Prabhu Goel, founder of the Foundation for Excellence (FFE), a nonprofit that gives scholarships to poor students in India who wish to pursue engineering and medical degrees, says the idea of giving back only comes when one is in a position to do so.
At an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the FFE, at the Crown Plaza in Palo Alto, California, last month, Goel raised over $1 million for the nonprofit.
One of seven children born in a civil engineer’s family in Meerut, Goel recalled how his father had to borrow the equivalent of US $3,000 back in 1970 to make it possible for him to board a Pan Am flight to the US.
Though he had graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, had a summer job at the IIT computer lab, and even had his fee in the US waived, the dream of going to America was not easy.
“My father, Prem Prakash Goel, was in a government job and not rich,” recalled Goel. “I come from a modest middle-class family.” There was little left over after feeding nine mouths and offering the best education possible to seven children.
“My dad’s focus was education and his sole objective was that his children get the best education,” he said. After his older brother died in an accident, Prabhu became the family’s oldest child taking care of the rest. That, in a way, was like giving back.
Asked why he opted for engineering, he said there were not too many options back then. Besides, he never liked Biology, he laughed, so becoming a doctor was out of the question.
Eventually, he got selected for both the National Defense Academy and the IIT, and chose the latter. And Goel credited IIT for giving him a strong knowledge base and a foundation that is useful for any career.
Till now, the FFE has contributed over $24 million in 25 years and given scholarships to over 57,449 students in 27 Indian states. The foundation started out by giving $100 per student per annum. The amount has now gone up to $700.
Until 2003-04, the FFE used to cover not just the student’s fees but also a wage for his or her family, but as demand began to grow, it decided to focus 70% of its work on educational needs.
“Now we see students can sustain themselves,” he said. Not only that, they are “giving back to FFE. Some 100 FFE scholars are here and a larger number remain in India and they gave back $900,000 and helped other students,” he said.
Goel had been giving back in India and schools for a while, but he started the FFE only after he had sold his first company, Gateway. “We had an amount of wealth and felt that we need to do something meaningful other than just consuming,” he said. Goel has also invested in over 40 startups and insists that if you do good for others, you also feel good.
Though Goel had money after he sold Gateway, he had not the first clue how to start and run a nonprofit. Also, his initial idea was that he should only use his own funds.
But with the Indian American community growing in Silicon Valley, things started to change by 2004-05 and the FFE began to see support from tech entrepreneurs.
Still it was not easy, as Goel and the FFE were not prepared for fundraising. Besides, he could not recall any Indian organization raising funds in a similar way. Even Indians for Collective Action (ICA), a pioneering nonprofit in the US, was not raising funds the way the FFE does now. So, it was all very new.
“So, if you see, the first 15 years was all from our own money,” said Goel. “The past 10 years Silicon Valley has changed and a lot more wealth has been created.”
Sharing the challenges nonprofits face in the US, he said, “The same people, the same donors are seen at most fundraisers. That is the challenge, as donor fatigue sets in at some point.” Besides, there are a lot of nonprofits now and donors have limited budgets, so they have to set priorities as to the cause that makes more sense to them.
“The secret,” Goel said, “is to have a tremendous amount of persistence and determination to keep going. And to have a team of people who have worked together and have good collaboration.
“We had synergy and good chemistry and good team work and that is very critical as too many times people with their agendas come over and the organization gets into trouble.”
On adding new features at the FFE, he said in the past eight years the foundation, which now has an office in Bangalore, teaches students how to have a professional conversation, how to collaborate with others, how to interview well and other similar skills. It also helps with job placements.
“When I went to school there was no such mentoring,” said Goel. “It is so important in the professional field and needed in the corporate world.”
Lauding the sustainability of FFE, he said, “What characterizes FFE is that we are a very transparent organization. We have built it the way we operate and all donors get whatever they want to see. There is no agenda other than to serve the cause.”
Pointing to mathematician and tutor Anand Kumar, the keynote speaker at the gala, Goel said, “Transforming the lives of the unprivileged scholars is the FFE agenda and so does Anand Kumar, the Super 30 (2019) man, and people like him still prevail in India and are giving back to society in a meaningful way.”