[ To Express, To Reflect, To Give Back ]

Knowledge Park – Humble Beginnings @ Coimbatore

Monday, November 15th, 2010

It has been my wish for a few years now to open up a children’s library in Coimbatore around where I grew up. Having been exposed to how young children in the US grow up reading from a young age, I recognized the need to close that gap with children in India. While there are public libraries and even libraries at many schools, most children in India are not into reading, leave alone, using a library regularly. I had been wanting to do my part to close that gap in whatever ways I could.

Children at Inaguration of Library

When my parents visited US this past summer, I had proposed the idea of doing something about this and they immediately agreed to shepherd the project, host it in our house in Kavundampalayam in Coimbatore. I promised to help with getting the necessary stuff to them. I had introduced my parents to the local library here in bridgewater and their mindset expanded significantly after seeing what’s available for public here. After a couple of months of planning – the most critical of which is to find the right set of books at a price that we can afford (of course, personal money so far). I shopped around New Jersey for 100+ children’s books (used books is a great start!) and my father-in-law donated a box full of books from his well-kept library. Harini’s recent trip to India was timely to carry 30 lbs of books from US to India. With pains from family members in shipping and transporting books from US to Chennai to Coimbatore, and some planning and marketing by my mother to children around the area, we were finally set to make our wish a reality.

Makeshift Nameboard

On November 14th, on the eve of Children’s day, the library was inaugurated – under the name of “Knowledge Park”. My brother and his wife had incidentally made it from Dubai to be part of this humble beginnings. About 30 or so children from the neighborhood, along with their parents, showed up to start using the free service. I am told that children, in the age group 4 to 15, were excited to instantly read some of the comic books and young adult story books that caught their imagination – likely attracted by the title and cover graphic!. The kids assured my mom to continue to read from the library every day. Most of the children are from middle or lower-middle class with little or no access to books outside of school curriculum and hence their parents were thankful and appreciative of our efforts.

Thanks to family members and some friends, what was a simply a wish for a while is now beginning to take shape. Though it is tiny in scale (and that’s all two lonely elders in their 60s can manage and service)- my extended wishes for it to sustain its mission, grow in value, expand into more books in English and Tamil, and into other value-added stuff such videos, games etc, as we take baby steps in making this a meaningful venture.

My hope is that we have introduced at least a few kids to the habit of reading at a young age (who otherwise would grow up largely ignorant, naive and unaware) that will make them grow up to be better citizens of India.

I had my 30 seconds with Bill Drayton

Friday, December 18th, 2009

Last night, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Bill Drayton at a speech he gave at Princeton University. He is one of my role models and I don’t think its an exaggeration if I see him as a modern day version of Gandhi. He is on a mission to identify, encourage and support “changemakers” across the breadth and depth of human society. These ‘changemakers’ are working on the ground solving pressing social problems and Mr. Drayton ensures that these changemakers get whatever they need to do their best and sustain their impact. We need more Draytons and more organizations like the one he is pioneering: Ashoka. If I have a choice to be someone, I would like to be Mr. Drayton someday. Seeing him yesterday talk and spending a few seconds that close to him has reinforced my faith that I will be able to do what he has done, and more.

Mr. Drayton is credited for bringing social entrepreneurship to the forefront of America. During his speech yesterday, he pointed out that social entrepreneurs and their enterprises existed for centuries (so all we are doing is just finding more and more of them and shedding some global light on their work). He said we might just be reaching a “tipping point” of getting social entrepreneurship to mainstream. Many other organizations and individuals have dedicated their lives to direct welfare of society, but Ashoka has done it differently, in my humble opinion. I say it because I see their model as based on what I call ‘McKinsey of Social Enterprise’. When I graduated from NYU Stern, I seriously considered working for Ashoka. There were many personal reasons for not pursuing it rigorously. But the desire continues to deepen. That’s part of the reason why I showed up right away in Princeton, when I got a google alert that Mr. Drayton is speaking there.

He speaks so softly that folks at back couldn’t hear everything clearly but he spoke with a good sense of clarity regarding whats required to make meaningful changes in the society, for good. He was speaking to an audience of about 100 students from the Princeton’s engineering school, particularly those enrolled in Gordon Bloom’s Social Entrepreneurship program. The fact that such courses are already being offered to under graduate students and that Mr. Drayton’s latest Youth Ventures is reaching out to younger generation to be “changemakers” speaks for the “tipping point” of social entrepreneurship. On the topic of leveraging human potential, Mr. Drayton has also written an insightful article recently on the topic of how flight of increased productivity year after year is causing the depletion of natural resources and why the world must wake up soon to “engage people and to retire things”.

When I look back at my own life growing up in Coimbatore, India, I had been a “changemaker” in a real sense. I was an active member for many years in a social service club (Rotaract)and was also the president of the club during which we won awards for some innovative service work. I felt good doing that type of work, even while hanging around with my best buddies. However, I never consciously thought about what I was doing and if it will have any inherent relationship to what I will do in future.

I remember vividly the times I had spent with the Handicapped Children Society. We loved the smile on their faces so much that they became our default place to campout every other Sunday and do some gratifying social work. I can’t forget how much the children enjoyed a Sunday afternoon of Rajnikanth movie. There was this one boy who really wanted to grow up to be like Rajinikanth. I hope he is doing well somewhere.

My life, however, moved on after I graduated from Engineering College and commitments from the family front required me to stay focused on earning. It reminds me of the opening scenes of ‘Forrest Gump’; I went with the flow just like a feather caught in the breeze, moving to Chennai and then to US, building a career that I didn’t think much about. I hate to think this way, but I did lose sight of social work for quite sometime, until it dawned on me again.

Just around the mid point during my 2.5 years in NYU, I figured I had pretty much ended up where I am in life, by sheer ‘go with the flow’ mentality without thinking through what I really want to do or be. This is not to say I didn’t have commitment. I worked very hard to be where I am and grateful for the people and opportunities that helped along the way. But, as they say, ‘you know when you are on a mission’. I knew I was not.

I enrolled for a Social Enterprise class with Bill Shore. I was one of the just 5 guys in about 30 students who enrolled (guess more women cared about society, than men, at least in Stern, that year!). Stern is known for Finance majors and I wasn’t surprised that there were only 30 students. In fact, it’s the opposite, the 30 students really knew what they were getting into and possibly why. So it couldn’t have been a better setting. Having read Bill’s book prior to start of the sessions and sitting through the classes, guest lectures and case discussions made me feel like I have somehow found the deepest core of who I am and what I want to be. Perhaps, it goes back to my high school days of social work around Coimbatore and I do think experiences from childhood, one way or other, returns to remind who you really are. At last, I found something that just was always there for me for the taking. I want to be a social entrepreneur. A big, audacious changemaker.

I truly believe God has placed the seed within all of us. A seed to become meaningful persons and play particular roles in serving the humanity. The seed grows and symptoms of its growth may manifest more clearly during childhood, but somewhere along the way due to family and social settings, the growth is inhibited. For many, the seed gets buried deep enough that it takes a lot of time and energy to unearth it. But the fact is, the seed is there for us to find, nurture and make a beautiful tree out of it.

All said, how to get to from where I am today to where I want to go, is going to be work in progress. It starts with the faith, the rest must fall in place. I must continue to do what I need to do.

Son of the Soil

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

If I am the son, then the soil is town of Coimbatore, India. Technically, I am not an original ‘son of coimbatore soil’ since I was born in Chennai, and moved to Coimbatore when I was about 4 years old. Few people remember exactly what happened before they were 4 and I am certainly not one amongst that few.

I am sure everyone loves their city or town or village where they grew up and I am no exception. Its just that Coimbatore is a city that has more than a few reasons to fall in love; reasons many other cities can only envy of. One thing I am proud of about Coimbatore is respect for others build into the language, as in the Tamil dialect spoken by residents.

If you have never heard of coimbatore and its people, this is probably news to you. The dialect of tamil used in Coimbatore is the (in my humble opinion) most friendliest, considerate and humblest in the entire state of Tamilnadu. This is also the first striking social aspect a visitor would come across. I have heard friends from Chennai feeling overwhelmed when they hear auto drivers and bus conductors addressing them with respect (literally addressing them as brothers or sisters). People in general are also helpful, nice and easy to talk to. Its generally unheard of where visitors were misguided or exploited by general public. Perhaps the inherent attributes of the language builds the right attitude in people. Also, the Tamil spoken in and around Coimbatore city is little polished, when compared to what is spoken in the outskirts and villages around Coimbatore. Tamil movies often showcase the rural dialect as the common “Covai Tamil”. As much as we respect others through the words and actions, people of Coimbatore get offended when outsiders address them with disrespect. With people moving across cities more common, this happens a lot so its not a big deal. Yet, when I visit Chennai, I feel offended when Auto drivers address you the way they normally do. Of course, it is totally unintentional and is a mere localized difference in culture and language, neverthless, it helps to know the values of people from different cities and respect their values. It cannot be denied that disrespectful words (in some dialects) encourage a unfriendly attitude among children and citizens, in general. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Coimbatore – The next nexus

Tuesday, September 14th, 2004

Wipro finalising land purchase in Coimbatore

Its a major boon to the local business and economy of coimbatore as Wipro’s Billionaire Chariman Mr.Premji recently announced the acquisition of land in Coimbatore for their software development center. Through other unofficial sources I have also learnt that the land being targeted near the beautiful landscapes at the foothills of Western Ghats Mountains, enroute to the Marudhamalai Temple. Having grown up there, I can vouch its a marvelous place to write code with lots of blessings next door Lorg Muruga!. The interesting thing to note here is Wipro is opening a center to cater the local business around coimbatore and not necessarily the US or Europe markets. With thriving industrial market combined with computerization of everying from banks to supermarkets, Wipro has all the reasons to make this move.

[After first hour, We used to bunk college, go to ooty, ensoy and come back for last hour to give the attendance! Stupid System, only the first and last hour counts for the day!]

Coimbatore or Covai as its lovingly called, has a wealth of resources, both natural and man-made. The best of the natural ones being the renowned cozy weather, water(Though less and less parts of covai is getting siruvani water these days!) and the spectacular Ooty. The best among the man-made being the large pool of talents from around the town. These top-notch institutions churn out 10,000 graduates a year. Wipro is targeting the cream of that, about 100 or so everyyear. I bet the best among the city talents will find a reason to stay home in cbe instead of venturing out to Chennai or Bangalore or farther out. With TCS already in town, and Wipro almost there, I am optimistic more world-class companies will follow their paths to transform the textile city into a Java Town.

Mr.Premji apparently also appeared on Television interview for the very first time. Surprising isnt it? This interview for experss india has some good pointers to everyone of us. Remember, this is one of the wealthiest Individual in the universe talking. So we better listen. I am fascinated by the some of his responses.

He still goes by autorickshaw…at times.

His focus is on Education and he has visited primary schools in remotest villages and even had eaten their mid-day meals with the children.

Which country in the world has this combination of political leadership, in terms of people in power, of different religions, of different communities, of different parts of the country?

India is the best!