PALO ALTO, Calif. – Bringing tears to the eyes of a packed ballroom here Sept. 30 evening, Indian American entrepreneur Vinod Bhardwaj, pioneer of the Ethernet network switch, touchingly told his story of growing up poor in Agra, at the Foundation For Excellence annual gala, which raised an estimated $800,000 to fund college scholarships for low-income engineering and medical students in India.

FFE founder Prabhu Goel introduced Bhardwaj to the sold-out crowd, stating: “Vinod represents the best of what can be achieved with a little help.” He noted that Bhardwaj’s invention is in every American home. “Vinod has made an incredible contribution to our lives.”

Sharing the rarely-told story of his youth, Bhardwaj related the tragedy of his father’s death from tuberculosis when the young boy was seven. The family had tried to have him seen at the local hospital, but a doctor dismissed them without a check-up after a two-day wait. “His turn never came,” said Bhardwaj, weeping at the memory of his father being dismissed by a surly physician.

Bhardwaj’s father, who died just six months before antibiotics became available in their corner of the world, told his wife on his deathbed that he wanted his sons to be educated. After finishing his initial education at the age of 16, Bhardwaj decided to get a job as a stenographer to be able to support his mother and siblings. But a friend, Maharaj Birmani, intervened and asked him to come study with him at IIT Kharagpur. If he could make it there, Birmani said his father would cover all of Bhardwaj’s expenses.

But Bhardwaj’s family lacked the Rs. 30 for the IIT entrance examination; his mother saved, but after several months, could not raise the necessary funds. The family of another childhood friend – Jatinder Sehgal, who was at the FFE event with Bhardwaj – gave the entrance exam fee. The young scholar graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 1967, then immigrated to the U.S. in 1982.

Bhardwaj founded Kalpana – named for his wife – in 1987, to develop the Ethernet network switch. He sold his company to Cisco in 1994.

“I am a real life example of someone whose life was changed dramatically by people helping me through my education. I have found a family in Prabhu Goel and FFE. People like you transformed my life,” said Bhardwaj, who received a standing ovation.

FFE president Minoo Gupta noted onstage that last year, the organization distributed $3.2 million in scholarships to 5,000 students. Each scholarship funds tuition, boarding, books, travel and other needs for a scholar for four years, at a cost of about $750 per year.

Since the organization’s inception in 1994, FFE has given $19.2 million in scholarships to 18,000 students, she said, noting the organization has made an impact on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals for India. One hundred percent of a donor’s dollar goes to the student: the Goel family funds all administrative costs for the organization.

Gupta, a senior software development engineer at Citrix, noted, however, that, each year, deserving youth have to be turned away for lack of funds. Venk Shukla, FFE’s past president, told the audience: “Each dollar you donate has a huge multiplier effect. If we take care of every talented kid in India, our country will be a success.”

The majority of FFE alumni have funded other scholars or a younger brother or sister through college, he said.

Shukla spoke of the son of a tailor who had earned an astonishing 96 percent in his entrance exams and had been accepted to the National Institute of Sciences. The boy applied to FFE for a scholarship, but had to be turned away for a lack of funds.

“We need twice as much money as we are currently raising to be able to fund all our applicants,” he said.

A live pledge drive got off to a good start with a $50,000 donation by David and Ann Schwab, and another donation of $50,000 from a donor who was not named. Eleven pledges of $25,000 came through in less than two minutes, and lesser amounts were rapidly pledged for a whopping total.

FFE executive director Ramesh Yadav later told India-West the organization is aiming to fund 10,000 scholarships per year in the near future. The organization has received several awards in India for its work, he noted.

On Sept. 24, at the 5th CSR Impact Awards 2018 in New Delhi, FFE India Trust was awarded the CSR Project of the Year by Anant Kumar Hegde, Union Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. Earlier that month, FFE received the Spirit of Humanity award in Mumbai.

Several FFE alumni – who now work in the San Francisco Bay Area – were brought onstage to tell their stories during the pledge drive.

The evening began with a performance by the Navarasa Dance Company, in collaboration with the local theater troupe EnActe. The story of a woman’s love was told through song and dance, which combined classical bharatnatyam with kalarippayattu, a martial-arts-based dance form from Kerala.

(See additional photos in the photo gallery at www.indiawest.com)

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