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Though recent in origin, BITS Alumni Association (BITSAA) has emerged as one of the strongest alumni networks of any university, it is interesting to know how 9/11 attacks played a role in the birth of BITSAA International. Through a candid conversation with three founders Anupendra Sharma (Eco Instru ’87), Venu Palaparthi (Eco CS ’87) and Sandeep Arora (MMS 87), read on how four waves have created and transformed BITSAA into an enduring, relevant organization.
The story goes back to 2001 in New York City, when Anupendra sent an email to the Eco ’87 batch about raising a scholarship for Pilani students in the memory of his batchmate SS Seshadri (Eco Civil), who had passed away a few years ago. The Economics ‘87 batch was instantly responsive to the idea of a schoalrship. But to fully endow the scholarship, Venu Palaparthi, who lived across the river in New Jersey, suggested doing a fundraiser music night instead of simply collecting money. Venu risked a $10,000 deposit to book a place for the show. That’s when Sandeep Arora (MMS ’87) surfaced. “Sandeep was a popular guitarist and music club member at BITS” says Venu. He agreed to pull the music night together.
Anupendra Sharma, Venu and Sandeep were working towards the big night, finding BITSians, and sending out invitations for the event. A date was set - October 13, 2001! Then, two planes went into the World Trade Center on an unfateful Sept 11 and the world changed forever. A BITSian, Vamsi Pendyala (’88), was a passenger on the flight from Boston which crashed into the World Trade Center.
Venu says “It gave us a massive jolt. I was in NYC and I received hundreds of emails. BITSians asking about other BITSians. The phones had gone silent. But people were on emails forwarding across batches - seeking info and reassurance that their mates were safe.” Anupendra remembers “When we finally got to the fundraiser, I found out that two BITSian classmates were in the towers when the planes hit.
“They remembered walking down 50 floors, watching people jump to their deaths. We didn’t talk about that day. In fact, it would be months before both of them were able to discuss that morning with each other.”
With Ground Zero burning, the three founders decided that it was only fitting to create a scholarship in memory of Vamsi Pendyala’s. Vamsi’s wife and classmates were instantly supportive, and the organizing team grew rapidly. Unfortunately, overcome by grief, Vamsi’s wife took her own life a week later. It was a sad day for the entire BITS family.
“9/11 forced us to rethink about the fragility of our relationships,” Venu says later. “In Vamsi, we saw ourselves. It could have been any of us.” Vamsi’s death brought a lot of attention to the New Jersey fundraiser being planned. "We owe our entire organization to Vamsi," Venu says, "In dying, he created an organization."
In anticipation, Anupendra met Kevin Dyer, a New York lawyer at his Park Avenue office. Kevin, inspired by the fundraising efforts, and the story of Vamsi and Sesha, halved his fees and filed all the papers to create a not for profit organization.
Sandeep remembers the year that BITS started to recognize BITSAA. “In BITSAA’s 3rd year (2003), our dear Director, Prof. Venkateshwaran came to the United States as he had been doing for years. This visit turned out to be very different than the past, since BITSAA started to organize meetings everywhere. The Diro was surprised and amazed by the large crowds of people he met everywhere he went. Inspired by the new network, in his final stop with the Silicon Valley Chapter, he left BITSAA with a mission he called BITSConnect – to wire the BITS Pilani campuses.”
It was a second call to arms, and one that was to unite the entire BITSAA global community. The BITSConnect movement was led by Silicon Valley BITSians Jayan Ramankutty, Prem Jain and Karthik Krishna in New York galvanized the globe into its first major joint action. Venu says “Sandeep Arora managed the new complexity of hundreds of donors, pledge cards and messages from around the world. Being Treasurer of BITSAA suddenly became a big job.”
Venu is proud of what we achieved. “When BITSConnect succeeded, and over $1 million of equipment and services were installed on the campus.” Anupendra adds: “The Sandpaper 2.0 team rejoiced in its success by creating a cover of hot air balloons taking off. BITSians on our campuses were now free to connect with the rest of the world. It was an empowering moment.”
After the success of BITSConnect, BITSAA’s energies waned. The big project was over, the initial bout of nostalgia done. BITSAA needed a new mission, a new purpose. It had to be more than just about the University. It had to be about the alumni. Anupendra expressed this view to Venu often. Yet neither had an idea of where to take the organization next.
Anupendra recalls, “When we started to pull together lists of BITSians, we were astonished at how many successful entrepreneurs were BITSians. Yet there was no knowledge of entrepreneurship on campus or for alums to figure out entrepreneurship. So Ashish and I decided to do something about it.” In 2003, Anupendra Sharma and Ashish Bhinde (EEE ’89) pulled a 5-member team on campus led by Aditi Pany (Eco EEE ’00), and supported by Professor VS Rao, created theCentre for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL). When the Wadhwani Foundation announced that it was seeking applications from Centers a couple of months later, Anupendra and Ashish pulled together a business plan with the help of Satish Gupta in Silicon Valley. CEL was named one of India's top 5 centers by the Wadhwani Foundation, and received a grant of $1 million. Simultaneously, CEL started to hold talks by famous BITS alumni such as Rajesh Hukku, so that others would get a chance to get mentored.
In August 2004, an email came around from some BITSians announcing the idea of BITS2BSchool. Anupendra says “It was a “eureka” moment. This made perfect sense to me. We needed to help BITSians with their careers. This is what would build the brand” Anupendra joined the BITS2BSchool team and started to create databases of BITSians with top-tier MBAs. These BITSians joined the yahoogroup. Alums who hadn’t given money, or participated in events, now started to see the relevance of the organization. Simultaneously, Anupendra also started BITS2MSPhD, and handed the reins to two highly competent BITSians who were already in the US including Sanketh Shetty (EEE ’00). This was the first movement aimed at helping and supporting BITSians technically for their future ambitions and it was a super hit, with enrollment growing at the same rate as BITS2BSchool. The impact was significant. From approximately 15 MBA admits in 2004, the numbers jumped to 70 annually over four years.
With so many more BITSians also applying to top tier engineering schools, the impact on the brand will be seen in the years to come. Thanks to the new CTO, Sarath Kolla, databases were created, and metrics tracked and shared with BITSians. One of the most interesting things that happened in the following year was the creation of the BITSAA Global 30 under 30 Awards. Envisioned by Anupendra Sharma, and executed by three BITSians – Ashok Roy, Uzma Hussain and Ananth Vyas, the inaugural awards went to outstanding BITSians under the age of 30 in 7 categories. BITSian judges included Prof. SP Kothari and Prof. LK Maheshwari.When the awards were announced, and the bios circulated worldwide, the awards captured BITSian imagination because they have revealed the achievements of young BITSians, and sent a message about achievement to others. These were followed by the Mantra Leadership Awards given to four outstanding BITSians on all our campuses.
In October 2004, Venu called Anupendra about a BITSian who had slipped into a coma after his car was hit by a truck on the highway. He had no insurance, was out of a job, and his family was in India. That night, a simple email resulted in 90 BITSians on a conference call to figure out what was to be done. Within 48 hours, the American Embassy in India had been opened, visas issued for parents, and tickets paid for. His mother and sister were on a plane to the US. When they landed, BITSians had already organized along with other Indians from various associations. BITSAA tied up with a local organization, and raised $40,000 in a short time. When Sai came out of a coma, thanks to a miracle and the tireless dedication of his mother, he was able to go home, financially safe for his rehabilitation.
This was the first major cause where BITSians came together to help someone in need. After this, there were several more causes that BITSians readily came forward to support. BITSunami was a role model effort where BITSians took over two villages in Tamil Nadu, rebuilt schools, bought boats, and put families back to work and children back into schools. When Anitha Ashokan (Instru ’04) who was diagnosed with a rare case of multiple sclerosis, BITSians came together to raise funding to support the family. The 1994 Gold Medalist of BITS Pilani has an extraordinary story. Seema Sood, crippled and confined to a bed due to debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, pleaded to the President of India to be able to end her life. When the media, and the alumni found out, they rapidly rallied around, finding surgeons, getting her surgery paid for, and raising enough money to provide for rehabilitation afterwards.
“The true value of BITSAA is that if you're ever in trouble, 30,000 alums are there to help. This is worth more than anything else this organization can give you.", says Sandeep.
BITSAA has now raised over $ 2 million for many causes and the network continues to have a major impact on BITSians lives across the globe. Over the past few years, BITSAA has grown both in size and the work it does. It tracks over 30,000+ alumni through its directory. Membership is free – all one has to do is join the community online.
BITSAA is thriving. There are now 40+ chapters around the world under BITSAA and 20+ initiatives running that serve 30,000+ BITSians. Every day, 100+ student and alumni volunteers come together to make the organization continue its work. This is no accident either. When they first started out, it was decreed that anyone with a BITS degree was a BITSian irrespective of which campus it came from, and included all the distance learning graduates. The credit for turning BITSAA into a well-run corporation goes to the next wave that they brought on board. When the founders stepped down from the Board in 2008, Ashish Garg was named the first CEO of BITSAA. He first met Anupendra five years after having worked with him on BITSAA, and they talked about creating a sustainable model to find and groom leaders for BITSAA. The credit for executing that vision of creating a sustainable model goes to Ashish and his management team, as they created a whole leadership program at BITSAA. Those who volunteer their time at BITSAA can rise rapidly in this meritocracy, starting as a Volunteer / Team Leader, and being promoted to Manager, Director, Vice President, CXO and Board Member of the organization over a period of time. The leadership skills they acquire in this process are invaluable. In this way, the journey of being a BITSian continues after school.
Anupendra, Venu and Sandeep are extremely pleased with the way in which their initial vision has been taken up by the community. While the three of them have stepped down from active roles at BITSAA after nearly ten years, yet they remain involved in local or global strategic efforts from time to time. Anupendra says BITSAA is like Hotel California “You can get in any time you want, but you can never leave”.
Here’s to all those people who have seen this through. To all the BITSians. To BITS!
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