India West – SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., United States
The deep impact of the American India Foundation’s migrant education program in Gujarat was brought home Sept. 8 in a talk by one shy 16-year-old girl from the salt pans of Kutchh, as she described the way her life has been changed by the AIF.
“If it wasn’t for the AIF, I would be married right now, and raising children,” said Sunita Koli.
Sunita has spent most of her young life working in the sun with her family, migrant salt workers in far-flung rural Gujarat. But on this evening, she positively glowed in a bright red, mirrored traditional outfit, her long black hair gleaming. As she spoke, her shyness gave way to an enormous grin — and her reticence became a blossoming confidence.
The eleventh annual AIF gala, held at the elegant Fairmont Hotel, raised $1,560,100 for its programs in India. The evening also featured a live auction emceed by NBC anchor Raj Mathai; tasty and boldly spiced new dishes from Amber India; and thrilling onstage performances by the Mona Khan dance troupe, members of Nakul Dev Mahajan’s troupe, and “Dance India Dance” season two winner Shakti Mohan.
Hosted by actor Rizwan Manji, the event attracted some of Silicon Valley’s top leaders and philanthropists.
“Things have gone exceedingly well, in spite of the economic downturn. The economy is now bouncing back, and we have already hit our March 2013 targets for most of our projects,” Dr. Sanjay Sinho, AIF’s chief executive officer, told India-West.
Both Sinho and Pradeep Kashyap, AIF vice chair, told India-West that they wanted to shine attention on two of AIF’s most high-profile and successful programs, the Learning and Migration Program, or LAMP, which has helped Sunita and 260,000 other migrant children from across India; and MAST, which teaches urban youth the solid career skills they need to succeed — not just training them relevant to a particular position, but also teaching them how to become employable.
MAST has already trained more than 70,000 youth in high-growth sectors, with a job placement rate of over 76 percent.
“They’re learning how to show up at 9 a.m., how to dress, how to be work-ready for the formal sector,” explained Kashyap.
But it was LAMP’s stellar success story that brought a tear to the eye of many in the audience, as Sunita described the grind of daily life in the heat of the Gujarat desert, carrying water and working all day, then helping to raise her siblings in a small hut that serves as their home.
Sunita was chosen by AIF to represent LAMP when she won a speech competition on the theme of Mahatma Gandhi; once denied an education, she has now completed the 10th grade at LAMP’s community school, and is about to enter the 11th grade, where she plans to study accounting. Sunita overcame her fears to fly halfway around the world to speak to a large audience for the first time in her life.
In fact, Sunita’s appearance at the gala was so impressive that it led a top financial services executive to offer her a job. Tim Zanni, managing partner of KPMG’s Silicon Valley office, announced Sept. 10 that the firm would employ Sunita.
“We are proud to encourage Sunita Koli to pursue her dream to become an accountant by offering her a mentor and the opportunity to join KPMG in India upon successful graduation from college,” said Zanni in a statement.
“KPMG believes that as a corporate citizen it shares a responsibility for the sustainability of the communities in which we work and live. Helping talented students, like Sunita, pursue business education to transform themselves into future leaders and responsible corporate citizens is a focus area for us.”
Sunita’s wasn’t the only moving story presented that night.
Also on the dias was influential philanthropist Nipun Mehta, founder of ServiceSpace.org. In his keynote speech, Mehta — a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the President’s Volunteer Service Award; and the founder of Karma Kitchen, a unique restaurant model that allows customers to pay for each other’s meals and a pay-it-forward rickshaw scheme in India — reflected on his experiences traveling across India working for social justice.
“This was my big ‘aha’ moment,” said Mehta. “Every time I go to India and meet elders and social change leaders, I ask them, ‘What was the turning point in your life?’ And invariably, they tell me, ‘It was hearing the words of Gandhi.’”
Dubbing the influence of Gandhi an example of “positive externalization,” Mehta said he was inspired by these people to make steps that he knew would have far-reaching results. “Plant trees whose fruit you may never see or take credit for,” Mehta urged the audience.
At the gala, AIF honored three other prominent Indian Americans for their charitable work: Bharat Desai, chairman and co-founder of Syntel, Inc.; his wife, Neerja Sethi, co-founder with her husband of Syntel, Inc.; and Romesh T. Wadhwani, the founder and chairman of Symphony Technology Group, a private equity firm investing in software and software services companies and one of Forbes’s list of the world’s top billionaires.
Lata Krishnan, chair of AIF’s board of directors, urged Indian Americans at the event to contribute to the AIF in any way they can. “For just $25, a rickshaw puller can become self-sustaining [through AIF’s award-winning Rickshaw Sangh]. For $19 per child, per year, you can support our Digitial Equalizer program,” she noted.
“What might seem like a weekly latte fund for someone here can change a life in India.”