Houston, Texas – India America Today caught up with the soft spoken and very hospitable David Raj, president of India Coffee House, on February 24, 2013, the day he launched his franchise operations in Houston, Texas.
Raj, speaking from his sleek, high tech cafe, has a vision to give back to his adopted community in America, in gratitude to the country he credits with providing him the opportunities which resulted in the comfortable life he lives today.
Speaking to Tejinder Singh, editor of India America Today, Raj outlined his vision to bring high quality math and science education to elementary school students. David is looking forward to the PanIIT Global Conference in Houston on December 6-8, 2013 to showcase his vision and he is hopeful PanIIT will take it to national level.
You are inaugurating a unique coffee shop in the heart of Houston. What is the inspiration?
This company was started in 2007, registered as a limited company, and due to the economic downturn, I waited so long to finalize this thing. This company has been actually to serve and give back to the community. This country has been so generous to me that I want to give back.
I thought a way to get revenues will be to start a coffee shop, especially a South Indian coffee shop. Kumbhakum Degree coffee, as they call it, is a favorite of mine, and in India, I used to consume that quite a bit. It is also known as filter coffee, Madras coffee, Mysore coffee – it comes with many names.
In the United States, I had not had a cup of coffee that actually satisfied my palate. I am a qualified barista, I have gone for barista training, I have tasted different types of coffee. This is a hobby. Basically, I am vice president of Merrill Lynch and Senior Finance Advisor there, but I am doing this as a hobby. I want to use part of this revenue, 25 percent, will go to the community at large through a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Excellent. You mentioned about the charity, but you are also instrumental in the launching and mentoring of a teaching program for children. Can you elaborate on that?
Sure, I was the president of Indo-American Charity Foundation, which is the largest foundation of the Indian community in Houston, which is a pass-through organization.
We found it a little bit of challenge to take money from the community and serve as a catalyst. Initially it was fine, but then we found it more and more difficult to collect money from the public and then give to other charitable organizations when the community itself was very familiar with many of those organizations. So I came up with this brainwave of having an education initiative.
We started a program called Help America in 2011 and under that we had two projects for math and science called Ramajun and CV Raman projects. You are aware this country at the moment has a felt need for math and science. So now we are going to college campuses, recruiting college students, and paying them $12 an hour to go and teach elementary school children in the fifth grade math and science classroom during class hours. What we are doing is compressing the class ratio from 24 to one to eight to one so children are getting more individual attention and concepts are well grounded in the child’s mind.
The results have been phenomenal. This is the third semester we are trying it and we are hoping that we will move from pillar to post and gather money for this particular project. We are looking for philanthropists and corporate supporters. People are coming in good numbers to support this program and we hope we will also go to the public at large and ask them to give something like $20-25 per pay check, which, hopefully, will be matched by their own companies to make sure that this particular project moves not only from Houston to other cities in Texas, but also to the national level.
PanIIT is hosting its global conference later this year in Houston and I have learned that you are working with them to bring this program to a global level. Can you give us your vision?
I am one of the founding trustees of the IIT Alumni organization in Houston. Although I am not an IITian, I have been very actively involved, because IITs are supposed to be top notch colleges in India, and IITians are equivalent, if not better, than MIT students in this country. They are spread far and wide in this country and PanIIT is hopefully going to be a catalyst in promoting this Ramanujam and CV Raman projects. The ISC does not have the bandwidth to take it to a national level so I have been talking to the PanIIT Global Conference 2013 chair, Witty Bindra, and other senior board members. At this conference, we want to do a presentation before the delegates and then send the word out to various chapters to get the word out to get deeply involved in promoting education. After all, we are now Americans and it is our duty to give back to the community. I think PanIIT can play a very vital part in not only being very successful entrepreneurs and contributing as executives to many companies, they can serve the community at large by giving back to the community by running with this project.
Do you have any other messages for the Indian American community at large – how they can give back?
Yes, I certainly do. We are Indians by birth, but then we have migrated to this country and having taken the Oath of Allegiance, I think our loyalty is first with the United States of America, which has been so generous to us in so many ways that we all made fortunes and we have a better standard of living here than what we had in those days when we were in India. I think it is about time that we give back to our community, either through education or supporting various other charities that are needed. This country is having a felt need for poverty, hunger, for improving education, and there are so many areas where our Indians can play a large part in giving back to the American community.