Indian-Americans in the U.S. have decidedly carved out a niche for themselves as torch bearers in whatever field they survey. Now the intellectual capital that has fueled corporations from ground up is being generously applied to ignite and fan the flame of philanthropy in the Indian-American community. The earthquake that ravaged Gujarat in early 2001 was in essence the rallying point for Indians in the U.S., to contemplate on how best to reach out to a nation in crisis.

Ironically, it was former U.S. President Bill Clinton, an ardent supporter of India, who took the initiative to invite prominent Indians to Washington, to brainstorm relief efforts, following his talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A core team of leading Indian-Americans, met with Clinton on Feb. 9, 2001. In March 2001, the momentum built by Clinton’s zeal and parallel efforts at the time led to the American India Foundation (AIF), a new non-profit 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, to assist in the rehabilitation of Gujarat.

Clinton joined Rajat Gupta, managing director of McKinsey and Co. and Victor Menezes, chairman and CEO, Citibank, as co-chairperson of AIF. In one of the earliest endeavors of AIF, Clinton accompanied a team of Stanford surgeons sent to Gujarat under its “Project Swasthya” program to perform much needed surgical, neurological, and orthopedic procedures on victims and to mentor Indian doctors. Since then, AIF has distributed more than $4 million in Gujarat, on rebuilding homes, expanding educational opportunities for children, and restoring income for people who were displaced by the earthquake, working with dedicated NGOs in the region like Abhiyan, SEWA, Kala Raksha, and Janvikas.

With the Gujarat earthquake campaign well underway, AIF’s mission today has expanded to embrace all of India, to aid her development by transferring financial, managerial, and technological resources from the U.S. In the post 9/11 scenarios AIF has made providing assistance within the U.S., during times of need, its adjunct mission. While it has donated $1 million, its prayer vigil held in San Jose, a week after the tragedy reinforced the commitment of the Indian-American community and drew tremendous support.

American India Foundation’s emerging “all India” programs aimed at the empowerment of women, primary and digital education, and health are engaging enthusiastic volunteers at every age and stage of life, be they tech visionaries or successful entrepreneurs, professionals, students, seniors or housewives. “My vision is for the AIF is to be a unifying force, in which every Indian-American family has some participation and giving in terms of ideas, time and money,” says Kailash Joshi, trustee and former president of AIF and current president, TiE Silicon Valley.

Management by Objective

Being run and backed by stalwarts from the industry with systematic checks and balances in place gives AIF a significant degree of credibility. “We studied the landscape and saw there was momentum and business value, but no single organization like the Rockefeller or Ford Foundation, with accountability, transparency and process,” observes Lata Krishnan, president of AIF and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist in her own right.

Krishnan is part of a full-time executive team together with Pradeep Kashyap, executive director of AIF, and a former senior official at Citibank. “The need is great, and there is tremendous market opportunity with one out of six people in the world being of Indian origin. It is essential for those with the desire and means to do whatever possible to support the economic future of India,” says Krishnan who came on board in July 2001. Krishnan and Kashyap operate in Silicon Valley and New York respectively with a handful of paid staff and volunteers in the U.S. and India. A team from Mckinsey and Co. provides pro bono analysis to target education and NGOs.

All India Programs

“Our board and trustees are a Who’s Who, but it is important for programs to have credibility,” says Krishnan. To its credit, AIF’s mission has drawn many career professionals who are contributing their skills full-time to its cause. Two such social entrepreneurs are Lakshmi Pratury, until recently a venture capitalist with Intel who manages AIF’s “Digital Equalizer” project and Sameer Bhatia, co-founder of a technology venture in San Francisco, now in charge of AIF’s “Microcredit for Women” project. “The total available market is unlimited,” says Bhatia. Krishnan is excited about a loan program along the lines of Grameen Bank and its potential for livelihood regeneration. “As an entrepreneur, it is compelling to teach women to fish and not give them the fish,” she asserts.

The Digital Equalizer (DE) initiative is designed to help bridge the “digital divide” by building computer-based learning centers for young and underprivileged students throughout underdeveloped regions of India. Each center provides disadvantaged youths from grades 9 through 12, access to computer facilities, educational content and the Web. “If a DE center has to be set up, ground staff will interview 100 schools, principals, teachers, and the private sector. The school spends on some infrastructure so they have skin in the game. Ultimately the private sector comes in,” says Krishnan of the processes in place. The first two centers were launched in Karnataka in August 2001 by Kumar Malavalli, AIF trustee and founder, Brocade Communications, and Kailash Joshi.

With 54 centers up and running, AIF is poised to be the local arm for “Schools Online” with a goal is to build more DE centers further in rural areas as community centers appealing to children, seniors and artisans. Pratury sees her role as that of a “venture philanthropist,” excited by the possibilities of using digital technology to ultimately achieve economic independence.

Yet another project based on felt necessities is the AIF Service Corps. “Akin to the Peace Corps, this is a program that is focused on building cross-cultural bridges, that is so important for future generations,” says Krishnan. Volunteers drawn from across the U.S., ranging in age from 20 to 35 and diverse backgrounds, apply to be placed with NGOs in Gujarat and other areas to work on shelter reconstruction, education, health, and livelihood projects, including helping to design and build computer learning centers for underprivileged children.

AIF’s Women’s Initiative Network program is an attempt to mobilize the vast pool of educated women in the San Francisco Bay Area, who have chosen to stay at home, but wish to get involved in a noble endeavor. The idea is to raise a goal amount through hosting of lunches and spreading the word among like-minded friends. “Ultimately, women have the satisfaction of deciding where the money will go and we get to keep our operational costs down,” says Lakshmi Pratury, who has also coined the term ALTEM which stands for At Least $10 a Month.

Revenue Model

While AIF is raising funds in the U.S. from all organizations, corporations, and individuals interested in helping India, major funding currently comes from the Trustees who have committed to contributing $100,000 per year. Its Indian advisory board includes prominent business, social, and cultural leaders including Deepak Parekh, chairman HDFC, K.V. Kamath, managing director and CEO of ICICI, and actress Shabana Azmi. The board recommends and monitors the management and disbursement of funds and works closely with local government and non-governmental organizations. “Our model is one of innovative and scalable ideas, which should effect policy because at the end of the day, we have to work with government,” notes Krishnan.

With its two-pronged functions of grant making activity and running independent programs, AIF has a project selection team which is continuously identifying new Indian organizations and areas of intervention that are truly effective in having a positive impact on the lives of ordinary people. “There are criteria for evaluation of NGOs—business plans, milestones and a systematic and staggered disbursement of funds,” explains Krishnan.

One way AIF is working with other organizations is in helping channel their monies to NGOs in India. Currently, more than 10 organizations are working to send over a $1 million through AIF utilizing AIF’s on the ground expertise in selecting and monitoring NGOs.

Its fundraising events and campaigns that are focused on awareness building and specific activities (e.g. Gujarat earthquake relief) are making an impact. It recently hosted the premier of Ismail Merchant’s film The Mystic Masseur, and earlier Mira Nair’s film Monsoon Wedding, book readings titled “India on My Mind” by novelists Shashi Tharoor and Chitra Divakaruni. AIF chapters are up and running in Washington DC, Boston, New York and the SF Bay Area and are coming up in Houston, Chicago, and Seattle.

Given her entrepreneurial roots Lata Krishnan thinks of AIF as a business to be run and is committing full time to it. “To me the customer is the child in need of education, the shareholder base is the donors trusting us with their investment, and the return is the education. Our challenge is how best to leverage the money in order to maximize the returns.”

For more information about the American India Foundation, visit www.aifoundation.org
Vijayalakshmi Kashyap is a strategic marketing consultant based in the Bay Area.