Ray Umashankar, 66
The Purpose Prize | Ray Umashankar
life changed when his
23-year-old daughter returned from India and announced her
intention to help children of sex workers and victims of trafficking in their native country.
Inspired by her
wife looked into the situation and found that most organizations working with these children taught basket-weaving and other low-paying skills that did nothing to offer a way out of the sex trade.
An assistant dean in the College of Engineering at the University of Arizona, Umashankar knew that these children needed marketable skills to land jobs in India's growing high-tech sector.
Along with his
wife and daughter, he
created the Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology (ASSET) India Foundation
, which has centers in Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata, as well as plans for three more Indian cities.
also designs computer literacy and English training programs for teen children of sex workers.
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When Ray Umashankar's
American-born daughter Nita left Tucson four years ago to spend a year in his native India, neither dreamed that the experience would change both their lives - and the lives of hundreds of underprivileged children as well.
And there was a lot of competition for these low-paying jobs," Ray Umashankar
"I knew they needed something unique, and we came upon the idea of teaching computer skills."
That's how the nonprofit ASSET India Foundation
(Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology) was born.
began to build partnerships and raise funds, while Nita and her mother Dr. Sue Umashankar worked to develop the training program.
also worked with local NGOs
to recruit students and hire staff.
"We select 14- to 28-year old students who know basic textbook English and teach them conversational and business English,"Umashankar
"By training them in skills where there is a huge demand, nobody cares what their background is or who their father is."
As the assistant dean of industry relations at the University of Arizona School of Engineering, Umashankar knew how to get companies to partner with the university to support and nurture talented students.
using those skills to encourage and convince Indian companies to support ASSET
and also hire graduates of the program: Tata Consultancy Services, Firstsource, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Aptech and Dell
promises them entry-level employees with the skills they need.
also teaches about health issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, personal hygiene and finance.
"As IT workers, they can start at 2500 to 4,000 rupees a month or about $65 to $100," Umashankar
"They need to know such things as how to handle money and the importance of saving."
Umashankar set up advisory boards of Indian IT professionals, and he
hired local instructors and on-the-ground staff.
Today, there are 430 students, 290 of whom are girls, at seven locations.
The first classes are graduating and 130 students are moving into the Indian job market: 60 in Delhi have been placed in viable positions, and some of the others are pursuing college.
"I feel a responsibility to the country that gave me my education and that gave me the opportunity to come to the United States in the first place," Umashankar
own story has its share of heartbreaks.
immigrated to America in 1968 seeking better medical care for a young child, but the child died following a series of heart surgeries.
second son took his
"This particular project has been therapeutic for me," he
"People my age need a reason for a meaningful life, and this has become mine."
"I also suffer from a serious learning disability," he
adds, with a twinkle in his
then asked me to meet him on Monday morning at 10:30 to talk,"Umashankar
To work in smaller towns and rural areas, Umashankar
developed a way to bring internet access through a wireless mesh network using solar-powered routers with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation/Innocentive Challenge.
, meanwhile, is constantly in motion, running ASSET
from both India and Tucson.
age is an advantage, he
says: "When you're younger, you have a fear of failure and fear of being criticized.
At my age, I can say and do things that younger people cannot."
It's taken his
organization far, but Umashankar
says, "doesn't require any special skill except passion."