Young Alum’s Nonprofit Gives the Gift of Education to Hundreds Worldwide

Young Alum’s Nonprofit Gives the Gift of Education to Hundreds Worldwide

In many ways, Kunal Doshi was living his dream.

Originally from Mumbai, India, Doshi came to the United States to attend the University of Virginia, interned at the United Nations, graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce in 2011 and within months was working in a coveted investment banking job in New York City.

He found a lot to like in the investment banking world: smart, motivated colleagues, great learning opportunities and financial compensation. But the hours were long, regularly past midnight, and Doshi felt pressure to make work his first, often only, priority.

“I worried that I would keep meeting the next goal, then the next, and before I knew it I would have retired, and all I would have done is work,” he said.

He kept thinking about advice his grandfather had given him. His grandfather played an important role in Doshi’s childhood and, when the 2008 global recession battered the family’s real estate business, stepped in to help pay for his grandson’s UVA education. He died the summer before Doshi left for Virginia.

“I remember sitting next to him, and asking, ‘What is one thing I should remember when I go to college?” Doshi said. “He said that, in the last five minutes of your life, your entire life will flash back in front of you. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

Doshi didn’t want his highlight reel to focus solely on investment banking.

“I want to live my life in such a way that, when I look back, I don’t just see value in my own life, but I see how I created value in someone else’s life,” he said.

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The Missing Piece

Reflecting on that advice on his late-night commutes home from work, Doshi realized he was missing the commitment to service and social impact he had found at UVA.

On Grounds, Doshi was involved with student organizations like Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development, or SEED. The group provides consulting services to local and global nonprofit organizations and encourages students to develop startups with a social or humanitarian mission.

“At UVA, the reason I felt great about myself and my life was the many opportunities I had to give back,” he said.

In 2013, within six months of that realization, Doshi – still in his early 20s and holding a full-time job – founded Brighter Children, a nonprofit organization that currently provides scholarships to more than 500 schoolchildren around the world.

The idea was simple: partner with primary schools around the world and raise money to provide scholarships for impoverished children, covering fees, school supplies, books, uniforms, meals and other critical needs. Right now, the organization has partner schools in Colombia, Honduras, India and Kenya.

“Education has always been important to me, and I was shocked that more than 60 million children worldwide do not go to school,” Doshi said. “It’s worth stepping into their shoes, thinking about how it would feel to walk for an hour to school because you can’t afford a bus ticket, or to sit on a damp classroom floor because there are no chairs, or to do your homework under a streetlight because your home does not have electricity.

“These children are equally capable of making an impact in the world. But if they do not learn to read and write, they will miss the boat,” he said. “We want to give them the freedom to dream big and tools to shape their own destiny.”

Creating a Network of ’Hoos

To make Brighter Children happen, Doshi turned to his fellow UVA alumni.

The majority of the members of his founding team were UVA graduates, and many of them are still involved five years later. One of them, Sarah Seo, was also working in investment banking when Doshi proposed the idea. It immediately appealed to her. 

“I had always liked volunteering, and I wanted something more than just working all the time,” said Seo, who graduated from the Commerce School in 2013.

Seo is one of three UVA graduates still on the nonprofit’s board of directors, along with Doshi and Suzy Peng. Brighter Children’s advisory board features more ’Hoos, including McIntire School of Commerce professor Amanda Cowen.

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Cowen taught Doshi and several other alumni on the founding team during their third year, when Commerce students are broken up into small teams to work with faculty members and corporate leaders. Remembering how much they learned in her classroom, the Brighter Children team decided to call her for advice.

“You get to know students really well that year, and spend a lot of time with them,” Cowen said. “I am so proud of what they have been able to accomplish, and it has been fun to be close to it, and to watch it happen.”

Balancing Work and Service

Everyone on the Brighter Children team continues to work full-time jobs, most often in finance. Doshi now works for a venture capital impact-focused investment group in San Francisco; Seo with a private equity firm in New York; and Peng for audit firm KPMG.

Every Saturday for five years running, they have gotten together for an early morning conference call to plan fundraising drives and events, such as their annual gala, and make decisions about the weeks and months ahead. Individually, they put in many other hours on nights and weekends, writing grant proposals, creating a website and marketing materials, reaching out to potential partners and recruiting board members.

“We all have full-time jobs and busy lives, but the biggest thing holding us together is our passion for the cause and our respect for each other,” Seo said. “The reason we stick with it is because we believe in the organization’s impact and we believe in each other.”

Together, they have turned the $50 that Doshi used to open the Brighter Children’s bank account into a viable, proven nonprofit with a bright future.

“When I first started, I really thought it was just going to be a side project. I never imagined it would turn into a sizable nonprofit,” Doshi said. “Now, we are a fully operational nonprofit, working on scaling our organization’s impact around the world.”

Part of that growth can be attributed to the smart, efficient strategies the team used to expand their reach without exhausting their limited resources. For example, instead of trying to start education programs, they decided to partner with private, nonprofit schools that have proven track records in a particular country. The schools themselves identify the students most in need of scholarship assistance and Brighter Children provides the funding.

“We realized that we did not need to reinvent the wheel,” Doshi said. “These schools know students’ individual situations and hardships, and they can tell us where the most need is.”

“They put their Commerce School skills to good use, asking the right questions about their strategy right off the bat,” Cowen said. “They built a process and a business model that will allow the organization to grow over time, and they have thought creatively about how to engage people in their various networks, to fill out skills that they might not have.”

Seeing Powerful Results

Doshi treasures the time he gets to spend with Brighter Children’s partner schools; he and other team members visit at least one every year to meet the students Brighter Children sponsors.

“When you realize the difference you are making in their lives, it makes all of those evening and weekend hours worth it,” he said.

Kunal Doshi with a Colombian student named Darlington, who told Doshi he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. (Contributed photo)

On one visit, to a school run by Village Project Africa in Kenya, Doshi saw firsthand the hope that going to school brought not only to the children themselves, but to their families and communities.

“The school is a beacon of light for them,” Doshi said. “The school is directly impacting the local community by offering employment and by successfully advocating for the first gas station in town – which is very exciting.”  

Most important of all, though, is the children’s mindset.

“The children who once thought they would grow up and maybe hope to drive a bus in the local village or grow crops in their backyard are now thinking of becoming teachers and police officers,” Doshi said. “One student said he wants to become president of Kenya. They dream of all of these things they never thought they could do before. Knowing that you had a hand in that, in some way, is incredible.”

“It’s amazing to see the tangible effect on the children,” said Seo, who has visited all of Brighter Children’s partner schools.

The organization’s most recent partner is in India, Doshi’s home country. It’s called Educate Girls, a network of thousands of schools spread across 16 districts in northern India, committed to getting rural Indian girls to school and helping them excel there.

“Culturally, especially in northern India, rural families have not typically sent girls to school,” Doshi said. “Educate Girls talks with village leaders and families, convincing them to send their girls to school. They have done phenomenally well, and we are very excited to partner with them.”

And, Doshi points out, the effects of sending just one girl to school can multiply over generations.

“When that child grows up, if she has children, she will be more likely to send them to school, regardless of their gender,” he said.

That kind of impact is its own reward for Doshi, his teammates, and for Cowen, who gets to witness her former students changing the lives of students around the world.

“This is in many ways my aspiration for my students, to help them develop a skillset that allows them to make some kind of impact in the world,” she said.

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Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications