Over the last several months a lot of people have been asking me why I'm in the education industry and in the midst of graduation ceremonies across the country, I thought I'd take a few minutes and reflect on how I ended up where I am. My hope is that the graduating class of 2013 find their calling in life as quickly and easily as I was so blessed to find in mine.
I work in education because I believe there are signs all around me telling me to do so. They are in the friendships I make, the TV shows I watch, the political commentary I hear on the radio, the people I network with, where I was born (Bangladesh), how I was raised. They are, literally, everywhere.
Earlier this year, the sign was on MLK day. I heard snippets from half a century ago of the great Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the radio and listening to the words of Dr. King I realized that although our lives are better in many ways, we still struggle with the same basic issues of civil liberties he fought for so long ago. There's war in Africa and the Middle East; billions of people still go to bed hungry every night or can't get a clean glass of water; and violence still holds a larger megaphone in our society than the transcendental philosophies of non-violence that Dr. King preached.
As the year progressed, I saw more signs of why I should continue to devote my life to the field of education, especially on February 12th, the birthday of my greatest hero, Abraham Lincoln--a self educated, slave freeing, union saving, Republican President of the United States of America. I thought that day a lot about his struggles, beliefs on religion, friendships, family - everything that any common man or woman thinks about in their daily routines. They, too, were not immune to great challenges and faced questions on civic society, the rights of man, domestic and international freedoms, taxes, schools, healthcare, defense - you name it, we have some equivalency in our modern times.
These are the ongoing reminders in my life of a decision I made while I was probably in high school: That the best way for me to contribute to the progression of mankind and help my fellow citizens take on new challenges that moved our species forward would be through one medium - education. I came to the conclusion long ago that I would not be the next Lincoln, MLK, Einstein or Mother Theresa, but at the very least I could help educate someone who would take on one of these roles in the future. This is my role in life, and I've yet to convince myself of any greater calling.
I wholeheartedly believe that every person on earth has a unique role to play throughout his or her life. The first step is to figure out what that role is, while the second is to actually act on those findings. How I came to the conclusion that education reform and promotion would be my role is quite simple. I took a few minutes out of every day for as long as I can remember to reflect on where I was born (Bangladesh) - and where I was actually raised (America) - and the rest of it fell into place.
Twenty two years ago, my family stepped foot on American soil for the first time. My mother, father, sister and I landed at JFK airport on a cold and snowy afternoon in New York. I was six years old and my sister was four. I don't remember anything about that day except going to my uncle's apartment in Brooklyn, and playing with the knob on the radiator that night. I'd never seen one before, having been born in Bangladesh where the average daily temperature feels like 100 degrees and the need for a radiator is nonexistent. My uncle and his family had been living in the states for a while, along with other relatives strewn across Maryland, D.C., Texas, California, Florida and elsewhere (some of whom had long ago migrated here in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Now, we were going to join them in the pursuit of the great American Dream.
The great American Dream - this is something that's recently contributed to my thoughts on why I'm in education. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, one of the great refrains from President Barack Obama's stump speech was when he said, "In no other country on earth, is my story even possible." This one line had a profound impact on me because it was also my story. I know it's his story and that of millions around this country, but this was definitely my story.
My family was not wealthy, and my parents lived through the birth of a new nation in which three million human beings were slaughtered in 1971, the year Bangladesh gained its independence from Pakistan. My parents were not college educated or skilled workers in any particular field, but were fortunate enough to have siblings who helped them make a new life in a magical land. They were young, hungry, hardworking, and above all wanted a better life for their kids, and in this country that's all it really takes to close an entire generational gap of fear, poverty, abuse, imprisonment, and education--which is exactly what my parents did.
My sister and I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, and worked our way to the lives we're blessed with now. She went on to George Washington University before taking a job with the International Monetary Fund and then moving on to graduate school at NYU, while marrying an Ivy League attorney on Wall Street in between. I ended up at Virginia Tech, and went on to start my first Venture-backed business in college, which I later sold in a small equity deal to what is now a major division in one of the largest education companies in the country. I left that job over two years ago to start my current company Always Prepped, backed by some of the best investors in the tech world, which I hope will transform how teachers and parents analyze student outcomes.
I often sit back and think about how blessed I am and the circumstances that have allowed me to live such an incredible life, and I wonder why every child on earth isn't given this opportunity. I'm not blind or willfully ignorant of the realities around us that have so far made this impossible -- but I also refuse to simply bow down and lose to what is the expected and accepted outcome by so many. I'm eternally grateful for the sacrifices my parents have made and they serve as a constant reminder that millions of parents around the world will go to bed tonight feeling sad, humiliated, and depressed that they won't be able to give their kids an education to achieve as my sister and I were given -- not because they don't want to, but because many of them are themselves completely uneducated and unaware of how to break this cycle of hopelessness.
Clean water, a warm bed, and healthcare mean little to me if we can't include basic literacy in that fundamental guarantee of human existence for every person on this planet. And until that's achieved, people no longer need to wonder why I work in education. I hope that students graduating in this class and many more to come will join me and countless others across the education landscape to make basic literacy a fundamental human right.