My first experiment with empathy -Ramakrishna NK, Co-founder of Rang De
The year was 1994. I joined an engineering college in Vijayawada. It was the same college where RGV (Ram Gopal Verma) studied. Ever wondered why RGV makes the kind of films he makes? It’s because of my college. It was quite infamous for campus violence. RGV was many years senior to me and was a witness to campus violence.
In fact, his first film Shiva starring Nagarjuna is based on our college where 30 seconds into the movie, you see someone getting murdered right outside the college campus.
I got into this college quite unknowingly. It was known for its academics but the violence was a well-kept secret. Fortunately, I was spared the violence because I didn’t speak the local language fluently thanks to my north Indian upbringing. I entered my 2nd year of college and things got worse with every day. At one end, our college looked normal and then suddenly there were episodes of violence.
The Food Festival
One day, the final year students requested me to volunteer for a food festival for the Mechanical Engineering Dept. They thought I should be part of the committee so that I could get the best Chole Bhature to college. Anyway, I accepted their invitation. I started thinking about the festival and it occurred to me - “Why don’t we turn this into a fundraiser for a social cause and involve the entire college instead?”
I proposed an event with lots of games and food where all the money that we raise will be donated to an orphanage in Vijayawada.
The committee thought it was far-fetched because nothing like this had ever been attempted before. But fortunately, they agreed. We were able to raise sponsorship in a record time.
However, a week before the event, I realised that I had not spoken to the Charity itself.
I met the head of the orphanage to explain our idea and get their consent. We were seated in a hall where about 40 children were playing around. I noticed a kid standing next to me eavesdropping on our conversation. His name was Rahul. I asked the head of the Orphanage about his age.
She said “About 5 years”.
Why ‘about’ 5 years?
She said because they didn’t really know the exact birthdays of the kids.
I had a follow-up question - “How do you celebrate their birthdays?”
She said, “We just pick one day in a year and celebrate every child’s birthday on the same day.”
Take a moment here and think about this for a second. There are children in this world who don’t even know when they were born. I realised that we are extremely fortunate and privileged.
Anyway, back to the story.
I replied, “Would you please allow us to celebrate their birthdays during our fundraiser?”
Just like the college committee, she was hesitant but finally agreed. I went back to college and told my team to drop all our positioning.
“Everything needs to be the best. The cake, the games, the food, everything!” This day should be remembered as the biggest birthday bash Vijayawada has ever seen. The committee was in! Everyone was excited to get this going. A day before the event, I got a message I dreaded.
The Birthday Bash
Okay, so I was heading a fundraiser in a college plagued by violence, ragging and political fights. Everything was perfect.
We had multiple sponsors
The mood around the campus was positive
And colleges from all over Vijayawada had agreed to participate.
A day before the event, I got a message from the group known for its violence.
They wanted to meet me at the far end of the college campus ALONE! I went to the spot and saw 4-5 guys waiting for me. The head of the group raised his hand and patted me gently on the back. He said - “We’ve been hearing really great things about you. Tomorrow is a very big day. It is quite possible that some of our people may create problems, but we’re here to take care of it.”
That was the final piece of the puzzle. Without their cooperation, it would’ve been nearly impossible to host the event. The day arrived and it was perfect!
We got a large 3-tier cake weighing 40 kg
Students from other colleges were invited
Each child was taken care of by 2 volunteers
There were countless games and food stalls all around the campus
When it was time to cut the cake, we were not sure who would feed the children. Our Principal stepped forward, cut a piece of cake and fed one child with his own hands. Watching him, all the professors and lecturers made one straight line to feed the children. It was not part of the script. We hadn’t planned it. Such was the nature of this event.
The principal and all the department heads visited the orphanage to hand over the cheque.
We had planned to donate ₹10,000 but ended up with ₹25,000 because of additional pledges during the event.
The Empathy Experiment
This birthday bash was single-handedly responsible for ending the violence on our campus overnight. I wondered why?
That is when I realised that many of us might live an entire life and not express empathy because we were not presented with an opportunity. This event became a universal expression of empathy for everyone who participated in it.
I started to wonder if we could replicate this across college campuses in India. I was on the verge of dropping out of college to pursue this idea. Why I did not drop out eventually is a separate story altogether. However, in hindsight, I’m glad I completed my graduation. Because the events that followed led me to start Rang De in 2008.
The Genesis of Rang De
My wife Smita and I were looking at several ideas that could bring about social change at scale while we were in Oxford. We stumbled upon the concept of microcredit when Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their incredible work.
For me, Microcredit was (and is) one of the most powerful tools to make India a “developed” nation, if done the right way. That’s when Smita and I launched Rang De - a social peer-to-peer lending platform for 86% of unbanked individuals in India.
In the past 14 years, we have provided microcredit to rural entrepreneurs at 4 to 8% interest p.a and have impacted thousands of lives. Our journey has just begun.
If you believe in our story and mission, I invite you to invest in India’s rural communities and support their entrepreneurial spirit.
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