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September 21, 1999
Educating India, Silicon Valley Style
Kamla Bhatt in San Jose
There is an old Chinese proverb: 'Learning is the treasure that will follow its owners everywhere.' That holds some truth even in today's information-driven economy.
So, earlier this week, Bill Gates, the richest man in the world and a Harvard dropout, pledged $ one billion to support minority students go through their college education.
Across America, there are many organizations like CRY helping raise money for the education of poor students across India. The IT sector in America, in which Indian Americans have played a pivotal role, is increasingly involved in expanding educational opportunities in India.
The Santa Clara-based Foundation For Excellence is one such effort.
Founded in 1994 by well-known entrepreneur Prabhu Goel and his wife Poonam, FFE has so far given out about $ 200,000 to nearly 800 students. Many students FFE has helped are in medical and engineering schools in India.
"As a businessman, I wanted to do something that had leverage. These students who complete degrees in medicine or engineering will have a bigger impact on the environment from which they came than if they only completed high school," said Prabhu Goel, a venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley.
Venkatesh (Venk) Shukla, the current FFE president, is very enthusiastic about the recent scholarship pledges from Goel and Kanwal Rekhi. Prior to this, the Goels were the sole benefactor of the organization. Goel has pledged support for 10,000 students while Rekhi has pledged support for 5,000 students. But, there is an interesting caveat to Rekhi's support -- he wants to support female students.
"If you educate a boy, you have educated a person. If you educate a girl, you educate a family down the road," explains Rekhi.
Rekhi is an established private venture capitalist and the president of The Indus Entrepreneurs, a non-profit organization promoting entrepreneurship among South Asians in North America.
"This [the new pledges] allows us to focus our energies in finding suitable candidates and building the infrastructure for ever greater number of students," Shukla says.
"This year we expect to spend half a million in funding the students," Shukla, who is also president of a hot Internet start-up company based in Santa Clara, says.
Unlike other non-profit organizations that are actively involved in India, FFE functions differently. It does not support academic projects, institutions or organizations. Instead it believes in helping the students directly. The scholarship is awarded to the student on a need basis.
The "FFE system works through a personal network where all the people involved know the student who is being funded," says Shukla.
There are three key people involved in this top-down model: a co-ordinator in the US, a facilitator and the student in India. The application forms for the scholarship are distributed to those students who meet the eligibility requirements. The foundation does not send the application directly to the students. The facilitator in India works with the student in processing the application form and s/he in turn work with the US coordinator.
The criterion for funding students is very simple. The student should be in ninth standard or above and have a consistent and proven academic track record. The applications are screened and the core committee of volunteers makes the final decision. Once the scholarship is granted, a joint bank account is opened for the student and the facilitator. This prevents unscrupulous family members from ferreting away the scholarship money. The facilitator monitors the student's progress. To continue receiving the scholarship, it is important for the student to maintain good academic record.
Helping the FFE is a dedicated band of volunteers both in the US and India, who are constantly in the lookout for students that need funding. There are about 80 US-based co-ordinators and volunteers and over 250 India-based facilitators.
S Visvanathan, executive director and the only employee of the organization, says, "I keep the wheels of FFE moving. We receive many letters from the students thanking us for giving them an opportunity to achieve their ambition."
Visvanathan explained earlier this month the organization granted a scholarship for a student who was also the sole breadwinner for his family.
FFE decided to not only fund the student's studies but also help his family meet its monthly household expenses. Help of this kind is made possible largely because of the personal touch and involvement of the volunteers.
FFE helps students complete their studies in India and does not provide any scholarship to students studying abroad.
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