Bhavnani on IITians Giving WHEELS to Social Uplift

Gulab Bhavnani, Program Director of WHEELS

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Washington – Gulab Bhavnani, Program Director of WHEELS, perceives the program as a rallying cry for the IIT community. “Today, WHEELS is a concept that has been embraced by the Pan-IIT group, which brings all of the IIT alumni groups together in the United States, and it has also recently been embraced by the pan-IIT group in India,” notes Bhavnani.

In an exclusive interview with Tejinder Singh, Editor of India America Today, Bhavnani walks down memory lane from the conception of IITs by Indian’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to the present day thousands of IIT alumni across the globe, especially in the US, ready to facilitate social entrepreneurship and charitable activities through public-private partnerships in nation building.

You are in the drivers seat of WHEELS. What is the genesis of this program?

In order for me to explain the genesis of the program WHEELS, I would like to first give you some background about the IIT system itself. Way back in 1947, when India got its independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru realized there was a shortage of resources, both from a monetary perspective as well as from an infrastructure perspective, as well as from a bureaucracy perspective. He had limited resources that he could spend in terms of money, so he decided, among other things, to create an education system that would be unparalleled in that part of the world. He conceived of the ideas of the Institutes of Management, the Institutes of Technology, and other institutions as well, and as a part of that, the IIT system was created.

In 1952, the first of the IITs came about, and that was in Kharagpur, which is a town right outside of Calcutta. There were professors from the United States that were brought in as the teacher’s professors, who then taught the Indian professors how to teach and what to teach, and gave them the methodology that exists in a lot of the curriculums today in IIT. That system then expanded from one to two to three, and today there are 16 institutions that are online, and a 17th is about to come online very, very soon.

Originally the IITs were relatively unknown in many parts of the world, including in India, but now the institutions are regarded as very elite, Ivy League level institutions, definitely throughout America, and over most of the other parts of the world, as well. Another piece of the background of how we created WHEELS was the fact that a lot of the graduates of IIT decided to migrate to other parts of the world – the majority of the migrating alumni students decided to migrate to the United States.

Today, there are an estimated 500,000 alumni of IITs, most of them in India, but approximately 75,000 have migrated to other parts of the world, and of those 75,000, 50,000 reside right here in the United States. Those alumni have created jobs and wealth that are just astronomical in their impact to the economy. For example, there are people like Sam Petroda, Vinod Gupta, Raj Singh, etc., who have created entrepreneurial businesses that employ hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. As well, most of the Fortune 100, and including the Fortune 500 companies, have some level of IIT as part of their executive officers.

So many of the COOs, CFOs, CEOs, in some cases, are of Indian origin, and many are of IIT origin. To bring all those people together, because we were scattered all over the country, as well as all over the world – in order to bring these people together, we as a group created what we now call the IIT alumni associations in the United States. I belong to the IIT Capital Alumni Association, which covers the mid-Atlantic region, of which Washington, DC is a part. So are Maryland and Virginia.

There similarly are other IIT alumni associations on the West Coast, there’s one in Chicago, one in Boston, and one in New York. We are scattered across the country, and we realized soon that in order to bring all these alumni together, we needed to have a rallying cry. We needed to have something that would tie us together.

We came up with this concept of giving back to India, and how we gave back was actually an idea that was spawned by Kapil Sibal, who is the Minister of Human Resource Development in India, during one of his visits to this area. He challenged the alumni group when he met them to create common solutions for common problems, as opposed to giving very high technology solutions to a developing country like India. He took up that challenge, and we came up with the concept of creative solutions for common problems. Rather than create very high-level, only technology-based solutions, we wanted to give back by ways of creative solutions that would do good to masses of citizens, as opposed to a very focused, small group of citizens.

Hence the concept of WHEELS, which is an acronym for water, health, energy, education, lifestyles, and security. Today, WHEELS is a concept that has been embraced by the Pan-IIT group, which brings all of the IIT alumni groups together in the United States, and it has also recently been embraced by the Pan-IIT group in India.

I’m very proud of the fact that we’re now beginning to get traction of this idea of WHEELS, and we’re now involved in negotiating several projects which are entrepreneurial in nature and sustainable over the long term, as well as scalable to a large-scale, to the Indian population as well as to the United States. One thing I do want to mention, is that we in the United States, have decided to adopt the United States as our country, but we want to give back to India as well. So we have one leg in each country, and we’re giving back not just to India, but to the United States as well. Any project that benefits India or benefits United States, and hopefully benefits both countries, is something we would embrace, and welcome the people and professionals who run those projects.

How are you planning to finance it?

Very good question. We have a venture capital fund in India called Ivy Ventures, which has been funded by alumni of IIT association. The purpose of the fund is to promote social entrepreneurship in India. Ivy Ventures has already collected several million in assets, so that when a project, or projects of merit, come across the attention of the committee that vets the projects, we then seed those by way of incubating the idea so that it comes to fruition and becomes a project that’s scalable.

We are now mirroring that fund in the United States by way of a foundation called the WHEELS Foundation. We are in active negotiations with several people today, names of who I can’t mention now because we are in active negotiation, but the expectation is that WHEELS foundation will fund projects that will have social entrepreneurship merit behind them. That’s the funding aspect in terms of projects.

In addition to that, we would like to create a membership of people who are interested in giving back to India through the WHEELS Foundation, or through the WHEELS membership itself. These would consist of small contributors, people who would like to donate $10 each, or $20 each, or $100 each. We wish to propagate that across the country and get an organization and administrative office together to not only finance WHEELS but also promote the interests of the Indian population in the United States.

You mentioned we are 50,000 IITians in the U.S. We are more than 3 million Indian-Americans here. More than 1 million Indian Americans are eligible voters. Where is the representation? Why is there fragmentation in the Indian-American society? Do you think IITians can stitch that together?

Great question. My view is that, like with most immigrants, looking at the history of the United States itself, initially there was the European influx, primarily from the United Kingdom, as well as from France and countries around the Western European rim. They got representation. Then the Irish came in, and they took many years to get representation for their population. The Hispanics came in and it took a long, long time, many, many years, for the Hispanics to get their representation. Now I think it’s our turn.

We already have very, very prominent names, like Bobby Jindal, who’s the governor in New Orleans (Louisiana). He, along with other Indian-Americans, are gaining a foothold and are gaining prominence, and we are now gaining representation by Indian Americans in the Congress of the United States, as well as in local and state government.

There is a person by the name of Nakul Gandhi, who is our chief financial officer of Washington, DC. Similar to him, there are other people in the West Coast, there are people in Texas, and there’s representation by Indian Americans in Chicago. I’m very confident that soon we will have proportional representation both in the state level as well as the federal level in the United States Congress, as well as senators.

Are the IITians actively pursuing these political ambitions?

Absolutely. We have some very passionate people, two of whom are alumni members, as well as board members of the Capital IIT Association. Some of them are additionally board members of the Pan-IIT association. The most prominent names that come to mind are the Shenoi brothers. Sudhaker Shenoi, who is the chairman of a company called IMC and his brother, Suresh Shenoi, they attend just about every event they can that is politically organized. They go attend meetings organized by governors, by senators, and not necessarily Indian Americans, but chambers of commerce. There’s the USIBC, United States and India Business Council, that are attended by, and promoted by, IITians.

Siddharth Chowdry, who is the current president of Pan-IIT, is very active in promoting our cause, and he is an IIT alumni. Bob Nathan, who also is an IIT alumni, promotes us through representation in political circles, and Samson Gupta, Hiten Ghosh, who is a CXO in Hughes Corporation. All of them are very passionate about representation. All of the names I mentioned happen to be from the mid-Atlantic divison, but there are similarly passionate people on the West Coast, as well as in Chicago, Texas and New York.

So we can look forward to Indian-Americans, especially IITians, graduating from the photo-op kind of opportunities with political heroes to themselves becoming politically active?

I am very confident that will happen, and it will happen within the next few years.

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