Emotional tales of hard-won success convince benefactors to loose the purse strings
It is rare to see a keynote make people cry, but Vinod Bhardwaj did, when he spoke at the Foundation for Excellence(FFE) annual gala about why he supports the organization.
The gala built around the theme ‘Elevate’ raised over $800,000 to offer scholarships to bright but economically weak students who aim to become engineers and doctors.
“For a founder it is pure joy to see FFE get the community support that enabled it to grow as well as it has done,” said Prabhu Goel, the organization’s founder.
Asked if the scholarship rose to meet the increasing fees at India’s engineering and medical colleges, Goel told indica, “Yes, the scholarship amount in the late 90s was $100 per year per student; at present it is $700 per year – and it is being reviewed every year.”
Vinod Bhardwaj, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus and the inventor of the ethernet switch and EtherChannel, as well as founder of Kalpana Inc told the more than 450 people at the event that when he joined engineering school there was no organization offering scholarship for higher studies.
So, at his mother’s suggestion, he borrowed 30 rupees from the mother of his friend Jatinder Sehgal who asked him no questions as she offered him money she had saved from her husband’s monthly salary of 250 rupees. That was in 1962. That 30 rupees was the application fee he needed to pay before filling the IIT entrance form.
Bhardwaj was one of seven children and his father had died of tuberculosis when Bhardwaj was in the seventh grade.
“You might be thinking why I am making a big deal of just 30 rupees. It’s because only I know it’s worth,” he said.
With no family income, he said, “I couldn’t dream of becoming an engineer.” But he had a childhood full of discovery, wherein he put together a radio receiver without a battery, headphones, an electric motor, a walkie-talkie and a flying toy.
This caught the attention of industrialist Maharaj Birmani, a student at IIT Khargarpur, who was on a summer visit to his village of Ferozepore in Punjab. Birmani offered to get help for Bhardwaj join IIT. But the young inventor thought that was said in jest since the IIT was an expensive school. Birmani assured him that if he cleared the entrance exam, he would get his father to fund his education.
But Bhardwaj still had to come up with the application fee.
“It was like a lottery, where all you have to do is buy the ticket – and I did not have money for ticket,” Bhardwaj told indica.
According to him, “The good thing was that is in those days [year 1962]we did know that getting IIT was big. For us, it was just another exam. Now it’s a big deal.” But he agreed that getting into engineering school was big for him.
“IIT became a big deal after Bill Gates, founder Microsoft talked about it in India,” Bhardwaj said, adding that he believes that logic rather than luck made him what he is today.
He said he believes in taking risk.
“Risk means you will fail,” he said. “If you have never failed you have never taken any risk. I ask everybody how many times they have failed. If you have never failed you never took a risk and started up again… That’s called being rational.”
He told attendees, “Everything comes from knowledge, and knowledge comes from education,” and said that his father died because there was a lack of knowledge and of antibiotics.
Sehgal, whose mother helped Bhardwaj with 30 rupees, stood beside him as he spoke. Sehgal had flown down from Canada for the occasion.
“[Bhardwaj] was super bright and had a positive view of life,” he told indica. “His sweet nature got many to come to his aid. My father grew in similar circumstances, and his father died when my father was just two years old,” he said.
Kumar Malavalli, co-founder of Brocade Communications Systems and a philanthropist supporter of FFE spoke to indica about the changes in Silicon Valley, speaking of how the younger generation today were quicker than their forbears in both starting and running companies.
“I hope now they will be more prone to giving back to society. If you are creating wealth for yourself you also have to give back to society not only in India but here as well,” Malavalli said.
Dr. Sudha Kidao, a managing trustee at FFE who manages the operation in India, told indica that apart from scholarships, FFE offers soft skills and technical savvy that the students lack. This ensured that by the time they were in the fourth year of engineering school they were both ready for employment and well-equipped to be interviewed for them.
She said FFE has also launched a big network of corporate employees who would be mentors for engineering students. She cited the example of an engineering student in Uttarakhand relying on an engineer at Amazon.
“Our students employment rate is 80 percent. Last year, FFE offered scholarship 5,000 scholarships worth $3 millions; 80 percent for future engineers, 20 percent for those in the medical field,” she said.