Speaker: Ravi Gulati

Over the last two decades, Ravi Gulati has built and nurtured a dynamic learning community of across-age learners. As the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Volunteer of Manzil - a not for profit organization in Delhi, Ravi thrives on his work with children, adolescents and youth from low-income families by facilitating the discovery of their potential and passion for self and society.  

In the last few years, Manzil has evolved into a youth-led initiative where all of their core team comprises of their own students and where youth are at once learners and teachers. Manzil has and continues to spawn and spin-off numerous other social entrepreneurial & intrapreneurial youth initiatives.

Beyond Manzil, Ravi often engages with youth, particularly social entrepreneurs through several leading academic institutions and non-profits. Ravi also co-leads Creatnet Education which has been facilitating the learning and development of all the 1000+ Delhi Government School Principals for Effective School Leadership.

Ravi is also co-founder of other non-profits viz ComMutiny-The Youth Collective and Safe inIndia Foundation. He has also served on the boards of non-profits like Pravah and Saher that focus on youth leadership. He is an MBA from IIM, Ahmedabad.

A heart-led person that he is, nurturing learning communities and fostering people seems like the perfect fit for a Ravi who was otherwise trained to manage business. 

Ravi currently lives in New Delhi with his inspiration, his 86 year young mother Indira Gulati (Co-Founder Manzil), the happiness expert - his special sister Sonia, his wife Neha and his new found love, their 6 month old daughter Alaya :) 

Here are Ravi Gulati's responses to "5 Questions" we asked him :

What makes you come alive? Being able to touch people deeply so they can discover themselves, find meaning, and become enthusiastic about and good at sharing the Gift that they are to the world, no holds barred.

The tangible context that literally fell in my lap as a gift for me to practice this, is Manzil - an open learning community of mostly children and youth from low income families that I've nurtured, that in turn has nurtured me in equal measure, for the last 24 years, which is practically all of my adult life.

Over the years, this intense work has further led to so many enriching extensions to contribute to others beyond Manzil in similar ways.

 

What event/moment has been a pivotal turning point in your life?* Meeting my teacher Prof Anil Gupta and how he gave direction & support to a strong untested feeling of mine. In my first year of MBA at IIM Ahmedabad, and all of 21, I was inspired by a senior of mine who was taking the guidance of Prof. Gupta for a job in an NGO (I had just recently learned of this term then).  So I thought, why wait for one year to do so, why not seek Prof’s help for me to get placed with an NGO for our mandated summer training after the first year. I approached him, half fearing a grilling so he could be sure that I was serious. After all, it was such an unusual request coming from an MBA student then. Instead, I sensed an immense trust & belief in me. 

He laid out so many choices before me that I had a tough time deciding. I finally picked one and landed up in a region called the Ghad Kshetra, located in the foothills of the Shivaliks. I spent a month there, hoping to be useful to an NGO called Vikalp. Visibly an outsider, I was a curiosity for the locals. Upon finding out that I was visiting to ‘learn’, they would invite me to their villages to stay at their homes. I rarely refused, and so through the month I ended up sleeping in a new home every couple of days in maybe 10 different villages.

I had two big takeaways from my most interesting time there, which is why I consider it a pivotal turning point in my life. First, I realized that all knowledge is contextual. People were curious about what I was doing back in the city. The first time this happened, thinking that they wouldn’t know about MBA back in 1990, I told them that I was pursuing MA. “What class is that?” they said, “Over here we count classes as 1, 2, 3 and so on”. I did some quick mental math and said, “16. I’m in class 16”. I still recall vividly the response I got, “16??? What’s there to learn so much in school? Our children here study till class 4-5 max, and it’s quite sufficient as they turn out fine”. I had a hard time convincing them of the relevance of what I was learning; all I got were polite nods.

Although they didn't say this to me, I’m sure they must have wondered about all the time I ‘wasted’ learning ‘useless things’ at school, when I didn’t possess the basic real world knowledge that even an eight-year-old village lad who has never been to school had. For instance, I couldn’t even identify the crops that were growing in farms all around me; all the knowledge I was supposedly receiving in the best of institutions had not prepared me to be able to do that. The experience taught me to stop looking at people through the lens of the impressive degrees they had acquired and the pedigree of educational institutions they had studied at.

My second takeaway was that it was really quite needless to worry too much about the future. The care and hospitality that I received from complete strangers - that was a totally new experience for me. I spent hardly any of the money I had carried from Delhi - they just wouldn't let me. I realized that just as there are many things that can go wrong in life, there's unexpected help and support just waiting to come into our lives if only we trust the world and its people.

I came back to IIM Ahmedabad a changed young man, ready to venture into unexplored vistas of my dreams, and bold enough, to my peers’ utter amazement, to opt out of the final placement for a job. I knew I had ‘let school interfere with my education’ (thank you Mark Twain), and was ready to stop operating out of fear of the future. Instead, travel during my summer training had served my learning well, and I was determined to take that route. It was for that reason that when I got an opportunity to work for 8 months in Canada, I grabbed at it. While over there I saved almost 70% of my salary every month, to finance my travel & social explorations back in India. Once back, I managed to travel extensively for 3-4 years which changed my entire life perspective. Manzil wouldn’t have been the kind of learning community it is today without my travel experience across our truly ‘Incredible India’.

 

An act of kindness you'll never forget?* It was the year 2000, and I was only three years into initiating Manzil. I got an unexpected phone call from a batchmate of mine from IIM Ahmedabad. It  was Shridhar Sethuram. Delighted to be in touch after nine years, we exchanged notes in great detail. He was in Pune working with a Startup founded by other batchmates.

Those were the days when long-distance calls were expensive and billed by seconds, and we used to feel hurried and anxious on the inside when on such calls. Instinctively, I tried to keep my responses short, but Shridhar urged me to continue to recount in great detail the stories I was so excited to share about my new young friends in Manzil. I spoke about Manzil passionately for over an hour. He kept asking me more and more questions. When we were finally done, he asked me how he could contribute to my work.

At that time, I had very strong views against the dominant narrative that money is necessary to do social good. So I told him, the only thing we need is time, but unfortunately, we can't have yours since you are based in Pune. Shridhar insisted that I must have some use for money, and that he would like to donate some. My response? “Why do we need money when all we need is a place to sit for the learner and the teacher - and that is my home. It costs me nothing to run Manzil. So no, we don't need your money”. 

He kept insisting that I think a bit more about how money could be useful. But I had very strong views back then that money is a double-edged sword. It’s helpful, but the edge facing us is dangerous & destroys the purity of intention behind work for social good. So I kept stonewalling his request. 

Finally exhausted, he said that he and his wife Binaifer will fly down to Delhi every weekend and spend 2 days with the Manzil students, offering their time in whichever way I felt useful. That’s when it dawned on me that Shridhar was really really serious about contributing to my work in one way or another, and it was silly of me to parry this purity of intention.

I remembered that just the year before, we had gotten a wonderful opportunity to take manzillions to a village in Uttarakhand where a friend of mine - Yogeshwar Kumar - had tapped a small water stream to set up a 20 kW micro-hydro power unit to generate electricity for the community there. Just like Mohan Bhargav in the film Swades! Ever since I had met Yogeshwar, I had been excited about this small scale appropriate technology, and had wanted my students to experience it.

To travel to the location Budhakedar, we had put together small contributions from the students themselves then, but found after that that we still had a deficit of 5000 rupees, which Yogeshwar had very kindly gotten us from some other nonprofit. It was an amazing educational trip, full of fun and learning for all, as it wasn’t just about the technology but also about rural life and local economy and governance and all sorts of interconnected things that learning ought to be about.

As I remembered this incredible learning experience from the previous year and also remembering all of my growth from traveling myself that no school had ever given me, I suggested to Shridhar that he donate 5000 rupees to us so we could organise another trip like that. He immediately said he would send us 20000 rupees, which was a considerable sum in those days. I thought we would still use the money sparingly and stretch it over 4 trips, and so I accepted his offer.

Completely coincidentally, that same year 2000, we got an opportunity to go to Ladakh, stay at SECMOL, and experience a very different culture and way of life there. And because it’s much farther away and costly to travel, there was a budget deficit of exactly 20000 rupees. Serendipitous, as Shridhar would say, whose very timely appearance back in my life made possible for manzillions that wonderful educational trip to Ladakh that left much food for thought for all of us!

This act of kindness, and what it set in motion - continuing support to Manzil for the last 21 years by Shridhar - is something I will never ever forget.

 

One thing on your bucket list?* I really want to put together a group of trusted people to properly apply that part of my estate that I wish to leave behind for social good. That’s the only thing on my bucket list.

 

Your one-line message for the world:* The abiding source of happiness is in finding meaning. Practice being of service to others -  that's one place of meaning that works, always and for everyone.

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Here are some ripples from Manzil's natural scaling --