Ajit George on Shanti Bhavan: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty (#130)
Our Guest Today: Ajit George
Ajit George is the Director of Operations at Shanti Bhavan’s Children’s Project.
Shanti Bhavan brings children from generational poverty to a life of dignity and achievement. Their students are the first in their families to become authors, computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers.
Their mission is to break the cycle of poverty for India’s “lowest caste”, also known as the untouchables in India, by providing impoverished children with a world-class education from pre-kindergarten through college, and into their working careers.
Does this sound completely unrealistic?
Ajit’s father, Dr. Abraham George, is the Founder and Principal of Shanti Bhavan since 1997. That’s right – Shanti Bhavan has been around for 20 years and raised a generation of students.
This is a true story of love and hope.
You might be wondering how I discovered Shanti Bhavan and Ajit George. It was through their Netflix series called Daughter’s of Destiny, featuring the story of five young women from Shaunti Bhavan. After listening to this episode, I highly encourage you to binge watch this series. 🙂
- [05:00] Did Netflix triggered new interest in the Shanti Bhavan organization?
- [07:00] What are some of the things that you learned from hearing the stories about these people while shooting the documentary?
- [09:00] The production was very big. How did the production of that series impact your life and your role in the organization?
- [13:00] What is your particular role in the organization? There is a generational gap and you are a facilitator between the subgroups. How does that make you feel?
- [18:00] Shanti Bhavan not only admit girls but also has boys, but the documentary focuses on the stories of young girls. Was this on purpose and part of the original plan?
- [22:00] Fei and Ajit discussing the role of women in a poor environment and families and relating that their roles, decisions, and impact.
- [28:00] What was it like when your father approached you, as a kid, and shared this vision of Shanti Bhavan?
- [31:00] Where did you grow up? What are some of your early memories?
- [36:00] Your parents had a very different vision for their success (instead of seeking financial growth exclusively, they want to change the lives of future generations). What are your comments on that?
- [45:00] How much time do you spend between the US and India? Where do you currently live in the US?
- [48:00] How much money do you need to raise in order to replicate the school somewhere else?
[53:00] What sources do you have for financial support?
- [56:00] You mentioned organic farming, how does that work at Shanti Bhavan?
[07:00] Some of the stories are very different, but some stories have similarities at least in the challenges of poverty that the individuals writing had. It’s been interesting to see how they watched the stories of these 5 young women and felt a connection. That speaks to universal humanism and that’s been very powerful to watch.
[14:00] It’s more than a school, I think of it as a community, and almost an ecosystem. The youngest child there is 4, and the oldest graduate is 25, so that’s a huge range and there’re a lot of traditions and culture that come around for that period of time.
[25:00] Some of the best schools I went to teach me that I should think about myself first, and I should be very successful and I should not worry about anything else besides that. That seems to be at odds with what my parents taught me and what I personally believe in. I believe that we are born into a world that we are sharing with our fellow human beings, and hopefully we are gonna leave this world better than we entered it and that we should be proactive in our contributions.
[26:00] Go on and be successful, go on and make money, go on and attain your dreams. But make sure that part of your dream is to give back to people in need. To give back to society, to be a positive contributor to this world, to help those in trouble…
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Fei Wu 0:01
Hey, hello, how are you? This is a show for everyone else. Instead of going after top one person on the world, we dedicate this podcast to celebrate the lives of the unsung heroes and self made artists.
Ajit George 0:36
Some stories are very different, but some stories have similarities, at least in some of the challenges of poverty that the individuals who are writing to us we’re talking about, it’s been interesting to see how they kind of watch the stories of these five young women and what we’re doing, and feel a connection because of that. And so that’s been pretty powerful, because that speaks to Universal Humanism, that we are all sharing certain experiences. And we have certain ways of dealing with hardship or challenges that evoke certain emotions. And so that’s been very powerful to watch. It’s more than a school, I think of it as a community and almost an ecosystem. The youngest child, there’s four and the oldest graduate is 25. So that’s a huge range. And there’s a lot of lived experiences and a lot of traditions and culture that comes around through that period of time. You know, some of the best schools I went to actually taught me I should think about myself first, and I should be very successful, and not really worried about anything else besides that, right. And that seems to be at odds with what my parents taught me. And what I personally believe in and I believe in that we’re we are born into a world that we are sharing with our fellow human beings and that hopefully, we’re going to leave this world better than we entered it and that we should be proactive in our contributions positively to this world. And I think that is the ethos of shanti Bhavan. We we really instill a sense of civic and social responsibility within that kids. Go on and be successful. Go on and make money go on and attain your dreams. But make sure that part of your dream is to give back to people in need to give back to society to be a positive contributor to this world, to help those in trouble.
Fei Wu 2:29
Hello, it’s Fei Wu, your host for the face world podcast. Today’s unsung hero is Ajit George, he is the director of operations at Shanti bobbins children’s project. First of all, let me tell you a bit about Shanti Bhavan. They bring children from generational poverty to a life of dignity and achievement. Their students are the first in their families to become authors, computer scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, nurses, and more. Their mission is to break the cycle of poverty for India’s lowest caste, also known as The Untouchables with a world class education, enabling them to aspire to careers and professions of their choice. Shanti Bhavan provides 17 years of holistic education from pre kindergarten all the way through college and into their working careers. This may be the most ambitious and perhaps the most unrealistic project I’ve ever come across. AGIS father, Dr. Abraham George is the founder and principal of shanti Bhavan. He has quite a story which you will hear some from Ajit himself adjuncts presence and support for Shanti Bhavan makes the whole story arc even more engaging for me to watch. As he’s closer to the students age, I can see a different type of transformation. And he’s like a big brother to hundreds of these children at Shanti Bhavan. The level of trust and love is just unforeseen. We talked about ups and downs of the school, and how they conquered the most difficult financial crisis and continued to run the school. We also talked about the organic farming at Shanti Bhavan and how the students get to work on the farm and enjoy the delicious food they will consume. This is a true story of love and hope. You might be wondering how I discover Shanti Bhavan and agile George, it was actually through a Netflix series called Daughters of destiny, featuring the story of five young women from Shanti Bhavan. After listening to this episode, I highly encourage you to binge watch this very series. Social Service is a big component of face world, perhaps one of the most popular category. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to stop by face world.com And check out a few others as well. Without further ado, please welcome Ajit George to the face world Podcast
first questions, you know, it sounds like Netflix did trigger the interest the impact that I guess you were expecting?
Ajit George 5:22
Yeah, I would say that Netflix has been been great for us, the series has kind of opened up the organization to a new audience, and a new demographic, or rather multiple different audiences from across the world, we have an outpouring of people who have written to us from South and Central America, so a lot of people from Brazil or Argentina or Chile, and from Mexico, so across across the, across the continent, and that’s been pretty exciting, as well as a number of people from Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and of course, through Asia. And of course, you know, United States and Canada as well. So, I think there are areas and communities that have never heard about the organization or never knew something like shone through haven’t existed that had, we’re able to see it and connect to their own lives in some fashion. You know, especially people from communities or areas that are dealing with their own poverty, have written to us wishing that, you know, there was a Shanti Bhavan, where they were that there was a school like that, or an organization like us near them. And so that’s been both heartwarming, but also, you know, a bit sad, a little bit challenging to kind of hear their stories and the hardships that they face, too.
Fei Wu 6:40
Yeah. And so I wonder how did hearing about these people’s stories, maybe comforted you or kind of shocked you in a way, I mean, it’s so easy to compare, but at the same time difficult. When I started watching the series, I thought about my upbringing, and which was in Beijing, China, but there was a Project Hope, what was the name for the longest time where children from the villages or the countryside, they did not have the privilege to go to school? But what are some of the things I guess you learned in comparison to Shanti? Bhavan? Are there any similarities? Are they drastically different from one another?
Ajit George 7:19
So I think that, you know, some of the stories that I’ve heard from people or that they’ve written to us or talk to us about, some stories are very different. But some stories have similarities, at least in some of the challenges of poverty that the individuals who are writing to us are talking about, or that they have witnessed or have been, you know, very close to. And so, it’s been interesting to see how, how they kind of watch the stories of these five young women and what we’re doing, and feel a connection because of that. And so that’s been pretty powerful, because that speaks to Universal Humanism, that we are all sharing certain experiences, and we have certain ways of dealing with hardship or challenges that evoke certain emotions. And so that’s been very powerful to watch. On other hand, they’ve also, you know, people have responded with incredible, you know, enthusiasm and kindness towards us and saying that the work we’re doing is completely surprising to them, and very moving to them. And that’s been really validating, and very supportive. You know, sometimes the work can be this work is I love it, but it’s always complicated. And so it is sometimes great to get encouragement and support and belief in what you’re doing. It gives that extra push when things are really tough.
Fei Wu 8:36
Yeah, absolutely. When I saw the documentary, what crossed my mind was the fact that it just the volume of tasks, the expectations on you, and you alone was quite gigantic. And, and I happen to be in the industry of you know, multimedia, advertising and marketing. So I know how much work that typically goes into, say, a one minute video, but you didn’t just take on one two hour documentary, you actually took on a whole series, and that was so beautifully designed, so well shot. And I wonder how did producing such as yours kind of impact your life, your role? And I feel like that’s part of a pretty big challenge, potentially, too.
Ajit George 9:21
So yeah, I think I have been very lucky to be mostly a facilitator and the subject of or one of the subjects of the documentary series. The credit really goes to Vanessa Roth, who is the director and executive producer, and her production team, cause and effect media. And the way the series came about was a volunteer was really excited by the program. And she thought this was something that was unique and she’d never seen, you know, before, you know, one of her neighbors was Vanessa and she told Vanessa and said, Hey, I really think you should take a look at this. She already knew that Vanessa was a veteran doc comentary filmmaker, and Vanessa and I met for coffee in New York. And we talked about it. And, you know, my role as Director of Operations, one of the things is to ensure the stability of the organization and making sure that you know, that we are, you know, there’s the continuity of the organization, and that we’re treated fairly, and that you know, that we’re not, you know, that somebody is like is in the story is done on us that it’s done accurately, and then it’s done fairly, and that people understand the full picture of it. So we’ve been approached before, and we’ve had one documentary done earlier, that was 90 minutes. And they did a great job, too. But they only got a snapshot, because they were only there for a certain period of time. And Vanessa was looking to do something a bit longer and a little bit more extensive. And we had a lot of conversations before she started filming, because I needed to feel reassured she was going to do our organization justice, and get into some of the real details of what we do. But on the flip side, she’s an independent documentary filmmaker, who had made her living, had won an Oscar before with some of her work. And he was very established, he had, you know, a couple of decades worth of experience under her belt, it was really important to her to maintain her maintain her independence, that the documentary wasn’t going to be a promotional piece for Shanti Bhavan. It was an advertising for Shanti Baba, and it was genuinely a independent documentary, shot by her and produced by her team. And that’s what was created. So what you see with otter is a destiny is sort of collaboration of like, were the subjects and we were able to work with her and getting her access that she wouldn’t get access otherwise, like she would not be able to go into some of the communities she was able to go to and shoot in without us kind of facilitating that. And the parents would not have talked to her as openly and as transparently as they did without us kind of reassuring them that she’s going to do them justice, and she’s going to be fair. But on the flip side, we had no editorial control and no control of their day to day logistics. But the credit to the film is really her, you know, Vanessa Roth and her incredible team that spent seven years working on this series, and seven years. Yeah, it was, it’s a labor of love and a lot of work. And a couple of years ago, I think she realized it was going to be well longer than a full length documentary film. And she approached Netflix and Netflix was really enthusiastic about the film and what the footage she had, and they picked it up and worked with her to finish the filming and to see it through production.
Fei Wu 12:36
Well, seven years is a long time, I remember talking to another guest from equivalent, like a Disney animation will be with hundreds of people involved, you know, millions of dollars and typically takes around that time, you know, six, seven years. And another thing you mentioned, I thought it was really kind of astonishing to me is no editorial control. I think that’s rather daring from you, and your Father, who is the founder of the organization, you know, and I also find your role to be really interesting in that film, your role was very important, because there is that kind of generational gap, you know, between the young, very young girls and boys and you know, your father who’s so established, and then there you are, and some of the translation occurred because of you how did that dynamic kind of make you feel? Like when did you feel like, wow, there may be getting too close to the edge? Or maybe my father one like this, whatever, this is not, you know, give the world people have never traveled to India never even interacted with an Indian person. Would they misinterpret this? I mean,
Ajit George 13:47
yeah, I mean, you’re, you’re really you really hit it, and that it did take us a lot of trust. And, you know, some of my team members, you know, kind of talked to me about it and said, You know, it’s hard for an outsider to understand Shanthi, Bevin had a glimpse, like, we’ve been working with the organization for a couple years, and we’re still understanding the organization. It’s been around for 20 years. And it’s, it’s more than a school, I think of it as a community and almost an ecosystem. The youngest child, there’s four and the oldest graduate is 25. So that’s a huge range. And there’s a lot of lived experiences and a lot of traditions and culture that comes around through that period of time. So it took a lot of trust from us. And it did take a lot of conversations back and forth between Vanessa and myself and our team to establish trust and credit. And, you know, I give her a lot of credit for being very honest and transparent and being very genuine with us. And we felt comfortable that she would be fair to us and then not always everything we wouldn’t necessarily like that was shot or we will not maybe like every moment that you know comes on screen, but it’s going to be a very true story. And I think that the authenticity of the story is much more powerful than if we had to had editorial control. With regards to my role, like, you know, I do think you captured it again there that it, I think I bridge between, you know, my father and his generation and his way of looking at things, and then the students and the children that are with us and their way of looking at things. And often I am able to put myself in their shoes, at least when I’m dealing with maybe educational challenges or personal challenges, you know, I can kind of draw on my experiences of being between both worlds, right? I was the first child born from both sides of the family in the United States. And that is an interesting space to occupy in terms of culture shift. And that culture shift for the SP kids or the Shanti, Bhavan kids is similar. They’re still living in India, but they’re living in a community that has a very western set of values, in combination with a very Eastern set of values. It’s a hybrid of two worlds. And that community represents kind of living in between two worlds. And so the SP kids are living between two worlds on campus, but they’re also living between two worlds with the Ashanti Blevins community versus the communities that they grew up with. So I, I, while my lived experiences are different, definitely different from bears, I do understand some of the emotional turmoil or complexities that come between that and I think I was able to, I think I am continually able to speak to them effectively bridging those two worlds. And that’s, that’s really important, I think it gives them a new avenue to express their feelings that it’s differently. Like they have a different relationship with my father, which is a very solid and strong relationship. But my father is also very much a father figure a little bit sometimes, you know, a little bit Stern, a little bit like they sometimes a little scared of him, not scared of him is not the right word. But maybe they’re a little bit intimidated by him, because he’s such a accomplished man who is much older than them. And I’m a little bit more accessible in some level, because I’m closer to their age. And I have similar, you know, cultural contexts.
Fei Wu 16:59
I can almost relate to that, because I and I teach a lot of I teach martial arts at a local taekwondo school, and I get to interact with these kids too, from, you know, age four and up. And they’re just no other opportunity for me to really engage with people at that age, and the power that we have, and the sort of the privilege, we have to influence their lives and making their lives better, is something I never quite imagined. Yes, so fascinating to me. Um, there, there are a million question that I still have. But one thing I noticed is the choice of choosing five girls. I after I introduced this film to a number of my friends and men and women there were all little surprised that Shanti Baba not only had have girls, but those who have boys. Was this choice kind of, you know, made on your own. Was this something that Vanessa chose to focus on girls only and not boys for the film?
Ajit George 17:59
Yeah, so Vanessa originally, had planned to have a mix of both boys and girls. And she, she she filmed organically. I think Vanessa’s process is sort of to go with her instinct of where interesting stories are at the moment. And so I think the times that she was filming, she had captured some of these girls and really found things about them that were interesting to her and spoke to her. She has two daughters of her own. And I can see where maybe the stories of the girls that she followed might remind her in some ways of her two daughters, and she’s a son as well, who’s much younger than her two daughters. But I suspect maybe some of the the elements of these girls spoke to her of her own daughters. That’s me. That’s me, extrapolating or guessing, having known her daughter’s a little bit, she also followed boys. But I think what she told me at a certain point was that originally she was going to do a mix. And as she was looking at the footage, and as their team was looking at the footage, they really felt that the stories that they had around the girls and the time they spent with the girls was substantially longer and they had more footage and they had more compelling stories around them. And they didn’t have enough with the boys, they felt a foolish flesh out their storylines. And so they didn’t think they would do it justice to the boys. If they tried to include them, it would be more like a half effort. Whereas they felt they had really strong full stories with the five girls that they followed. And so I think that was a really strong motivating factor for her choosing five girls over a mixed set of boys and girls. I think the other reason she went with girls over boys, I think there’s a lot that’s happened in the last couple of years that have spoken to both challenges that women are facing in the global in the global context, as well as of course in the American context. And I think it was important for her to elevate and illustrate and shine a spotlight on the stories of these five young women in a very particular way and this very particular time in history. And so that was the decision made and I think it’s it’s resonated well. On the other hand, I think there’s some really, really powerful stories with our young boys. That I hope at another time. Yeah, you know that maybe there’s an opportunity to tell those stories, too. And I would really love that to happen. Well, I think actually, some part of the interesting some of the interesting stories are actually the mix of the two and how the boys and the girls get along with each other in Shanti, Bhavan, and kind of that relationship and those dynamics, and how do you create a gender equal equal society, when the prevailing attitudes around you don’t really lend? lend to that? So I’m excited to see, you know, maybe future opportunities?
Fei Wu 20:40
Yeah, I think that’s definitely a given because of the film kind of showcased the world outside of shanti Bhavan, especially in towns where these girls these children are from. And the difference is sort of between how their parents interact with one another where the women had very little control over their own destiny, if anything at all.
Remember, there was a very short scene where you sat down in the dorm room with about five boys reading through the survey and asking them if they knew that, you know, the worst countries for women to kind of grow up in which India happens to be one of them. And they were shocked to hear that, and then you even further developed situational questions where, and asking these young boys what they would do in that situation? And their answers were so drastically different than someone who were not, you know, as if they’re never attended the school, I suspect the answers will be drastically different. So the changes are not temporary, but they’re permanent. And that is so powerful to me to witness.
Ajit George 22:17
Yeah, this, the segment you’re talking about was as part of a larger workshop that, that I conduct on campus called feminism for boys and Shanti. Bhavan has been constructed from day one, as a gender equal society and as a society as opposed to school because it really is a society. And it, it lenses, there’s many ways that we kind of enforce that, or, you know, showcase that or support that. And that’s part of it is the leadership responsibilities that are equally split between the boys and the girls. In every context, whether it’s inside the classroom, or on the soccer field, or for special events, or when guests come, we always really strongly enforce gender equality. And we correct any behavior that we think lends to sexism or misogyny. But once you get past the surface, as you will know, there’s a lot of subtle discrimination or sexism that comes up that may not be overtly demonstrated, but our internal, you know, ideas harbored within, you know, within a person, you know, they’re constantly getting counter programming from their home villages, or the areas that they come from. They see violence against women, they see prejudice against women, or discrimination against women. And so I thought it would be important to delve deeper with a series of workshops called feminism for boys, which really has them think about these questions more robustly. There’s elements of role playing those elements of you know, trying to embody the opposite gender and kind of think through a complexity what that might be and how they might feel. And so these are deeper mechanisms to kind of ensure a more equitable society or gender equal society. That is part of the ethos of shanti Bhavan education is really only scratching the surface of what Shanti Bhavan does. I have been privileged to go to some of the best schools in the US and, you know, had a lot of opportunities in my life. But what I realized later on was at no point in my life, did any of these educational institutions teach me anything about what it means to be a human being? What it means? What my places in society? What is my responsibility? Do I have any duties or obligations? You know, some of the best schools I went to actually taught me I should think about myself first, and I should be very successful, and not really worried about anything else besides that, right. And that seems to be at odds with what my parents taught me and what I personally believe in and I believe in that we are we are born into a world that we are sharing with our fellow human beings and that hopefully we’re going to leave this world better than we entered it and that we should be proactive in our contributions. positively to this world. And I think that is the ethos of shanti Bhavan. And we, we really instill a sense of civic and social responsibility within the kids. And so we say, Yeah, go on and be successful, go on and make money go on and attain your dreams. But make sure that part of your dream is to give back to people in need to give back to society to be a positive contributor to this world, to help those in trouble. That you owe a debt to your fellow human beings on this earth. And debt that you should do by whatever action can you can do, maybe maybe it’s by volunteering, maybe it is by donating, maybe it’s by supporting those in need, but but take action. And so the social fabric is a really important part of this Shanti Bhavan ethos, and community and school. And I’m really proud of that part.
Fei Wu 25:51
There’s so much I want to learn about you, I’m glad you brought it up. And I also at the same time, I don’t want to give away so much of what this documentary entails. And it really touches so many aspects of life. And these young men and women grow up not to just be booksmart. But they really know how to dealt with social situations in a way that you’re given their upbringing and the situation, they’re still in, they must adapt. And one of the segments I especially love is to watch these young young women have to return home. And the the healthy cross pollination on one hand of teaching their younger siblings, how to do math, how to speak English, but on the flip side, they are talking and saying, Do we come across as being arrogant, or as we’re better and smarter than everybody else? And you’re sitting there watching this is like, thinking a 10 year old girl has to make that conscious decision? What is the right or wrong thing to do? It’s not so clear, you know, it was so fascinating.
Ajit George 26:55
Yeah, it’s the kids who live between two worlds, and they are trying to navigate those worlds complex ly. And on one hand, they want to support their families. They’re trying their best to teach, they’re trying their best to support uplift to guide their families and to be and to be loved and respected and be part of their family. Like anybody else. On the other hand, they are different from other family members, because they’ve been given this great opportunity. And they’re trying to make the most of those opportunity, that opportunity. But their contexts now of how they speak, how they conduct themselves, what they expect, what they don’t want to happen, is very different. And so, you know, especially as the young girls get older, they’re they’re very firm about ensuring agency for their own bodies, and not marrying early or, you know, being subjected to the whim of a man. And so they are navigating some pretty complex lines, which makes their their triumphs and their successes, all the more amazing and beautiful to behold,
Fei Wu 28:02
yeah, love that. It’s so interesting to kind of hear your perspective, too, after I watch the film. And one of the things that I thought about immediately after is I really want to hear your experience. And so thanks so much for sharing. I wanted to learn more about you because I imagine the school was founded 20 years ago and has accomplished so much in nearly two decades. But I imagine when I want to know what was it like when your father approached you maybe with your mom, and maybe to you and your younger brother, and then share this story or share this vision with you? Do you have any recollection of that?
Ajit George 28:43
Yeah, sure. I mean, I, I’m 42. So I was 22 when the school was founded. And so I’m old enough to you know, think about it constructively and with some maturity, but also with a lot of ignorance. And the key thing that I thought about was my father had always been a generous man throughout his life. And so I wasn’t entirely surprised or taken aback by his ideas. And I really was actually pretty thrilled and excited and embrace them. But I don’t think I quite knew the whole of what he was doing. In fairness, I don’t think he knew the whole of what he was doing. I think it became much larger than either of us expected, or anybody in the family expected. And I think that’s a great thing. I think it’s going to be you know, I think it’s gonna be much bigger than any of us in the family. And it’s already much bigger than any of us, but it will, it will eclipse anything else around us. And that’s really exciting to see it go forward. But um, I think when father first talked about it, I was excited by it. And I was intrigued by it. And I thought that was really I was very proud of him for thinking beyond himself. Having grown up with wealthy peers. I had seen a tendency that the The height of accomplishment might be the size of a home or the vehicle that they drove, or maybe the job that they attained. And that was the marker of their value in society. And it would have been easy for my father to go down that same path, certainly easy for our family to follow that path that my father chose consciously to not do that. And to say that his value in this world is by what he can do for others. And that our my family as a whole has embraced that ethos as well, is something I am deeply proud of, and hope that will be a role model for others that maybe people will take some inspiration from our work and think similarly about their work.
Fei Wu 30:45
I’m so glad to hear you say that there are families and friends, some friends that is sort of like through my parents in that work, hedge fund managers to independent entrepreneurs who’ve made money that I can possibly count, but especially in recent years, I almost felt disappointed that they didn’t really take the initiative to do something for their community. Even when it comes to the smallest things. It’s all about a bigger paycheck. It’s all about like you said, Where can they buy their next vacation homes and diamonds? And God knows what, but it may I ask, where did you grow up? And you know, what, what was it? What was it like for you as a child?
Ajit George 31:29
Sure, I was born in New York City, Columbia University Hospital, and, you know, grew up in New Jersey, most of my life, Montclair, the North Caldwell, The Boonton Township. And so I knew New Jersey pretty well. And I think the different neighborhoods, we moved throughout, we illustrated my parents, ascension in wealth and success. As they became wealthier and more successful, we moved to nicer neighborhoods and better homes. And that experience was mostly good. There were times where it was challenging, because we would move every few years. And so being uprooted and shifting locations was a little bit complicated in terms of maintaining relationships and friendships, and aim and maintaining expectations within schools. I think in other areas, you know, it was interesting, the more successful my family became, the more I encountered racism. And that was, that was hard, because we were in more and more all white communities with less minorities. And so I think sometimes that lack of other people like yourself can cause some problems in terms of, you know, the majority understanding a minority, right, if you’re the only one there, there are certain preconceptions, and certain biases that can come crop up. So there were some complexities especially as I got older, but my parents were always very loving and very supportive. They were very kind and generous and helpful. But they’re also strict and have very high expectations. In I would say, the, the stereotypical Asian, you know, kind of stereotype that you sort of expect. And so sometimes I lived up to that sometimes it didn’t, sometimes I was genuinely rebellious against it. And those were, those are interesting travels. But I think those that journey of both embracing on some level, high expectations, and then other levels, rebelling against it helped shape me both who I am today, I think, I am a man with high expectations and a strong drive towards excellence. And yet a understanding and ability to deal with the unorthodox or to also deal with the unexpected and understand that the journey is not always a straight line. And I think that’s something that’s often forgotten. But there’s something I tried to work with the kids as well, that you know, there’s a lot of detours and curves and hardships that the children that Shanti Bhavan face and my own lived experiences of having some some pretty big dramatic ups and downs. Help me give them practical advice about countering their own ups and downs.
Fei Wu 34:11
You know, I just got back from New York City two days ago at an oral taekwondo Hall of Fame event. And that was the first time for me to visit a town on the way back which was Greenwich Connecticut, so I actually never heard of it and just happened to be grabbing dinner on the way back and what surprised me however, is just the as the similarities among people living in Greenwich is a beautiful town and I don’t mean to judge people and ask if they’re all the same, but I noticed just the level of prepping is very example a little bit similar to a town closer to YM such as Wellesley, Massachusetts and Wellesley College, but a Greenwich is almost on steroids, like ever. It was incredible was so eye opening. To me, a 16 year old carrying a Chanel purse, a teenager is driving Lamborghini. I mean, you, you see that and in downtown, there’s Saks Fifth Avenue shop there, for some reason that look really random to me. And then I mean, I can believe that happened before our interview, and I sat there waiting for this recording the star and realize you were 22 at a time, and your dad of your parents basically approach to you and said, for people who are listening who haven’t watched the series, you know, take basically taking in these four year old children, who came from absolutely nothing, a group of basically a class of people identified as the untouchables, I had to even look it up, to understand what that meant. And, and then to raise them until they’re 18, and then pay for college tuition. And to make sure that they have their successful their jobs and to support them. I mean, that’s basically approaching you and say, Son, we’re giving everything away, we’re giving all the money, our money our family has ever made away. And meanwhile, your 22 year, you still have to work, right? It’s not like your life is said and done. So instead of saving the Asians being in the Asian mentality, saving millions, billions of dollars for my children, so they never have to work again, where your children’s children don’t have to work again. Wow, I mean, what a, what a difference of that image of what I just witnessed to, it still shocks my system to talk about it.
Ajit George 36:32
Yeah, it is, um, you know, something to think about. My parents were extremely wealthy, at the height of, you know, their success. And when they were about to start Shanti Bhavan. And they’ve done a lot of other charitable work in India, that made a pretty big impact. My father led the largest testing and treatment of lead poisoning ever done in the world, and it indirectly influenced the introduction of unleaded gasoline in India, which was a huge environmental, you know, impact on the country. But, um, when he, before he started all of these endeavors, you know, there’s this point of like, high level of wealth, certainly, you know, 1%, or 1%, kind of level of wealth, it would have been easy to go along that road and live in that life of luxury, you know, had my father’s simply invested wisely, would have compounded and I would never have to work again, and same with my brother and my children story, and so on and so forth. Right, which is very much the, you know, Asian way of doing things, which is to maintain your wealth, ensure the family is secure, ensure, especially, you know, the sons, the first son, and you know, gets a huge inheritance, and so on and so forth. I will say that I am deeply thankful that my parents did the decision that they did, not only for all of the kids and all the people whose lives they have deeply touched and impacted and uplifted, and they have, their very impact has been outsized. I mean, when you think of, you know, Shanti, Bhavan, it’s direct intervention that changes the entire course and trajectory of not only a single child, but their entire family and their communities. But also, you know, something like the lead poisoning and treatment that changed the direction of an entire nation, and what its environmental impact was, that is a huge accomplishment on itself. But when I think about actually the impact for me, personally, I have had the chance of knowing people from extreme wealth throughout my life, a lot of them, I get along with very well and enjoy their company. But I also see that I have more than a few have confided to me, the struggle, they have to have some meaning in their life, and the struggle, they have to I think find purpose or find reason to do anything, is pretty remarkable. And that is I think, maybe, you know, there’s no woe is me, for people who are incredibly wealthy. But certainly, I am glad I didn’t walk down that road myself. You know, I think that the documentary series goes into the very best passingly where we hit a financial crisis. I have spoken before about how actually how tough that was that basically what better our entire family. We were on the verge of bankruptcy, bankruptcy, everything we had material possessions of any any value was sold off, or, you know, lost, you know, some of our money was swindled away or there’s we went through a huge calamity. And so we went from extreme wealth to, you know, near poverty at one point, that was enormous ly difficult and I don’t say that I enjoy any moment of that experience. But I will say that the going through that fire, it’s a bit of like a crucible, burns away all that is nonsense, and all that is unimportant in the world and kind of boils it down to the fundamentals of what is valuable, gave me tremendous strength and the ability to see what is valuable in my life and what isn’t, and not having a lot of excess in my life. These days. I live a modest but comfortable Life has given me a lot of meaning the work I do will be the most important thing I ever will ever do in my life, it is my life’s mission, it is my cause it is my reason to live. And it is powerful. And I am thankful for that because I would rather have that than a ton of money and have no understanding as to what to do with it or reason to have it. Like I just can’t imagine buying ridiculously expensive luxury items upon luxury items, and just having entire closets full of it, you know, just doesn’t isn’t the way of way I want to live life. Now, it’d be great to have a lot of money and enable the exercise that to better good. If I had billions of dollars, suddenly, I certainly would build another school and there were more things I would accomplish with that money. But I see money as a means to a greater end.
Fei Wu 41:08
You mentioned that now you live a comfortable lifestyle. i I wonder what drives you? What makes you happy these days? What are your hobbies outside of shanti? Bhavan. That’s consuming I’m sure a lot of your time.
Ajit George 41:22
Yeah, so Shanti Bhavan is basically I recently decided that I was going to take one day off a week, and just not check emails, but it has been most of the time for many years, a seven day, a week job and, you know, 1012 hours a day. And so you know, it’s long hours, and it’s every day, and it’s pretty taxing, you know, very vacations are few and far between. But when you love the work, and you believe in the cause it is it ceases or it is less, like I hear other people describe their work, and they pretty much always are looking to escape it. They’re just they can’t wait to get home from work, they can’t wait to do anything else about work. Whereas I think of work is an extension of myself, it gives me meaning it is it drives me and ignites my imagination. And why I’m excited by it is because as I said, like I don’t see it as just an uplifting an individual child, though I am so wrapped up with the lives of all of our children, their like their lives are important to me, and the hardships that they face. And the challenges they face are important to me. But I also see it as a movement as something bigger than any one of us, including myself or my father or any one of our children, is the ability for these kids to have an outsized impact. So I see you know, from from here, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, these kids who are you know, 25, or 20 to 25 will become you know, 30 to 35. They’ll start being in like, you know, senior positions, or middle level positions or companies, maybe they’ll start building companies, maybe they’ll start entering politics, what kind of impact are they going to have 20 to 30 years out, like maybe they’ll be able to transform systems or societies within communities in a very powerful way. Maybe they can start creating policy or enacting policy, maybe they can start changing the way we do business. Sure. Maybe it’ll always be a capitalistic society. But maybe there is a different way about how corporations engage with their environment and their communities, how they allocate funds, there’s so many different ways that I have not imagined, but I am so excited to see what our kids will do. And I’m hoping that we build a second school and a third school. So the schools are networked with each other you think about two three different schools and in an ecosystem where the kids are maybe spending time at different schools, like they like a study abroad program, except they’re just going to another Shanti Bhavan. And they are they spend summers together in a summer camp. So all three schools are all for schools are all the kids who are there together, they’re building communities together, and shaping each other by a shared system of values, and goals. And I think that’s super exciting. So there’s a lot of things in my mind, I have these, I have a vision and I have certain expectations and desires that I want to accomplish within my lifetime to see all of the the architecture set up to build this, I feel like Shanti Bhavan is just the beginning of the journey, and that there’s so many more things that I want to accomplish in my life. And that’s really how I you know, what keeps me going. But outside of that, you know, I I try to practice yoga every day. I learned taekwondo for many years when I was younger, and then, you know, in the last few years, I’ve picked up Brazilian jujitsu and I enjoy that as well. It’s it’s fun, and it’s competitive. And it sort of gets me in a different, different space because a lot of time I’m spending a lot of time in my head thinking about things and as you know, like something like taekwondo or jujitsu is very physical and so you think maybe less or it’s more like an instinct or on on ritual and you go on on autopilot, and there’s a certain part of your brain that turns off and a different part of your brain that turns on. And so that that is exciting to me, too. I really enjoy that. And, yeah, that’s really the ways I kind of spend my free time.
Fei Wu 45:11
How much time do you split kind of between us and traveling to India at this moment?
Ajit George 45:17
Sure, I spend four months of the year in India, that’s January and February, and then June and July. And those are the top of the semesters. So the semester goes from June through middle of December, and then it goes from January through middle of April. So I try to be there at the beginning of both semesters for the first couple of months to help, you know, really establish, you know, the expectations for the semester and really talk with the kids talk with the teachers and the administrators make sure that everybody’s really on on on track. And kind of, you know, we also have foreign volunteers and kind of work with them as well. And kind of set things in motion. And then I come back to the US.
Fei Wu 45:54
Wow, that’s four months is a still a very serious commitment. And we’re where do you currently reside in the US?
Ajit George 46:00
Yeah, I’m in Seattle right now. So I lived in the Northeast most of my life, but my fiance is based in in here and Seattle. So I work from home so I could I could work anywhere, we try to keep costs low. So we don’t have a permanent office in the US. And so it was easy for me to move across the country for her.
Fei Wu 46:21
Wow, that says, I love Seattle and Portland, Oregon. So in love, does your fiance potential will travel with you and pursue this endeavor with you?
Ajit George 46:33
Yeah, she so she, we were dating for close to a year. And then she came out for the first time and she she was finishing up her master’s program. So she had a little bit of time in between. So she, she volunteered for six, six weeks with the organization to really understand it and get a good grasp of what you know, what was my my life’s calling, it was pretty important for her to understand that and she she really loves the organization and believes in it wholeheartedly. And then every year since she has taken off a couple of weeks to spend time with me when in June, because there’s that’s when we have our graduation. So it’s a kind of a big, three day four day Sara celebration, where we honor the kids who are graduating and send them off to college, or the kids also who have just graduated from college and are starting work for the first time, we kind of throw a little celebration. And so everybody, the whole community gets together then and so she comes there to throw in that time.
Fei Wu 47:28
That sounds like a lot of fun. I’m sure she will feel the same way to be able to interact with these kids. On a personal level, it was just so powerful. I must ask what does it take to build another school? How much money do you need to raise to kind of replicate the model of shanti Bhavan.
Ajit George 47:49
We’ve got a November 9 Gala. And we’re goal is to do two point 5,000,002 point 5 million kind of does phase one, which is the purchasing of the land and the development of the land. And the first set of buildings and development Atlanta is pretty complex. Because we do organic farming on the land. And we have our own deep ball water systems, we have our own solar systems, everything like that we’re not entirely energy independent, but we’re pretty close. And we do take up a fair amount of space for the kids in partially because it’s just not a school, it really is a community. And so we want the kids to have enough space to play sports, to feel at home to feel safe abuse rates in the community that the kids come from is pretty high. It’s about 80% some level of physical sexual abuse the kids have endured, or, you know, they’ve been victimized at some point in their lives. And so there’s a lot of interesting aspects of the school that is not apparent on the surface, but one of them is a lower than normal depression rate and PTSD, PTSD rate for that population. And there’s a lot of reasons why the boarding school aspect is one of them, removing them from their, you know, their source of trauma, but it’s also just the beauty of the school and the environment. And so that’s why we put a lot of value in into making sure the environment is good, the total cost for the school will go up to 6 million once everything is finished. And that that means you know, like all the different buildings, and that’s administrative buildings for the teachers who live on campus. So that they can live there their families can live there, you know, are our teams including the kitchen facilities, all of it, there’s a lot that goes into building a full fledged community like shopping above. And so our overall goal is 6 million. And once we you know, the financial component is the biggest component by far in ensuring the school we can build a second school. But then the secondary component is finding the right team. We’re not willing to compromise on any element of the school. And there’s a reason for that. There’s often been this sense that people or children from the poor or poor people deserve less or don’t need as much I think there’s sort of an internal prejudice in our own minds that they’re like, well, they’re poor and so Like if we can just give them a meal, or they can just do really read or write, that’s enough. That’s all they really need, you know, somehow our expectations for them are much less than our own personal expectations for ourselves or our own children. And something about men doesn’t operate on that we, we believe that the children of the poor, the poor themselves deserve just as much as anyone else. And that our expectations are just the same on them as anyone else. So we give these children the same resources that any middle class or upper middle class family would get. But we our expectations are very high, we strive for excellence. And we don’t really take a lot of excuses from the kids as to why they don’t do well. And that’s actually been really great. Sometimes we’ve been told that, hey, it sounds like you guys put a lot of pressure on the kids. And I say, I grew up with a lot of pressure. And that molded me to rise to expectations. I knew my parents believed in my capability to succeed. When you tell a child, Hey, it’s okay. If you don’t do really well on us on a test, you know, it’s gonna be fine. The child doesn’t think you believe in them, and they don’t believe you think that you have faith that they can do well, but when you say, Hey, I know you can do well on this exam, I expect you to, to really put in the hours and work hard and study and take do whatever it needs you need to do to do well on this exam, or do well in your job or do well in any aspect of life. They want to rise to that expectation. They know you believe in them, they know you love them, that you care for them, and you want the best for them. And I think that pressure and that push really does make a powerful impact. And so that’s reflected in everything we do in terms of the quality of the institution, the facilities, if you ever get a chance to visit us, I think you will find it to be chunked above and to be modest, but beautiful and lovely in everything that that is there. But you also see the staff, you know, our staff have very modest salaries and you know, work very hard. But they we have high expectations of excellence from the staff and every member of the team. And it’s the same for the kids. So I think that the main main component in the My long winded answer about what it would take is financial, obviously, the money is the biggest money is always the biggest obstacle for any endeavor, I think. And then the second is finding the right team members who are willing to really see this as not a job, but as a mission as a cause that they can believe in, and that they can find joy in as they work.
Fei Wu 52:28
I wonder if there’s any opportunity for organizations like Shanti Bhavan, to be more self sustaining, when, you know, through contribution, maybe from the alumni or some sort, I feel like the current consensus that that you continue to give and then to support the school. But I wonder the financial support support could also come from elsewhere, too. Yeah,
Ajit George 52:53
I think eventually, the the institution will be self sustaining by the alumni. Um, but I think that’s going to take probably 1020 years before that happens as they all like, you know, move into like higher paying jobs, and I’m sure many of them will contribute back to the institution in some form or the other. As you know, sometimes the NGO world has certain benchmarks. And one of them is sustainability is something that’s tossed around a lot. And I kind of joke with that is I feel like that’s sometimes a buzzword that that’s passed around kind of fashionably, and I think, Well, every institution is sustainable if with enough money, right? Like Apple is not Apple is not self sustaining, unless it sells product corporations need to sell products to make money, right. And NGO, I think of it less than somebody who’s giving a donation, but you’re giving an investment. And so maybe I’m not selling a product, but I am espousing a value or a change. And hopefully, a donor thinks that change is worthy of their investment. If I failed to produce excellent results, if our kids don’t go on to be changemakers in their communities, or they’re not like, by the end of the program, they’re not out of poverty, and they’re not able to alleviate their families out of poverty, then that’s fair. And I think it’s fair to be criticized for that. And then that is a failure on our part is an institution and then maybe, then there’s a reassessment of whether, you know, financial support is there. But I think a much in the same way that a corporation succeeds or fails on the quality of its product, an NGO should feel fail or succeed on the quality of its outcomes. And that was probably a better benchmark than a self sustained system. That shouldn’t expect financial support in any in any fashion. Um, but I do think eventually, you know, to address your larger question, I think to do eventually that the alumni will be major contributors to its well being, but then if we expand to a second school or third school, we’ll need more funds for that. And I really do think we as a community, or as a people or society should think about NGOs differently early on We shouldn’t be so wrapped up about whether an NGO is sustainable, but rather, what is the outcomes of that NGO? And is it worth investing in those outcomes? Like, do you? Do you agree with those outcomes? And if so, is it worth the investment, and that’s sort of how I talk to donors these days, I say, hey, look, you know, it’s an investment, and you’re not going to get that investment back in your pocket. But then investment is going to go pay forward to other people in need, and it’s going to replicate, your money is going to, to grow, and it’s going to grow, and it’s going to have incredible impact well beyond what you see today,
Fei Wu 55:29
that I see so many successful Indian entrepreneurs, you know, who potentially grew up in some of these neighborhoods, maybe not as humble as some of these beginnings here. But you know, they’re thriving in the US and elsewhere in the world, I can absolutely see the the intention or sort of the motivation to contribute to Shanti, Bhavan. You know, really making your, I think the first level I was making your own country of a definitely better place for women, for young for young people. But also I can see even beyond the Indian population, but the world population of people contributing to and to be able to learn from that I personally learned so much about NGO and I have I can skip, there’s one question, I feel like I, if I must ask you, you mentioned the word organic farming, and really have it kill you. But I noticed in the film that your father was walking around and making sure that there’s enough, there’s enough food, and then they’re fresh, and, and the kids talk about that they’re hungry in college, because they, you know, this sort of, they had to take care of themselves for the first time. But when they’re in Shanti, Bhavan, they were eating for six times a day, they’re never hungry, the very nutritious food,
Ajit George 56:45
we maintain an organic farm that has a wide variety of crops. And that is a partially because we want to be food independent to the best of our abilities. But also because of health reasons, we want the kids to have a nutritious nourishing set of meals every day. And we sometimes worry about, you know what, where the vegetables are coming from if we buy them from outside, or what chemicals or pesticides might be used. The other advantage of the farm is that the kids get to work on it. You know, what, once a week, and so they may not always love it at the moment. But I think it really instills in them a certain value about knowing where your food is coming from having some responsibility for your food and having some responsibility for your home and the upkeep of your home. And I think these are really pretty valuable lessons that they learn. I’m excited by the organic farm really enjoy what it produces. We have some cows also. So we have fresh milk and yogurt on campus. And all of that it’s been it’s been really it adds to the community element of this of this school that it really is a community that thinks about multiple different aspects of what it requires to be a good human being in this world well beyond just education. These are all components that build off of each other and help us shape us a sharper, helps shape our identities and how we will go forward in the world. And I think the kids you know farming and working on it and contributing to their own meals. Being mindful and conscientious of where their food is coming from and how they take care of their food. How they must be contributors, not just consumers are all positive messages.
Fei Wu 58:37
Wow. Sounds so much more fun than all the private schools I’ve ever heard of.
Ajit George 58:45
I would say that like almost every volunteer who ever goes to Shanti Bhavan will say I kind of wish I’d gone to this school. I feel this way too.
Fei Wu 58:55
This sounds a lot more fun. Wow, thank you so much, Ajit.
Ajit George 59:01
Thank you. It was wonderful talking to you. Yeah, likewise
Fei Wu 59:03
have a great rest of your day.
Ajit George 59:05
Fei Wu 59:17
Hey, it’s Fei. I am back for a few words at the end of the show. I hope you enjoy what you heard. You can visit us online at face world.com where social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, also under face world to keep things simple. I personally review and respond to all the messages. Love to hear from you. Thank you and lots of hugs. See you next week.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai