Rita’s husband was the director of IT for a leading food company. She had started her communications consulting company after their son was born. They had a lovely home in Florida. Rita and her husband quit their high-paying jobs, moved back to Kolkata, India, from Florida, US, to start a social enterprise in healthcare. After the initial glitz and glamour in the US settled down, they realised that the American Dream was not just about celebrating materialism. Maybe it went deeper than that and meant something more. Here the author tells us how they were inspired to realise their American Dream in Kolkata, the trials and tribulations and the joy of achieving it. We introduce a new regular column, exclusively in Different Truths, beginning this week.
Our life looked great! And not just on paper. My husband was the director of IT for a leading food company. I had started my own communications consulting company after our son was born, so I could be home with him and have a professional life at the same time. We had a lovely home in Florida and my husband and I were as much in love as we had been the first day we met. Despite the picture-perfectness of it all, we decided to quit our high-paying jobs and move back to Kolkata to start our social enterprise in healthcare.
Our families and friends were shocked. How could we casually throw away everything we had worked so hard to achieve? How could we throw away the American Dream?
What is this American Dream, Anyway?
We moved to the US way back in 2001. Once the initial glitz and glamour of life in the US had settled down, we began to notice the subtle social nuances that made a deeper and more lasting impression on us. We noticed how common people volunteered in schools, hospitals, and libraries, how they freely gave their time, which was already at a premium, for people they didn’t even know. We saw how they donated almost new clothes and other household items even when they could ill afford new ones. Having grown up in India, these were new to us. We didn’t quite understand it all. But slowly, we realised that maybe the American Dream was not just about celebrating materialism. Maybe the American Dream went deeper than that and meant something more.
Our Dream Enterprise
In the spirit of true Americana, my husband and I started volunteering with the Florida Health Information Exchange (HIE) consortium, a part of the nationwide HIE effort, in an advisory capacity to build their infrastructure framework. It was at this juncture of our lives that a couple of my husband’s high school friends, who were doctors practicing in India, visited us in Florida. We discussed with them ways and means by which we could employ the spirit of philanthropy we had learnt in the US and our newfound passion for healthcare to try to bridge the healthcare gap in India, the country of our birth, where healthcare is one sphere, which is vastly neglected and below par for the majority who cannot afford quality medical care, especially during emergencies. A tiny dream had begun to take shape, but it was not yet tangible.
Finally, in 2012, the dream took the form of R3G Foundation, Inc., a social enterprise organisation seeking to bridge healthcare and gender disparity in India and other developing countries. We wanted to create a 9-1- 1 type of emergency system in Kolkata (Kolkata Medical Emergency System/KMES) and pumped in our own money to try and get it off the ground. But, it was a big financial drain and we were almost on the verge of letting our dream go. It was at that time we learnt that KMES has been adjudged one of the winners of the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Challenge. The win brought with it a grant to kick start the project, paving the way for us to pursue our dream to make a difference in the world.
The Big Move
At this juncture, we decided to move to India, in 2013, to oversee the implementation of the project and Mission Arogya, the Indian chapter of R3G Foundation, was born. Our dream project, KMES, was formally launched in February, 2014 by the Hon’ble Consul General of the US to Kolkata, Ms. Helen LaFave. And today, we are proud that KMES offers emergency retrieval to hospitals during emergencies by providing hospital bed availability information and information on nearby ambulances and blood banks.
Living the American Dream in India
In addition to KMES, we are also running rural tele-health projects, maternal and women’s health projects for rural areas, and iSaveAGirl (winner of Idea Prize by Ashoka Changemakers and Intel), a project to stop female foeticide in India. Another project close to our hearts is the development of low-cost, low-resource bio-medical devices for neuro-rehabilitation and FPGA-based embedded systems for health diagnostics/biosensors — all of which will have a huge impact on community health. We have also recently started a, affordable home-based medical care for the elderly in Kolkata. While there are other organisations that offer home-based geriatric care, their services are way too costly for the average elderly person to be able to afford. And in keeping with our mission to make quality healthcare easily available and affordable for everyone, we flagged off Arogya HomeCare, where we empower the elders to live a healthy life with dignity, and, most importantly, within their means. The response and the appreciation for our services have been overwhelming. We couldn’t count our blessings enough. We were finally living the American dream, even though we were away from the US!
The Road Less Travelled
We are thankful to have been able to carry on our philanthropic endeavours, despite limited resources, roadblocks, and frustrations. Since one of the key concepts of our projects is reverse innovation, we believe that these low cost, low resource healthcare products and services will benefit not just India, but can be replicated even across the different countries of the world.
It has taken us three years but we wouldn’t have it any other way. When we reflect upon this journey, every phase we went through has shaped us in unique ways and enriched our lives in more ways than we could ever have imagined. After three years, we are now happier than we had been before embarking on this life-changing journey and just as Robert Frost had promised, taking the road less travelled by has indeed made all the difference.
Pix by Dr Sanchita Mahapatra.
Rita Bhattacharjee is a communications consultant with extensive experience in managing corporate and internal communications for companies across diverse industries, including non-profit organizations. She is the co-founder of Mission Arogya and Arogya HomeCare and has recently relocated from the US to India to channel her skills towards social entrepreneurship to increase awareness and reduce disparity in public health. She also writes poetry, some of which have been published in reputed international journals.