Ask Pratham USA supporters how they were introduced to the organization and most will reference Vijay and Marie Goradia. In 1998, Vijay — founder and chairman of Vinmar International, a global distributor of chemicals and polymers — established the national non-profit from Houston after a fortuitous business trip to India.
“I was introduced to this doctor who wanted me to come look at this program of teaching slum children in Mumbai,” he recalled. “I told him I had one hour to spare between my meetings. He said, ‘I’ll do you one better, I’ll take you to a slum and you can see for yourself.’”
Vijay watched 20 kindergarten-aged children learning from the floor of a small shack, which he later found out was the teacher’s home. What he didn’t expect was for the children to be so joyful.
“They were jumping up and down with excitement. It was so amazing,” he said. “I was very impressed by the way the teacher was interacting with the kids. I thought maybe it was staged for me.”
So they walked to another slum. Same scene.
Pratham USA was founded to provide education to children in Mumbai slums and is now one of the largest and most successful non-governmental education organizations in India. The volunteer-driven non-profit’s 13 chapters raise awareness and financial resources toward Pratham USA’s operations in 21 of India’s 29 states. For more information, please visit prathamusa.org.
Vijay knew he wanted to help India’s educators scale up their curriculum and capabilities. But he couldn’t do it alone.
Once he returned to Houston, Vijay pitched his idea to friends and pledged to match all donations up to $150,000. The following year, he upped the ante to $250,000. “And that was the beginning of Pratham USA.”
Today the organization boasts 13 chapters and has impacted approximately 75 million children. The original goal was to teach basic reading and writing skills to youth aged 3 to 7; over the years, remedial education at an accelerated pace and initiatives designed specifically to help Indian girls get a high school education were added, too.
“Those programs for young women who’ve been abandoned by spouses or fathers help them eventually own little businesses in their villages, like beauty shops,” explained advisory board member Shital Patel. “I believe that education is the only way to turn a developing country into a developed country. And unlike the U.S., there’s no free access. You have to pay. Where does that leave poor families when they’re barely making it?”
Last year, Bayou City patrons who share her zeal for the mission raised more than $4 million during Pratham USA’s annual gala at Hilton Americas-Houston.
Patel describes the well-attended event as entertaining, motivating, informative and also glamorous. “It’s black-tie optional, but most of the women dress up in their Indian finest,” she said.
She and fellow leadership had looked forward to celebrating Pratham USA’s 25th anniversary in April. Then when COVID-19 hit, they pushed the soiree to September and hoped for the best. Ultimately, the pandemic changed their plans.
“I was on the gala planning committee, all 13 chapters came up with the idea of this virtual gala,” Patel said. “We pulled it off in roughly six weeks.”
On July 18, some 1,100 supporters tuned in online for the organization’s first-ever national gala, “Pratham Beyond: Making Learning Limitless.” The evening — which featured CNN host and Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, actor/producer Anil Kapoor, and singer-songwriter Shantanu “Shaan” Mukherjee — raised $2 million toward providing remote learning tools for 600,000 of India’s most vulnerable students.
Dhiren Shethia, President of Pratham USA’s local chapter, is proud to report that Houston was the biggest contributor to the success of this year’s fundraiser. Like Patel, the Goradias drew him to the cause.
“My wife and I were initially just attending the events. I’m from India, and we’d visit Pratham’s facilities,” he said. “We really bought into the organization and what it stands for.”
Overall, he’s pleased with how the virtual festivities turned out. More than 350 Houstonians logged on, and all 15 auction volunteers are based in town. Some guests were treated to four-course meals from Verandah by their hosts.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Shethia said. “They did a great job of laying out the challenges of children in India, especially in light of COVID-19.”