“If universities can have global alumni networks that give back, can cities not have the same?” The question struck me at a dinner get-together as the discussion turned to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), where I was born. After all, plenty of people affiliated with the city had found success on the world stage; we had Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and world-class economists amongst our ranks.
And yet, over the past century, Kolkata had changed from being one of the wealthiest cities in Asia to being one of the poorest. The Bengal famine of 1943 that killed between 2 to 3 million people and an influx of millions of refugees during the Bangladesh war had led to large slums across the city; approximately 22 percent of the city of 15 million people still live on under $0.25 per day, and Dasra estimates that ~78% of sex-trafficking victims in India come from the outskirts of the city.
I looked towards Robin Hood, New York City’s largest poverty-fighting organization, for inspiration. Touted by Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as the most effective non-profit in the US, the organization has pioneered a unique model of being highly selective in the non-profits they support and provide funding, while amplifying the impact of donations they give through pro-bono efforts from their volunteers.
And thus, Kolkata Foundation was born! Our organization is based on three fundamental goals: to provide a global platform for people to help the underprivileged in Kolkata, to systematically vet nonprofits and help them scale their impact by constant mentoring and guidance, and to be a bridge for the most effective nonprofits to establish their presence in Kolkata.
We are lucky to have a growing and committed team of volunteers that come from all walks of life (including the retired CFO of Axis bank and the retired CFO of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a $20B+ US nonprofit), and we’re happy to find a great partner in Kolkata Gives, a group of philanthropic businessmen in Kolkata that share a similar philosophy and have the ability to “get stuff done” in the city.
Along the way, I have had the privilege of meeting some exceptional individuals and organizations:
- RHCF, led by Anant Nevatia, has served 2.1 million patients across 15+ (and growing) centers using their low-cost healthcare delivery for $1/patient (they also have 30+ national awards along with Harvard and Yale business school studies).
- Parivaar, led by Vinayak Lohani, an IIT/IIM graduate who eschewed the corporate route to start an orphanage with 3 children that has grown to care for over 2300 boys and girls. His second venture has established more than 100 centers in a single year, providing food and education to underprivileged kids in the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh.
- Samaritan Help Mission, led by Mamoon Akhtar, who overcame humble beginnings to build 2 English medium schools with more than 6500 children and transformed the slums of Tikiapara near Howrah along the way.
- Durbar, led by Dr Smarajit Jana, a medical researcher by training, who achieved his objective of drastically reducing HIV+ among prostitutes by empowering them and creating a sex workers union of over 65000 sex workers (across more than 50 locations), and starting a micro-bank that serves 30,000 sex workers.
- Robin Hood Army, led by Neel Ghosh, that has served over 14 million meals across 125 cities through more than 35000 volunteers, while raising $0.
We currently support RHCF and Samaritan Help Mission, coordinate with the others, and have Neel Ghosh on our advisory board.
The road ahead looks exciting — we started supporting the education of 1,250 children (Grades-14) in 2018, our first year of operation, and we are looking to double our impact in 2019. For 1,000 children in Bankra, we are supporting the cost of their entire education (about $25K per year, which includes teacher and staff salaries). Our hope is to grow our support as the school grows.
We are hosting our first fundraiser on June 15 in Somerset, NJ. and working to establish ourselves as the philanthropic arm for more than 50 Durga Puja associations around the US. We also are working with our supported nonprofits to improve their accounting and marketing, and to help make their programs stronger.
Our journey has just begun; it is still “Day 1” at Kolkata Foundation, and always will be until Kolkata completes its journey to prosperity once again, and all of its citizens have the opportunity to make an impact on the world stage. And along the way, we will hopefully inspire others to establish movements to fight poverty, give back to where they grew up, and establish a model for urban philanthropic impact at scale.
Dhritiman Banerjee started Kolkata Foundation with a vision of providing a platform to bring together Calcuttans around the world to work together to fight poverty in the city. Dhritiman grew up in Kolkata, and after completing a BTech from IIT-Madras, went on to do a PhD at UC Davis, both in Computer Science. His first startup, Internet Photonics, pioneered the concept of low-cost optical networking and was acquired by Ciena in 2004 for $150M. He is currently an SVP at DE Shaw, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, and lives in Princeton with his wife and two beautiful kids.