“To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
This was the quote I first noticed on a desk, as I was escorted to a simple room with a plain wooden table. My eye went towards a quiet gentleman, wearing a crisp new shirt, high waisted pants, and holding a water glass. His expression was lowered to the ground, as he stood up slowly with the biggest smile on his face to softly shake my hand. It was an experience of a humble awakening in a world of hard handshakes and loud conversations.
I had been wondering on how I would break the ice with this quaint individual. Perhaps it would be most relevant to talk about how I broke my corporate golden handcuffs from the Silicon Valley Tech world, to launch an NRI youth movement towards non-profit devotion. But I knew I had to speak from the heart. So the conversation somehow took a turn about laws of the universe and philosophies of life: from me discussing the concept of faith due to my grandmother’s impending death, to this gentleman’s childhood experiences of growing up with 7 siblings. It wasn’t until I was leaving the meeting that the escorted security reminded me I was in the presence of Narayan Murthy for the past 1.5 hours, drinking badam milk and listening to many interesting stories.
“Medha, if you don’t find happiness in the smallest of things, you will never be content,” he said. So I asked, what is your secret to happiness?
“Well, the most joy I ever experienced was when I was growing up with all my siblings, with the comfort of 2 meals a day, a wardrobe of 2 shirts and 2 pants and no chappals (sandals, until I was much older). My dad who was a teacher, said one’s key to happiness are 3 things in life: good books, good music, and good company.”
We then shifted gears into his personal, groundbreaking experience, “I once had to go hungry for 120 hours, no food no water, in a Bulgarian prison. I was on a train, and was mistakenly arrested over false suspicions of communism. I was a brown kid, with no cash on hand, and had to function on an empty stomach to get to Paris to eat my first morsel of food in 5 days.
That feeling of hunger left a lasting impression.”
Thus, down the line, started a keen interest for Narayan Murthy in Akshaya Patra (AP), the now-largest NGO in the world, providing mid-day meals to underprivileged children in India. And he was one of the many notable visionaries who is taking the organization to new heights by serving on the board and donating time & resources selflessly.
We talked about how India’s economic progress is not an indicator of wealth or GDP growth, but at its baseline, is the indicator of resources available to the poorest kid in the remotest village. India will soon be the largest country in the world, and its progress is not just in the interest of patriotism, but is in the interest of all humanity itself. We cannot expect our humanity to progress unless our youth has the opportunity to rise above the ashes of their childhood poverty through education and literacy. But you see, for the mind to soar, the belly needs to be full. For the kids to enroll and stay in school away from child labor, we need to have a macro-nutritional incentive strategy. Or simply put, provide the only meal of the day for most of these children so it could serve as a critical intervention addressing both hunger and education.
Akshaya Patra does just that.
Akshaya Patra means the unlimited bowl of abundance and sustenance. Beginning in 2000 serving 1,500 meals to a small group of local schools with frugal innovation, the organization has built world-class, highly efficient kitchens that can cook anywhere between 10,000 to 250,000 meals within 6 hours daily. Over 19 years, AP has scaled to currently serving 1.76 million meals in 15K+ government schools in 12 Indian states, daily. Within the U.S, AP has grown to 25 chapter cities with 400+ volunteers on the ground, launching 36 events just in the past year itself to raise awareness.
Coming from the corporate world myself heading up HR functions, I became part of this organization with a reserved and rather interrogative persona. And I quickly stood corrected as I realized that the leadership team had crafted a beautiful culture of diligent corporate mindset with the heart of a non-profit. I was rather impressed with their proactive Bain & Company strategic partnership to expand the donor database, double the rate of donor retention, significantly lower the meal costs, amplify social impact value by expanding nursery school services, streamlining kitchen constructions and not losing sight of remote area developments. With ivy-league based research teams to measure impact and results, to strategizing transformation of the public school infrastructure in India...from being the only non-profit inaugurated into the Hall of Fame for the Institute of Chartered Accountants for Excellence in Financial Transparency, to having avid supporters such as PM Narendra Modi, Deepak Chopra, Fareed Zakaria, Mohandas Pai; there is never a moment of rest until Akshaya Patra reaches its goal of 5 billion meals served.
“Success is what we take, happiness is what we give.” I read this quote on my trip to India as I was visiting the organization for the first time as a newly initiated U.S. Advisory Board member. But its essence was not realized until I walked the kitchens and saw its impact, which is when AP’s vision came to life: no child will be deprived of education because of hunger.
And I would ask for each one of you, for the sake of our children and the future of India, to realize this vision yourself.
(Medha Rishi is a newly inducted U.S. Advisory Board member to the largest NGO in the world serving mid-day meals to underprivileged children in India, Akshaya Patra; akshayapatra.org. She recently journeyed back to India in order to chronicle her experience with board members such as Narayan Murthy, and the inner workings of the organization. Rishi, Indian American CEO of GlobalHRAdvice.com, is organizing the first AP Young Professionals chapter in the U.S in order to launch an NRI youth philanthropic movement, and is always looking for ideas and events for awareness building purposes. She resides with her family in California, and can be reached at email@example.com. For more information on Akshaya Patra U.S.A, visit foodforeducation.org.)