Ankur Bora writes about the annual tech awards 2011 where AFNA supported Rickshaw bank and founder Dr. Pradip Kumar Sarmah was a Tech Awards Laureate.
On 20th October 2011, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, more than 1400 people attended the Annual Tech Awards, a gala event, that celebrated not companies or products, but rather people and organizations that are using the benefits of technology to make the world a better place.
I had the great privilege of attending the prestigious award function and also the prior significant events that culminated to the final big day. The Tech Awards honored fifteen laureate organizations from around the world belonging to different categories. It was an action-packed week for me as I got to meet and know exceptional individuals, meeting life’s challenges with hope, inspiration and bravery, contributing to society in the most amazing ways. Sometimes the stories are simple and at other times they are hard and heartbreaking. But each story and each path was that of resilience, commitment and immense hard work. My admiration and inspiration grew tenfold on meeting many of the laureates, learning about their work and contribution to the less privileged masses.
Planting the seeds
I was invited by the Tech award committee to represent Assam Foundation of North America (AFNA). I had submitted the Rickshaw Bank project on behalf of AFNA and in the month of September 2011 we were greeted with the exciting news of the award nomination.
It’s an enriching story of a successful team effort when a group of individuals came together to accomplish a common goal – improvement of the lives of rickshaw pullers, the poorest of the poor and marginalized who were destined for a sad life cycle of debt and poverty. It all started with a chance meeting between the volunteers of AFNA (namely Satyajit Nath, Pallav Saikia, Krishanu Kaushik, Amitav Chakravarthy, Saibal Das, Debojit Bora, Hitesh Kalita and myself) and Mr. Pradip Sarmah when he was visiting Boston at the invitation of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in November 2010. It was not a person to person meeting – we were talking and discussing over the telephone. Interestingly some of our members never met one another as we are residing in different corners of the World. But the distance and physical separation could not deter us. All of us shared a common goal, the willingness to bring about a change and to provide a helping hand to Rickshaw Bank, the organization founded by Mr. Pradip Sarmah. In the teleconference, Sarmah was describing his mission, how to provide Rickshaws to an additional 47,000 pullers. At the end of the meeting, we realized the enormity of the task, providing the vehicle, uniforms to the pullers and managing the cost of insurance will require around three million dollar! Undaunted, we came out with an action plan that we would approach all possible avenues. Later on we were also joined by students and teachers of MIT and Stanford University. During one of the meetings we came to know about the Tech Awards – and I was assigned the responsibility of submitting the application on behalf of AFNA and Rickshaw Bank.
It’s important to teach how to catch a fish
The interaction with Pradip Sarmah was insightful for me as I learned about entrepreneurial skills. I have been involved with a number of non-profit organizations, financially supporting underprivileged children of Assam. In the year 2008, I ran a charity marathon raising money for a school in Titabor, Jorhat. While the monetary contribution provided the much needed books and uniforms to the school children, I also realized that self-sustainment is far more effective in the long run. “It is good to provide a fish meal to a hungry person but it is far important to teach the hungry person how to catch fish for his livelihood”. The first action is a compassionate deed but the second action is an act of empowerment. The later is far too superior to the initial action. Mr. Sarmah, an entrepreneur, really took up the second action and empowered a whole lot of people through his innovative concept and technological breakthrough.
Preparation for the event
While Rickshaw is a common means of transportation in India, in the United States the vehicle is unknown. I had a challenging task –to introduce the project to an audience who may have neither seen nor heard of it.
In their successive eleventh year, the Tech Awards is a program of Tech Museum, San Jose, California. It is presented by semiconductor manufacturing giant Applied Materials, in association with Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology and Society. It is a five day program and prior to the award night there are several events to ensure that laureates benefit from the networking and leadership opportunities in the Silicon Valley. There are participants from all segments of society - students and academia, social entrepreneurs and management gurus, technocrats and venture capitalists. Both I and Mr Sarmah took utmost care to showcase and present Rickshaw Bank in front of this International fare. The final award evening gala was indeed amazing. It was a touching moment when Mr. Sarmah went on stage to receive the Flextronics Economic Development Award while a short video about the lives of Rickshaw-pullers by acclaimed Hollywood Director Sandy Smolan was played in the giant background screen.
The Tech Awards laureates represent regions as diverse as the Netherlands, Brazil, India, United Kingdom, Philippines and the United States. Each project is unique and their impact is far reaching. I was able to interact closely with each of the laureate.
Solar suitcase : Let there be light
When Ms. Laura returned from Nigeria, she along with her husband set to work designing a solar system for the hospital. It’s a low-cost, rugged, dependable, solar electric system that could fit in a suitcase. The project eventually led them to form WE CARE Solar (wecaresolar.org), a Berkeley nonprofit that has already delivered 80 compact solar systems to health clinics around the world, including Burma, Liberia and Haiti. Dozens more will soon be en route to Uganda, Nigeria and India.
As Laura was eagerly showing me the ‘Solar suitcase’, an inspiring story was unfolding before me. Laura used to be a successful obstetrician-gynecologist, a job she loved to her core, helping thousands of women deliver healthy babies. But a degenerative back injury robbed her of these activities; she lost the physical ability to work for long hours eventually forcing her to give up all deliveries and surgical procedures in 2002. Nevertheless, this setback in due course turned to be a blessing when Laura found another road to serve humanity.
“Every adversity, every failure and every heartache carries with it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit.” The story of Laura makes me proud to be a human being because it shows how the human spirit can triumph against obstacles of life.
Tech awards – take away
While on my way back to Dallas, Texas, and interacting with friends and colleagues over the next few days, I've expressed to all how incredible the Summit was, and how fortunate I was to have had a small part in it. It has a lasting impact reinforcing my belief in the possibility of mankind and the prevalence of goodwill. What a truly epic-level event it was! In these troubled economic and political times, it's important for us to dream again about how good the future can be, and what we can do to make it happen!!