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33,556 and Counting: How FFE's Funding is Changing Life Trajectories

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

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Cash in hand of US $80 million might not sound like a fortune today but back in 1990, when Indian-origin entrepreneur, engineer, and researcher Prabhu Goel sold his stake in the company he had founded for US $ 80 million, he knew he had more money than he and his next few generations would ever need or spend. Back then returns of this magnitude were a rarity and CEO salaries had not yet hit stratospheric levels. When his wife and he carefully assessed their own requirements, they knew they had plenty and then some more.

That’s when they decided that they could afford to give back to the system, country, and society of which Prabhu himself had been a product and beneficiary. One of seven children, he’d grown up in a family that had no money to spare for luxuries, and Goel, a bright student, was well aware that his education at IIT - heavily subsidized by the government - played a seminal role in where he found himself. Why not give others who have the aptitude and self-motivation but lack the means the same opportunity? It could help many more find their calling, make something of their lives, and create wealth that helps them contribute positively to society. It was with these well-intentioned, noble thoughts that the Goels set about trying to execute their plans from over 8000 miles away.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

Prabhu Goel.

(Photo: Author)

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Heart Over Head

The whole effort started in an unstructured, let’s-get-this-done-somehow manner way back in 1993-94 when Goel and his wider network in the US pulled in India-born American senior citizens who put together a group of socially conscious individuals based in India who helped identify needy but bright students in India.

In the early 1990s, on a visit back to India, Goel came across a young Muslim girl in Chennai whose father was insistent that she adopt tailoring, the family occupation, but the girl herself was set on medicine. After some persuasion and allaying suspicions, the father agreed to let the Foundation for Excellence (FFE) — registered by Goel in 1994 and in its infancy at the time — finance and take charge of his daughter’s education. The young girl is now an MBBS, working with a local hospital in her hometown.

The first instance set the tone and a wider network - Indian Americans based in the US - started using their Indian contacts - friends, family, former colleagues, and even acquaintances - to help identify needy school and college students across disciplines who could be supported with the funds. A set of volunteers that acted as the foundation’s feet-on-the-ground in India slowly built up and verified the credentials and the needs of the family to ensure that the funds were not being diverted in some manner or misused. Since the rules at the time were quite stringent, an existing charity in the US which was already functioning in India was roped in to channelise the money legally into India. The whole operation at the time was based on funding from the Goels and his wider network of Indian Americans, many of whom could afford and were willing to contribute to the cause.

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Life Altering and Affirming Instances Pile Up

COVID dealt a severe blow to Vijay Luxmi’s family when her father fell ill and became practically incapacitated after it, forcing her mother, a housewife prior to this, to work as a sales assistant in a cosmetics store.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

Vijay Luxmi.

(Photo: Author)

The Rs 3 lakh-odd annual income her mother earns is virtually the only family income currently. After finishing her studies in a government school in Vasant Kunj, Luxmi took the JEE and got admission to the Indira Gandhi Technical University for Women in Delhi but wasn’t sure if she could continue her studies as the family couldn’t afford the yearly fees of Rs 1.25 lakh for the 4-year programme. A school friend told her about the FFE scholarship and Luxmi wasted no time in applying and managed to secure a scholarship that covers half her costs. As a recent scholar, Luxmi has gained a lot more through the FFE network - more on this later in this article - including her first airplane experience ever!

Recent FFE scholar Sonu Kumar’s needs are even more pressing. In 2015, his father and the family’s main breadwinner got dengue and passed away, leaving behind his mother and five children. His mother was forced to resort to the money lenders in the village, besides farming their small one-acre land to make ends meet. His elder brother supplemented the family’s meager income by doing home tuition.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

Sonu Kumar.

(Photo: Author)

In 2023, the young boy who did his schooling at a Hindi medium government school in Bihar’s Aurangabad district cleared the JEE and got admission into a chemical engineering programme in NIT, Calicut, Kerala but had no idea how his family would pay for his studies. He was constantly worried that he might soon have to drop out when he got to know about FFE - by word of mouth and sheer chance - and won a scholarship that covers just over 60% of his yearly costs. From a future that looked pretty bleak at one point, Sonu can now look forward to a much brighter horizon, post his degree.

If the two instances above have just embarked on their journeys, the FFE alumni abound with stories of dramatic life alterations and even finding one’s true calling. Assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, Somedeb Ball, now 37, came from a lower middle-class family, which could ill afford to finance his dream of studying medicine.

With the help of an FFE scholarship, Ball managed to complete his MBBS from West Bengal’s Burdwan Medical College and then studied internal medicine at Kolkata Medical College. It was here that he developed a deep interest in cancer, eventually prompting him to cross several hurdles and find his way to America where he was recently granted an award of US $50,000 to pursue research to improve care for a severe form of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia, helping him find his true calling. Considering his background, Deb says he never expected to find himself where he is today: at the cutting edge of research work in his chosen field.

Recently, Ball has begun to financially support a student from West Bengal - just like himself - who is in his first year of MBBS studies in India.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

Somedeb Ball.

(Photo: Author)

He says he appreciates the transparent FFE model, which goes “beyond signing a cheque” and allows one to directly engage with and mentor the student one pick to support, paving the way for a meaningful relationship as the two parties get to know each other over a period of time. A 2017 FFE scholar Meghana Kantharaj, a former Bengaluru resident, finds her life trajectory on a new path and fast-tracked working as a business intelligence engineer at Amazon’s Seattle office. She too has started sponsoring two FFE scholars recently.

Vijay Luxmi, Sonu Kumar, and Somedeb Ball are just a few of thousands of heartwarming stories that have emerged out of the 33,556 students whose lives the foundation has impacted in the last three decades, of which 10,241 are women. A total of 13,136 engineers and 3538 doctors have been supported so far as a result of support from it, in addition to several students being able to finished their school and college education who might have had to drop out due to financial constraints. Most of the scholars funded by FFE start out with an annual family income of Rs 3 lakh or below and end up with individual salary packages of Rs 9-12 lakh once they complete their studies, a game changer for them and their families over a short period of four years. Over the last two decades, the total amount disseminated yearly through scholarships has grown by leaps and bounds, and 13,579 scholars were added with a total scholarship amount of Rs 60 crore in FY 2022-23 alone. Over Rs 300 crore has been spent on the entire effort since inception.

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Playing With Lego: Building Block By Block

If making money in India is not a piece of cake, giving it away is almost as hard. This is one of the lessons those involved in running the FFE initiative realized over time. The trust and scholarship programme had grown over the years in a haphazard manner, more out of sheer will and commitment of all those vested than any real structure.

It was after Sudha Kidao, donor, volunteer and now managing trustee, a primary pillar for the movement moved back to India in 2007 that she started to understand that the impact of a loosely structured model would be limited. While FFE as a movement had its heart in the right place, to leave a lasting imprint and grow its mission it needed to get its head sorted too. So to begin with, an India Management Committee was put in place that worked closely with the existing board of trustees and in 2011, Sudha who by then was neck deep in FFE work, was picked by the trustees as the managing trustee.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

Sudha Kidao.

(Photo: Author)

That’s when all those vested in the trust and its mission put on their thinking caps to see how they could rethink, revamp, and rejig the effort to get maximum results.

To begin with, they realized that to be more effective, a sharper focus was essential. That’s when it was decided to narrow the focus to higher education and in particular engineering and medical students who had managed admissions in premier institutions through their aptitude but who could not afford to finance their studies. Further, the trustees realized that it was important to diversify their funding beyond the Goels and the small clutch of Indian Americans and bring in more donors from India but to do that they had to do a series of things first. Thirdly, they also decided that there was no reason why they should not tap into their alumni network, many of whom had literally gone places by then.

That’s when Sudha started to put each block in place. A small team was set up to run the programme more effectively, the website was revamped to allow donors and all stakeholders to get a better idea of what was being attempted, and the foundation started scouting around for credible donation platforms like Give India to increase visibility and it applied for FCRA and other clearances that made it possible and simpler for the donors overseas to send funds. Simultaneously, the trust started to track down past scholars to build a network and community.

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Tilting the Balance

The block building began to slowly deliver results. To begin with, Goel was funding virtually the whole effort with US $ 500,000 (half a million) a year and many smaller donors from the Indian Americans would pitch in but it was all more on an ad hoc sort of basis. But after Sudha took charge and made the big Indian donors push, the balance shifted. As things stand, 75 percent of the total funds now come from Indian donors while 25 percent are from the US, although Goel remains the largest individual supporter.

Once the structure was in place, Sudha and other trustees began to reach out through their wider network to corporate donors for CSR funding and to deepen their engagement with companies in all manner possible. In 2012, the team presented the FFE model before a senior management team of German giant Bosch, where they found 40 of the FFE alumni happened to be employed and following this, the company launched a work-based mentoring programme for FFE scholars.

Over the years, a range of donors - corporate, individual, alumni, and foundations - in India have come on board including Aditya Birla's A World of Opportunity Foundation (AWOO), Societe Generale, TransUnion CIBIL, Wabtec, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), Cognizant Foundation and Cognizant Technologies, ATE Chandra Foundation, True North LLP, LinkedIn are some of the active donors and those engaged in the FFE movement among a host of others. In 2021-22, Amazon USA launched the Amazon Future Engineers Program in India with FFE as its partner starting with 200 women scholars and adding 500 each in the next two financial years, leading to a total cohort size of 1200. A total of 1200 women engineers in a country where decades of patriarchy have ensured that very few women are encouraged or make a career in the sciences at all!

The donor push launched post-2011 paid off. Between 2004-05 and 2011, the FFE trust supported 11,281 scholars amounting to roughly Rs 30 crore. From 2011 to now, the number of scholars has doubled and the scholarship amount has grown almost ten times.

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Needles In A Haystack

By 2012, the FFE team also started a full offensive to track down and build a database of alumni, which by the time had touched over 11,000 but building an alumni for something that is not backed by a physical campus and an institution is a Herculean task, they soon realized.

Till 2011, the trust had been working in an ad hoc manner through facilitators and these facilitators were in turn trying to keep in touch with the scholars they had picked. “Tracking down each scholar was a bit like looking for needles in a haystack, a mammoth exercise but one that we knew was critical going forward to build a robust community”, explains Sudha.

After it had reached a substantial number, the FFE team started organizing open house meetings to bring both existing and old scholars together with speakers including Goel and other donors, both individual and corporates. At some of these meets, cheques would be presented directly to the scholars and they would get a chance to interact and meet a range of professionals across sectors. This often led to internships, jobs, and other opportunities that the scholars began to gain from and slowly began to create a sense of belonging that comes naturally to educational institutions.

One man’s journey to give back to his country has gathered a momentum of its own.

FFE open house meeting. 

(Photo: Author)

Initially, these open meets were physical events in different Indian cities, at times hosting 400-500 at a spot, and eventually post-COVID moving to online events, more manageable and sustainable. The online meets helped bring in speakers from different geographies and allowed thousands - as opposed to hundreds in physical meets - to participate.

After this ground building, the FFE team started asking alumni to give back if they could. “We asked the question: someone who did not know you had faith and supported you so can you today or now do the same for another” says Sudha.

The answer to the team’s absolute delight was a resounding yes. Over time, more and more scholars - 3800 in total so far - began to come forward to support one or more future scholars and pay for their studies. Those who still have constraints financially - many support several dependents - try to pull in their companies to sponsor students and many jump in to help organize internships, jobs, and even talks by their top management members so new scholars gain exposure, network, and build contacts in their future employment fields.

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There’s More To Life Than Greenbacks

In 2014, when the FFE board and trustees looked closely at what they had managed to accomplish, they found that while their scholars were bright and getting admission to premier institutions, they did not land the best jobs or salaries. That’s when Dr Rishikesha Krishnan, director of IIM-B, a trustee on the board of FFE and mentor for Kidao suggested that two of his students do a deeper dive to see why this was so.

It soon became clear that the barriers scholars faced went beyond financial constraints. Coming often from fairly underprivileged backgrounds and diverse family situations, many of them lacked exposure and social and other soft skills required to survive in today’s work environment.

To bring their scholars on par with their peers, the FFE team put in place the Beyond Scholarship program in 2016-17 with the primary objective of providing engineering scholars with the necessary skills for employment in both private and government sectors, facilitating their pursuit of higher education or entrepreneurship as a viable career path. This extensive online three-year program, funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) and Capgemini, covers a range of training modules including communication skills, logical analysis, quantitative reasoning, technical proficiency, interview handling, and so on. The first batch of 1064 scholars started the training in November 2017. In addition, the trust runs a mentoring program for students to have one-on-one sessions with experienced industry experts. Post COVID, the FFE team in their interactions with alumni and new scholars noticed mental and emotional distress among many of its fellows and has more recently introduced a hotline for counseling supported by the Aditya Birla group.

Slowly but surely, the scholars have started to feel a sense of belonging like an old school or college alumni group despite the fact that there is no institution that holds them together. 2023 scholar Vijay Luxmi says that she flew for the first time ever when in June 2023 she went for a two-month internship with Amazon, organized at the behest of the foundation. In December last year, she again flew to Bengaluru for an event FFE hosted where she had the opportunity to meet a few tech leaders and hear them speak. The 20-year-old says that she has learned a lot from this exposure that would not have been possible in her own milieu or through her own college.

Meanwhile, the effort to strengthen the FFE team, model, and structure has continued all through. In 2020, FFE managed to bring on board Ram Kolavennu as chief operating officer, an engineer, and MBA with long stints in Unilever, Tesco, and then Bengaluru skilling and livelihoods company Labournet to run the scholarship programme in a more structured manner. Wearing several hats at one go, Ram manages projects, teams, deliverables, and timelines, and engages with external parties and the board of trustees. Under his leadership, the small team has now grown to almost 40 full-time employees and 700 facilitators across India.

More recently, Sudha, who has had a far from easy journey - she’s faced at least ten failures for every small success - but continues to work with a maniacal zeal on a voluntary basis was picked by a jury led by Renu Sud Karnad, the chair of the board of GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals for the Sabera 2023 award as the individual changemaker for the year in the social enterprise space, a small recognition for her years of committed work at the foundation. But no awards or prizes equal the joy she and her FFE team, many individual donors, and the facilitators find in seeing and tracking the progress of the lives changed as a result of their efforts.

And for the Goels, not only is their money being well spent, but the value it has delivered over the last three decades, they feel, few other initiatives could have. The sheer happiness they derive from the alumni’s changed life trajectories cannot be measured in monetary terms.

(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa.)

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