Written by Aditi Shankar
“Until 2008, I was living with what I had made in my business. Unfortunately, I had made some major mistakes and they all converged together in 2008—my investments literally evaporated. I had to cut back on everything except Shanti Bhavan.” – Dr. Abraham George
Entrepreneur-turned-banker-turned-philanthropist Dr. Abraham George, founded the Shanti Bhavan Residential School located in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1997. The school offers world-class education and care to children within the Dalit (untouchable) caste to ultimately help elevate them from the dredges of poverty. Shanti Bhavan has received recognition in recent years, catalyzed further by Netflix’s release of Daughters of Destiny, a docuseries following students at the school. Dr. George holds MBA, MS, and PhD degrees in Business Administration, specializing in Development Economics and International Finance, from NYU Stern.
The Gould Standard sat down with Dr. George to discuss his career path and motivations behind his charitable initiatives.
Question 1: Your background is highly diversified—walk me through your motivations and decision-making process along the way.
I started out in the military in India, having graduated from an office’s training academy. I lived underground, digging into the hills of the Himalayas to create bunkers. In the evening, the sun would set, and I would sit on top of the hill and look down—the sky was always below me, the clouds were always below me. By looking at the world like that, I reflected on what I was doing.
I had already traveled around India, and I was very aware of the poverty. Famines used to break out, with no real solution in place. And, the caste system was so prevalent. I was appalled by these things. Even though I was quite isolated from them, and I said to myself that I want to dedicate my life to make lives better for these people. I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew I had to make a lot of money to do it.
At the age of 21, I decided to leave the army. My mother was already in the US, working as a physicist at NASA and teaching in a college. She gave me the opportunity to come to America and start all over again. My goal was always the same—I wanted to make money quickly, so that I could embark upon what I had decided on top of the hills.
Question 2: What was the inspiration behind Shanti Bhavan specifically?
With 25 years in the business, I had gained some management experience. In my mind, the way to solve social injustice is to empower the people who are unjustly treated. If they have a good education and good jobs, the caste system will fall apart. It became clear to me that the way to solve the problem was to empower 300 million Dalits by creating Shanti Bhavan, where young people receive the best education and upbringing to become professionally successful people. Eventually, they transform their communities. In one generation, we can take down that cycle of discrimination and poverty that remains entrenched in a 1500-year-old caste system.
Question 3: Shanti Bhavan has received recognition through the Netflix documentary Daughters of Destiny. Especially as parts of rural India are rampant with issues of gender discrimination, including female infanticide, how does Shanti Bhavan incorporate feminism into its curriculum?
We don’t talk much about feminism. We don’t need to preach; we teach by action. We expect our children to treat the opposite gender the same way they’d treat their own—there is no excuse for a boy to mistreat a girl. Rather than approaching these issues in a confrontational manner, we make our children aware of issues—we discuss the Delhi bus rape incident, we talk about real life situations—for girls, for transgender people, for any discriminated class. We ask the boys: what will you do if you see your classmate, a girl, being harassed on a bus? I wouldn’t classify it as an education on feminism; it’s more about establishing respect for one another.
Question 4: In 2008, you started seeking investments from outside sources. How did you go about attracting investors during the global financial crisis?
Until 2008, I was living with what I had made in my business. Unfortunately, I had made some major mistakes and they all converged together in 2008—my investments literally evaporated. I had to cut back on everything except Shanti Bhavan. We scaled back on some operations, and I brought my elder son, Ajit, into the fundraising efforts. In the last five years or so, the NRI (Non-Resident Indian) population in the US has been especially giving. This makes me particularly optimistic for the future of Shanti Bhavan and Indian charitable causes as a whole.
Question 5: You talked about making money before making an impact. How did your business background help you develop the model for this initiative?
There is no absolutely no doubt in my mind that a good education (in my case, a business education, especially at Stern) really helps. There’s no substitute. Further, running your own business for 25 years gave me the practical experience of managing people, of managing the organization, of building something from scratch. It didn’t matter that I had never done the things I do today before.
My biggest task is motivating the 70 to 80 people who work for me. There is an obvious human element to this: how do I get them to engage the values upon which this was founded? This is a management issue, and both my educational and business experiences have made all the difference.