiration,” he shares.

When COVID hit, despite just completing a successful soft skills mandate, Stone faced financial uncertainty but as luck would have it,  “We received a call from the government requesting assistance with their overwhelmed helpline. We offered pro bono training and support, realising the significant gaps in manpower for essential citizen services.”

The services swiftly transitioned to assisting with COVID tracking, symptom reporting, and conducting remote surveys, providing vital support during the pandemic.

Stone’s proactive approach and collaboration with the government led to the establishment of citizen support initiatives, including helplines for maternal healthcare, mental health, and tourism. This innovative response not only addressed immediate needs but also paved the way for a new revenue vertical for AVENUES.

AVENUES Megalaya // Pic supplied

In 2022, Stone was selected to be part of the Australia India Youth Dialogue that brings together young leaders from Australia and India to foster cooperation. “I noticed when we were brought to Sydney and Melbourne how strong the Indian diaspora was over here and how the partnerships were just flourishing. I said to myself this is a ground for something interesting to emerge.”

The next year, Stone attended the Global Entrepreneurship Congress hosted in Melbourne. And that is how his partnership with Young Change Agents came about.

“We sought this partnership because we believe that igniting entrepreneurial thinking is vital for empowering individuals to tackle challenges and take action in their communities. Young Change Agents, with their seven years of pioneering work in this field, are the perfect collaborators.”

Eventually, he hopes this will be the birth of a new curriculum that will be used to navigate soft skills, life skills and life coaching in a brand new way.

“We’ve been on a journey from language to manners, soft skills to career skills, and now we’re embracing STEM and introducing APEX – Avenues’ Personal Excellence Programmes. APEX focuses on how you think, feel, speak, and act. It’s about problem-solving, emotional intelligence, effective communication, and ethical actions – the pillars of entrepreneurial success.”

With India’s new education policy mandating comprehensive learning, AVENUES’ pioneering soft skills programs are in sync with this approach.

Stone demurs when asked about accolades. But he has presented two TEDx Talks and spoken at 160 events so far.

At a more philosophical level, he reflects on his father’s unwavering support despite initial apprehensions. “He was always very encouraging. He always supported me, and I think that is a very important thing for any entrepreneur starting out.”

Stone’s father is no more, but his wisdom continues to shape his journey.

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