The Agastya experiment started with a brilliant idea. This was kept aloft through the years by the high-minded idealism and tireless practical work of a small army of volunteers. It never would have survived to become reality, however, if not for the vision and perseverance of one man: Ramji Raghavan.
Two decades into a successful career in international finance, Ramji abandoned it all to return to his native India and pursue what some called an impossible dream: helping the country harness its greatest resource. In India’s children, he saw a vast reservoir of human talent, largely going to waste. Rural schools were doing their best to provide students with the basics, but the true abilities of so many were being left untapped, when they were capable of so much more. Ramji wanted to do something about this – but what? The world of high finance was an open book to him, but what did he know about education? The answers lay deeply embedded in Ramji’s life story. The seeds of Agastya were planted decades before, when, as a schoolboy, he dreamt of making a difference.
The family home was in a remote part of northeast India, in Bihar province, where K.V. Raghavan, Ramji’s father, worked for ICI, the British multinational company. Educated in a boarding school in rural India, young Ramji returned to Bihar for the holidays. His father spent many weekends going out into the villages to build wells and help with development projects. The boy accompanied his father on such trips, and saw firsthand what life was like in communities where hardship and disease were plentiful, and educational opportunities were not.
The twists of fate that separated Ramji from the vast majority of his countrymen – the millions who still lived in poverty – occupied his mind from an early age. It was difficult for him to accept this as an immutable fact of life, and he was deeply conflicted.
Ramji came by his doubts honestly. His father’s success in business did not stop the elder Raghavan from encouraging his son to keep an open mind and a questioning attitude toward life. He sent Ramji to the Rishi Valley School, the same boarding school he himself had attended.
Creativity and independent thought were greatly prized at Rishi Valley. Founded by the great Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who still presided when Ramji was a student, Rishi Valley taught students to view the world holistically. Krishnamurti sought to inculcate a profound ecological sensibility in his students, a realization of humanity’s intimate connection with nature. He also preached about the importance of creativity and the scientific temperament, which he saw as manifestations of spirituality.
His college years were a cynical period in India’s history, Ramji recollects, one that gave young people very little hope for the future. India was riven by political conflicts and hobbled by the vestiges of Nehru’s well intentioned but growth-stunting planned economy; an idea that long outlived both its usefulness and its creator. Wages were stagnant, foreign investment almost nonexistent, and it was hard to believe it would ever be otherwise. By the time he graduated in economics and mathematics from the Hans Raj College at the University of Delhi, in 1975, Ramji had had enough. Like so many others of his generation, he went overseas.
In London he enrolled in a post-grad accountancy program, but switched to the MBA track at the London Business School. While there, he met Gopi Warrier, a family friend who became Ramji’s mentor and friend. Over the years, Gopi served as confidant and sounding board as Ramji struggled to reconcile his interest in social entrepreneurship with his career in finance.
Cognitive dissonance had become a feature of Ramji’s life. While in the MBA program, he met Swami, a fellow student who shared his passion for social justice and his interest in alleviating poverty. They discussed the wrongs of the world at length, and how to put them to right. But, he eventually took a consulting job in Delhi, then switched to banking, and soon began his ascent through the corporate hierarchy at Citibank.
Ramji worked in New York and the Carribean and traveled regularly between the great financial capitals of the world: a life that exhausted Ramji and did not feed his soul.
Once, in 1979, Ramji and his father went to the airport to visit with Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was on his way to Varanasi. Krishnamurti asked Ramji how he was doing. Ramji replied that he was miserable.
“It’s back to the grindstone for me!”
Krishnamurti smiled, “Don’t get your nose too close to it.” And he left to catch his flight.
At that point, Ramji says he was thinking, “ ‘He seems like a free human being – and I have to go and do THIS?’ I wondered when I would be a free person? I spent about 20 years more going through the grind.”
Everything got better, Ramji says, once he met and married Monica. In 1994, as they walked in the park in Bangalore he told his bride-to-be about his plans to one day start a school, and she fully supported his dream. By that time, he had moved to Cedel Group’s London office. Life there was thoroughly enjoyable with his wife at his side.
London also gave him a chance to meet old friends, Gopi Warrier among them. Ramji was glad to reconnect with his mentor, though he knew this would not necessarily be good for his banking career. Gopi understood him too well to be fooled by the veneer of glowing success. He could sense his young friend was not happy in his work, and understood that Ramji would never be fulfilled until he was pursuing his dream. With Monica’s blessing, he left finance and returned to India, where he laid the groundwork for what ultimately became the Agastya International Foundation.