A $2 Million+ Vote of Confidence in a 20-Year Track Record

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Pratham Houston Board


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 By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Everything about the evening seemed to be nestled in superlatives from the get go and for the list of 750 invited guests, this was the Gala they had been waiting for all year long. Pratham’s Gala held up to its promise to not only bask them in the affluent ambiance of its warm and luxurious embrace but let them mingle with the crème de la crème of the Houston community.

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Dr. Madhav Chavan, Founder Pratham, Dr. Rukmini Banerji, Director Pratham ASER Centre, Dr. Suresh Khator, Dr Renu Khator, Honoree, Dinny Devitre, Chairman Pratham USA, Dr. Marie Goradia, President Pratham Houston, Vijay Goradia, Founder of Pratham USA.
Photos: Bijay Dixit

This year, Pratham’s Board and the organizing committee pulled out all the stops in reaching out to more segments of the Bayou City’s wealthy elite and then produced a program that, while light on flashy entertainment, focused on the organization’s achievements and drew on a national celebrity – Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014 – to emcee the event and even run the bids on the three live auction items.

With just a little prodding and a persuasive smile, yet downplaying her admittedly nascent attempt at auctioneering, Davuluri was able to raise $37,000 in 20 minutes for three items: a 4.5 carat Polki diamond necklace and earring set from Karat 22 Jewelers; a gourmet dinner package to four restaurants – Bombay Brasserie, India’s, Kiran’s and SongKran Thai Kitchen; and 40 hours of interior design from Contour Interior Design.

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Dinny DeVitre, Chairman Pratham USA, presents a token of appreciation to Dr. Rukmini Banerji, Director Pratham ASER Centre

The evening on Saturday, April 25 started with a social hour at the fourth floor reception area of the Hilton Americas, where the arriving guests mingled, had Indian appetizers (by Dawat catering, which also handled the evening’s dinner) and were serenaded by background Indian music by Dr. Rahul Pandit, who is also an accomplished table player and Aaron Hermes, a musical virtuoso who played an amazing santoor on a digital pad.

Inside, the table arrangements paid attention to details, like little folded cards showing kids who Pratham has helped.  The entire banquet hall was dazzling and the stage set in electronic colors and precision lighting that is characteristic of Brij Kathuria’s unique touch, yet not as flamboyant as two years ago. Once again this year, Naach Houston performed numbers during transitions in the program, and the end of the event.

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Dr. Marie Goradia, President Pratham Houston with Nina Davuluri, Emcee

Marie Goradia, Pratham Houston’s President welcomed the guests to the organization’s 20th Anniversary and thanked them for their generosity. She outlined the three programs in India that Pratham has become known for – Read India, the Open School for Girls and the Pratham Institute – and illustrated their success with examples of children, teenagers and women who have profited from them. ”The gift of education is your legacy,” she said “It’s a gift of love, a gift of hope.” A fast-paced video showed Pratham’s reach, set to the music of the hit song “Jai Ho”.

The evening saw the transition of the helm of Pratham from its visionary co-founder and CEO Dr. Madhav Chavan to new CEO Dr. Rukmini Banerji, both of whom traveled from India to attend the Gala. Chavan is moving on to full-time innovator to shape future Pratham programs.

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Indrani Maitra, young speaker

Banerji, the keynote speaker of the event, is the Director of Pratham’s ASER Centre and has won international recognition as an educator, researcher and innovator. “We from India feel Houston is special and have roots here,” Banerji said, adding “Houston is Pratham’s heart!” With a PhD from the University of Chicago and 12 years in the US, Banerji explained how Pratham offered her an opportunity to be a part of the exciting journey of transformation of India.

Richa Maheshwari, a young graduate of Columbia University School of International Studies spoke of her two year experience with Pratham in India where travel to villages opened her mind to work with the challenges. “It’s an organization bursting with energy to educate kids,” she said.

Another of the Gala’s new touches was the personal endearing, thoughtful and well delivered endorsements of two young kids – Sachin Chanchani who equated the $25 cost of two pairs of Nike gym socks with a year’s education for a kid in India and raised $10.232 for Pratham and 11-year-old Indrani Maitra who read 100 books with her friends to raise $5,000 for the charity.

The Gala Honoree this year was Dr. Renu Khator, the energetic and determined President and Chancellor of the University of Houston system, who was introduced by UH Regent, Beth Madison, who lavished praise on Khator’s 7 years at the helm and turning it into a Tier One University.

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Dr. Marie Goradia, President Pratham Houston

Khator thanked Madison and other two co-chairs Harriet Latimer and Lillie Robertson whom she had recruited to help fundraise for the Gala which, by the end of the evening, announced that it had received a record $2,050,000 in donations. Khator noted the impressive philanthropy of Robertson’s grandfather, the late prominent oilman Hugh Roy Cullen, who gave away 93% of his wealth to UH and the Texas Medical Center.

Khator spoke about dream that UH had of achieving excellence as a Tier 1 University and that it is the second most diverse research center in the country. “Diversity and excellence is not mutually exclusive,” she said. “Pratham is similar too, in that it dreams to give kids a chance to grow,” and applauded its passion.

She spoke of her own struggle to come to the US as a teenager, get admission to a university though she spoke halting English and topped the two courses she took in her first semester, thanks to the mentoring of her husband Suresh. She told a story of a girl throwing back a fish into the sea from the thousands that were dying on the beach “because it made all the world of difference to it,” equating it to helping one child at a time, as Pratham does.

The event ended with dancing, with the beat first set off by a vigorous number by Naach Houston and then followed on by others on the dance floor as a DJ blasted out Indian pop music.