Prabhu Goel uses his fortune to help bright scholars get a college education and transform their lives. Now this circle is growing bigger.
Last year, at a Foundation For Education (FFE) gala dinner in the US, the man behind the EtherNet multiport network switch, Vinod Bhardwaj, stood in front of an audience. Having earned his millions – he sold his company Kalpana to Cisco – the story he told them was not about his professional successes. Instead, it was about his poverty-riddled life in India when as a bright student, his education in IIT was thanks to the largesse of his friend’s father. “We all have debt to the past generation but the best way to give back is to help the future generation through education,” he said tearfully to an audience, which was in tears as well.
California-based Prabhu Goel, the sprightly seventy-year-old founder of FEE, counts Bhardwaj as a friend whose extraordinary story echoed partially with his own. Seated in his cabin at FFE’s city office in Indiranagar, Goel talked about his middleclass family and his father who made sure that all the seven siblings got the best of education, even if it meant taking loans.
Goel went on to do an engineering undergrad in IIT Kanpur and a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. He worked in various US companies before setting up his own company, Gateway Design Automation, in 1981. After “seven intense years” during which the company developed the now industry standard Verilog language, Gateway was sold in 1989 for a tidy sum of about 80 million dollars.
After selling his company and becoming a venture capitalist, Goel says he and his wife Poonam felt that they had a lot more money than what they knew it could do in a lifetime for them. In 1990, they decided to ‘significantly’ make a transformational difference in someone’s life. Education, they decided was the way, and FFE began in earnest – by sponsoring bright scholars who are qualified to become engineers or doctors but don’t have the money for college expenses. “Usually, such students go on to become clerks after dropping out,” Goel said.
I tell our scholars that adversity is not a bad thing. Those who have overcome it have usually become extremely successful.
– Prabhu Gole, founder, Foundation for Education
FFE started reaching out to such students through Indian professionals in the US who in turn, reached out to families and friends in India for help. “Believe it or not, almost everybody came back with one or two students,” he remarked. The first beneficiary in 1994 is still a special one for FFE. A tailor’s daughter in Chennai had wanted to become a doctor in spite of her father’s wish that she trained as a tailor. “I believe she went on to become a doctor,” Goel said, regretting that in the initial years they didn’t keep track of the scholars.
This year, FEE completes 25 years and in this period it has 50,000 scholarships and helped 18,500 students across India. In any academic year, there are 5,200 scholars of which 1,000 are new intakes. Initially, it took as little as 100 dollars annually to take care of one scholar’s college fees, books and boarding. Sometimes, FFE would pay a little extra towards funding the family’s sustenance. Today, the amount is anywhere between 700-1,000 dollars per scholar. What would once be entirely funded by Goel’s personal funds, FEE has now opened to outside funding.
The anatomy of giving
According to Goel, people give because the act of giving results in lasting satisfaction and happiness for the giver. “It reinforces a sense of purpose in life,” he said. Citing Bhardwaj as an example, Goel discussed the pass-it-on model of giving. “This model works very well with people who have received something.” FFE’s past scholars in India alone have given `6 crores to the organisation for sponsoring scholars.
Giving isn’t about money alone. Many beneficiaries become role models and mentor others. Some FFE scholars go back to their villages or towns to talk to other students. In one village where FFE sponsored the first girl scholar to become an engineer, seven more became engineers.
Eventually, FFE hopes to create a circle of giving and each graduating scholar takes a moral pledge to help two scholars in their lifetime. “If this circle of giving is complete, we will grow exponentially,” Goel said. Above all, beneficiaries are asked not to be ashamed of their adversity. Society, Goel says, looks down on those who are poor. “But I tell our scholars that adversity is not a bad thing. Those who have overcome it have usually become extremely successful.”
On the gala night dinner, Bhardwaj admitted to have been ashamed to speak of his adversity when he was a student. He regretted not having acknowledged publicly then about the generosity of his friend’s father. He told those who had gathered, “Through FFE I found a way to pay it forward since I could never pay it back.” For Goel, it may have been the best endorsement of the act of giving. “Education is the best gift in life. Proper education prepares an individual to live with dignity.”