By thesanfranciscoegotist / /
We love writing stories about advertising people who go beyond the agency and work to make the world a better place. That’s why we were so psyched to hear that Venables Bell & Partners Founder and Chairman Paul Venables was starting a non-profit that focused on creating generational change by investing in the education of Santal children in West Bengal. We talked to Paul about his vision for Tribe Rising India, why he chose this particular path, and how we can all help.
So running a giant, massively successful ad agency didn’t keep you busy enough – you decided to start Tribe Rising, India. Tell us about what you’re up to.
As humans, we often see need, and we can’t always act to meet that need. In this case, there was no way we were going to do nothing. We met a Jesuit priest from India in Mill Valley, California, and the next thing you know we’re staying at his small, rural school outside of Kolkata, with a bucket for a shower and a bed I didn’t fit in, and we were in heaven. We just fell in love with these kids. They are so full of life. So joyful. So tuned-in to each other. But right now, their opportunity for education stops at 4th Grade.
This tribe, the Santals, now has a real desire to be educated—both boys and girls. They have people on the ground there that are perhaps the best in the world at building successful schools and educating impoverished children—the Jesuits. And they have land to grow and expand facilities. All they need is money. We thought, “hey, we can help with that.”
Why this and why now?
These kids touched our hearts. Deeply. Their sense of solidarity, and their obvious joy, is overwhelming. It’s enviable. We could not leave there without figuring out how to help them. My wife and I sort of have a thing for helping kids and this was an undeniable call to step in.
And? How’s it all going so far?
We came home from this trip in February. A few months later, we had an official California nonprofit public benefit corporation set up. Friends created the logo and website. And we’re off. We have our inaugural fundraising gala coming up on August 22. To see friends and business associates and the SF ad community rally around this and support this has been nothing short of heart-warming. We have sold three-quarters of the available tickets already. And we are hoping to hit our year one fundraising targets by the time it’s over.
You’ve been involved in other educational initiatives like SchoolsRule in the past. How did that experience help with Tribe Rising India? (Or did it?)
My wife is president of the Marin Foster Care Association. I’ve been on the board of the March of Dimes. I did help start SchoolsRule (for every public school student in Marin). We’ve learned a bit about what to do, and what not to do, in building a nonprofit. We’ve had many mentors and guides come forward to help us, and we are very grateful for them. But I think the biggest issue in diving into this has been simply an open heart. There are millions of reasons and voices in our own hearts that say no, not now, why us, this is crazy, you can’t make a dent, etc. An open heart obliterates them all.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far? We can’t imagine helping build and run a school from half a world away is easy.
The biggest challenges have been helping people to understand a culture we are just beginning to understand ourselves, and asking for help with an international project at a time when local needs are also strong. The Santal children are savvy about their degraded role in society (tribals are considered below the caste system), they expect little and work hard, but they are also grateful, hopeful and industrious—turning every opportunity into an advantage that lifts their tribe. We have and will continue to support local and national charities, but the US, despite its challenges, has social services. In a country like India, with such an incredibly large population, there are few to no services available even if for those that are not below the lowest caste—and people in rural areas are especially at high risk for generational abject poverty.
How many children are you currently helping and what are the longer-term goals?
There are currently over 1,200 children in this rural school system. But it’s growing everyday as new hope brings families in from the fields asking for education—a powerful testament to what we’re doing. The high school has the potential to reach double that number within the first few years of operation, and over time to serve tens of thousands.
Are you keeping this focused on the Santals or do you see this expanding to help other minorities in parts of India or even other countries?
There are over 7.5 million Santals in India, across many states. It’s the largest tribe. So there is plenty of work to be done with them in India. Of course, there are other tribes to help, and other parts of the world to operate in. We will go where this takes us. The key is being open.
Is TRI a VBP client or is this something fully separate from your agency’s work?
This is a Paul and Annette labor of love. That said, the agency support has been amazing. My partners have fully embraced this and have contributed generously. Our very own Will McGinness has even designed the banner that hangs in the Mill Valley church where it all started.
What can people do to help?
Just to be clear, what we are trying to create here is generational change. We toured the area and saw other successful schools and see the incredible potential. In as few as 10 years, the entire community can be lifted, because the Santals that get an education come back to help their tribe.
Donating to the capital campaign is the best way to help us get the high school built. Every dollar given now will have an immediate impact on how quickly we can create change.
Sponsoring a student ($35/month or $420/year) guarantees that the Santal children will have a continuing opportunity for safe, non-biased, culturally sensitive education for years to come.
We are having a gala in Marin on August 22—sponsoring or attending the gala would also be a great help.