When L.A. native and Vittana founder Kushal Chakrabarti speaks, he tries to jam his many big thoughts into very short sentences. A computer science class he took at the University of California, Berkeley was "intoxicating," the potential for worldwide optimism is "endless," and he describes education as his "life's calling." But this is all part of what makes this young idea-maker tick.
He was only a few years out of Berkeley and working in tech development at Amazon -- a company he credits for sparking his entrepreneurial drive -- when a New York Times article about a rickshaw driver in India caught his eye and set him off on a mission.
"This guy was spending 30 percent of his income to send his kids to school," Kushal remembered. "A person can have one of two reactions to that. The first, is 'Wow! That guy's amazing!' But the second is, 'Yes, this guy's amazing, but how many others are falling through the cracks because they can't afford school for their kids?'"
Kushal's own parents were first generation immigrants. His father had studied engineering in Bangladesh and came to the U.S. with $70 in his pocket. His mother had come from India.
"Education was the one thing they had," he said. "They had no money, they had nothing. But they had education."
The Times' article, and the ensuing ideas that popped into Kushal's head, inspired him to leave his job and lay the groundwork for a new organization -- one that would arrange student loans for kids in poverty-stricken countries, where such programs are rarely available.
Kushal called up everyone he could think of to ask for advice: friends from school, contacts he'd met through Amazon and others. He said he was "laughed out" of a few rooms.
There's no way kids in third world countries will repay loans, some said. How will you keep track of them?
Many were skeptical, but Kushal soldiered on.
"I wanted to prove that even the poorest young people are bankable, they're credit-worthy," he said. "Not only will they repay you, not only are they reliable, but this money will change their lives forever."
In the ensuing year, Kushal ventured off to Vittana's pilot countries of Peru and Paraguay and interviewed close to a hundred families with students looking to go into vocational crafts -- potential teachers, welders, nurses, administrators and builders among others.
"What was so amazing was how hard these parents were working to help their kids," he said. "You ask any of them why they work so hard, and all of them have the exact same answer: I want my kids to finish school, to get a job, to have a better chance at life than I did. That's the one universal constant on the planet."
Vittana partnered with local microfinance institutions in the countries to help arrange loans. The money donated would go directly to the student, who then had 3 years to pay the lenders back, with no interest.
Kushal had no idea if any of this would work, if anyone would put their faith in the system he created. But within the first 30 hours of Vittana's launch, every single student on the site had been paid for.
"Fully funded," Kushal said. "Completely."
Since 2008, Kushal and Vittana have helped a 1,000 students in 11 countries finish school. Last year they partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative, and in the next six months, the organization plans to take on another 4,000 students and expand to Africa and the Middle East. Incredibly, 99 percent of Vittana's partnering students repay their loans in full, and many of them start saving up while they're still in school, beginning the repayment process before they've even landed jobs.
"It's mindblowing," Kushal said. "And after a Vittana loan, on average, their income triples. In Asia, they go from making an average of three dollars a day to at least eight dollars a day."
Kushal, who said he was "kind of a jackass" in high school, was never the greatest student. "People were much smarter than me," he said. "But I'm creative and I work really, really hard. That's all you need to do something meaningful."
Head to Vittana, pick a student, put them through school. It's that simple.
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