An Ecosystem of Excellence

“It could have given me money for food. Instead, it gave me money for education,” muses Sathish Kumar Chittibabu, who received a scholarship from Foundation for Excellence (FFE) in 1997. After his father passed away in 1984, his mother worked as a tailor, earning Rs. 1,000-2,000 ($20-40) a month, and supported the family with the help of his uncle, a schoolteacher. Chittibabu graduated from NSN Matriculation High School, Chennai, and got admission in Coimbatore Institute of Technology in 1996 to study electronics engineering.

“My family members were initially worried whether they would be able to meet my college expenses,” he recalls. Fortunately, Chittibabu met an FFE facilitator who helped him apply for a scholarship.

“I was not sure what would happen,” he recalls, “but they were very prompt.”

In his first year in college itself Chittibabu received the first $500 installment of his scholarship. “It covered my college fee, hostel fee, cost of books, and other miscellaneous expenses.” The scholarship gave him confidence that he would be able to complete his education. “Getting a check from an organization in U.S.A. itself was a big boost. I was thrilled. My mother and uncle were also very excited.”

Chittibabu’s scholarship was renewed annually till he graduated four years later with high grades. Then he worked at Larsen & Toubro in Chennai as a software engineer for two years before coming to the United States to pursue his master’s in electrical engineering at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. Today Chittibabu exudes confidence as he looks forward to a bright future.

This is the kind of opportunity engineer-turned-venture capitalist Prabhu Goel had hoped to create for gifted students when he founded FFE in Santa Clara, Calif., 10 years ago. After the sale of his company, Gateway Design Automation, to Cadence Design Systems in 1989, Goel wanted to make a meaningful and lasting contribution with his newfound assets. “It prodded me to think beyond money. I tried to search for something that stays longer,” says Goel. He decided to fund education because “it’s the most valuable gift you can give anybody. It’s like teaching a fisherman to fish rather than providing him with the fish.” The Prabhu and Poonam Goel Foundation pledged $10 million to start FFE in 1994. The idea was to fund the education of bright but poor students who might otherwise drop out due to financial hardship.

FFE identifies students through an innovative network of about 300 “coordinators” in the United States and 1,000 “facilitators” in India. Coordinators help to develop and implement the foundation’s programs. They monitor the progress of the scholarship recipients. Each coordinator nominates up to four facilitators in India who volunteer their time to do outreach and identify eligible students. The facilitators explain the FFE scholarship program to prospective scholars, and assist them in filing their scholarship applications. They also mentor FFE scholars through successful completion of their education.

Many FFE scholars, like Preethi Ramalingam, start receiving aid while they are still in high school. “My science teacher, Kalyani, gave me the phone number of Kalpana Krishnan, an FFE facilitator,” says this student at Sir Sivaswamy Kalalaya Sr. Secondary School, Chennai. “Kalpana informed me about FFE and helped me file the application for the scholarship.” Ramalingam’s father died when she was 8, and since then the family has been living on their savings. FFE granted Ramalingam an annual scholarship of Rs. 5,000 ($110) to help her complete high school. “I wouldn’t be able to make it without the FFE scholarship,” says Ramalingam simply. Since she received the financial aid her grades have improved, from 84 percent in ninth grade, to 94 and 90 percent in 10th and 11th grades. Now she is in 12th grade and plans to go to Birla Institute of Technology at Pilani or National University of Singapore and pursue a career in biotechnology.

Bharat Lal Agrawal, an FFE scholar from Orai, Uttar Pradesh, contacted FFE after getting admission in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in 2003. “My father is a shopkeeper having annual income of about Rs. 40,000 ($900),” explains Agrawal. “We are two brothers and two sisters, so it would be very difficult for my father to pay for my expenses.” His neighbor in Orai, Krishna Lal Gupta, who is an FFE facilitator, helped him with the process. Agrawal, who is majoring in material and metallurgical sciences at IIT, receives an annual scholarship of Rs. 22,500 ($500). This financial support ensures that gifted students like Agrawal get an opportunity to get the best education and achieve their full potential.

A traumatic incident in a family, like the death of the breadwinner, often puts the children’s education at risk. That was the predicament of Gururaj Rudagi of Hubli, Karnataka, when he applied for aid from FFE. In a letter to FFE, his mother Shantabai Rudagi explains their dire financial need, “After the death of my husband in 1979, I got a small job in a childcare center on an insignificant salary of Rs. 120 ($3) per month. I had to take care of five daughters and one son.” When he was a college student at Siddhaganga Institute of Technology, Karnataka, Gururaj applied for an FFE scholarship, which helped him complete his undergraduate program in chemical engineering. Now he works at Reliance Corporation in Mumbai.

Another student, Karthik Dhanabalan, started receiving an FFE scholarship when he was in 12th grade. His father works as a village assistant in Srivanchiyam, Tamil Nadu, earning Rs. 2,500 ($55) per month. Despite financial difficulties at home, Dhanabalan was a good student and found out about FFE fortuitously through his father’s boss whose friend knew an FFE facilitator, T.K. Venkataraman. Dhanabalan attests to the significance of the Rs. 3,630 ($80) scholarship he received from FFE. “In the matriculation examination I got 80 percent, and in 11th grade, 87 percent. But after getting FFE’s help, my score rose to 95 percent in 12th grade.”

Dhanabalan’s scholarship was increased to Rs. 25,000 ($550) per year when he went to National Institute of Technology, Trichy. Last summer, when he graduated in electrical and electronics engineering, Dhanabalan became the first graduate in his family. He now works at Cognizant Technology Solutions in Chennai.

Chittibabu, Ramalingam, Agrawal, Rudagi, and Dhanabalan are among 6,744 students FFE has assisted since its inception 10 year ago with a total scholarship amount of $2.77 million. Its mission to “bring about a transformation in the lives of academically brilliant and economically underprivileged students in India” is already beginning to bear fruit.

“At this stage, we intend to create role models for the neighborhood of students who get scholarship,” says Goel. “We want to change the ecosystem.” And to change the ecosystem, FFE has geared its scholarship program towards higher education for gifted students who have the potential to make the best use of the opportunity and in turn help and inspire others. “While a number of non-government organizations are focused on primary education, literacy, and other similar programs, FFE deliberately chooses to emphasize higher education,” Goel explains.

FFE alumni go on to become successful engineers, doctors, researchers, and entrepreneurs. Many of them are able to help their siblings or other students, lifting entire families out of poverty, and setting off a snowballing of opportunity for others.

For example, while he is doing his master’s at Colorado State University, Chittibabu works part-time as a software developer at the university and sends money home for his family and for his sister’s college expenses. His sister recently completed her master’s in computer science at Madras University. Chittibabu ruminates, “Then, I needed help and now I am taking care of my family.”

In his scholarship application Gururaj wrote, “I will try to help students in the same way you are helping me. A part of my savings will go to the students, who are not able to continue their education because of the lack of funds.” Keeping his promise, he recently donated Rs. 4,000 to FFE’s India Trust.

Although she is still in high school, Ramalingam contemplates, “After getting a job, I will help those children who are like me, who have lost their breadwinners. I will help them with buying books and paying their school fees.”

FFE has a track record of funding the education of both girls and boys. Out of the 6,744 FFE scholars to date 2,861 (42 percent) are girls. This commitment is underscored by investor and philanthropist Kanwal Rekhi, who came on board as a major donor and trustee of FFE in 1999. “If you educate a boy, you educate a person,” says Rekhi. “If you educate a girl, you educate a family down the road.”

FFE’s network of facilitators has been most successful in its outreach in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Gujarat. To identify more eligible students in other states Venktesh Shukla, president of FFE, urges more people to volunteer their time as coordinators or facilitators and reach out to students in other parts of India.

Another challenge is to raise more funds so that FFE can sponsor more students. In 2002 entrepreneur Romesh Wadhwani joined FFE as a major donor and trustee. Individual donors are also pitching in. FFE also receives employee-matching contributions from corporations like Adobe Systems, Altria, BEA Systems, E-bay, National Semiconductor, Sun Microsystems, and Citigroup Foundation. In addition, local cultural organizations, like Lalitha Gana Vidyalaya, Shruthi Swara Laya, Habib Khan School of Music, Abhinaya Dance Company, and Suranjali School of Music, collaborate with FFE to present fundraising concerts.

Another way in which American students get involved is through FFE’s high school program. They can communicate with FFE scholars in high schools in India or raise funds through car washes or walk-a-thons. Amit Arunkumar, 14, did just that. He organized a garage sale and raised $120 with which he sponsored two years of education of 16-year-old Bodke Kiran Shrirang in Mumbai.

In its first decade Prabhu Goel’s brainchild has grown into a mature organization. Today FFE has a formal organization structure with a professional management team, multiple sources of funding, a chapter in New York, an administrative office in Mumbai, hundreds of committed volunteers, and thousands of successful alumni. It is poised to touch many more lives in the coming years. “I want to see the day,” says Goel, “when FFE matters, I don’t matter, any individual does not matter.”

Satish Kumar is a software engineer in Mt. Prospect, Ill.

Categories   Features  / General 


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