BITS Alumni Association (BITSAA) is one of the largest Alumni Associations in the world, and one of the most active and prolific in terms of its initiatives. And yet, it is easy to forget humble beginnings, and the contributions of several “generations” of leaders that have made into what it is today. Over the next few weeks, we aim to bring to you the beginnings of BITSAA – the events that shaped its growth, and give you a glimpse of what went into it, from the biggies like BITSConnect and the NASDAQ phenomenon; to the small victories and setbacks that are part and parcel of any large enterprise, and last but in no way the least, the actual faces and voices behind the name.
Though recent in origin, BITSAA has emerged as one of the strongest alumni networks of any university. It is interesting to know how 9/11 attacks played a role in the birth of BITSAA. In a candid conversation with three founders Anupendra Sharma (Eco Instru ’87), Venu Palaparthi (Eco CS ’87) and Sandeep Arora (MMS 87), we explore how four waves have created and transformed BITSAA into an enduring, relevant organization.
The story goes back to 2001 in New York City, when Anupendra sent an email to the Eco ’87 batch about raising a scholarship for Pilani students in the memory of his batchmate SS Seshadri (Eco Civil), who had passed away a few years ago.
The Eco ‘87 batch was instantly responsive. But to fully endow the scholarship, Venu Palaparthi, who lived across the river in New Jersey, suggested doing a fundraiser music night instead of simply collecting money. Venu risked a $10,000 deposit to book a place for the show. That’s when Sandeep Arora (MMS ’87) surfaced. “Sandeep was a popular guitarist and music club member at BITS”, says Venu. He agreed to pull the music night together.
Anupendra, Venu and Sandeep were working towards the big night, finding BITSians, and sending out invitations for the event. A date was set: October 13, 2001.
Then, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
A BITSian, Vamsi Pendyala (’88), was a passenger on the flight from Boston which crashed into the World Trade Center.
Venu says, “It gave us a massive jolt. I was in NYC and I received hundreds of emails. BITSians asking about other BITSians. The phones had gone silent. But people were on emails forwarding across batches – seeking info and reassurance that their mates were safe.”
Anupendra recollects, “When we finally got to the fundraiser, I found out that two BITSian classmates were in the towers when the planes hit.
“They remembered walking down 50 floors, watching people jump to their deaths. We didn’t talk about that day. In fact, it would be months before both of them were able to discuss that morning with each other.”
With Ground Zero burning, the three founders decided that it was only fitting to create a scholarship in memory of Vamsi Pendyala. Vamsi’s wife and classmates were instantly supportive, and the organizing team grew rapidly. Unfortunately, overcome by grief, Vamsi’s wife took her own life a week later. It was a sad day for the entire BITS family.
“9/11 forced us to rethink about the fragility of our relationships,” Venu told Rediff later. “In Vamsi, we saw ourselves. It could have been any of us.”
Vamsi’s death brought a lot of attention to the New Jersey fundraiser being planned. “We owe our entire organization to Vamsi,” Venu says, “In his death, he created an organization.”
In anticipation, Anupendra met Kevin Dyer, a New York lawyer at his Park Avenue office. Kevin, inspired by the fundraising efforts, and the story of Vamsi and Sesha, halved his fees and filed all the papers to create a not for profit organization.
Sandeep remembers the year that BITS started to recognize BITSAA. “In BITSAA’s 3rd year (2003), our dear Director, Prof. Venkateshwaran came to the United States as he had been doing for years. This visit turned out to be very different than the past, since BITSAA started to organize meetings everywhere.
The Diro was surprised and amazed by the large crowds of people he met everywhere he went. Inspired by the new network, in his final stop with the Silicon Valley Chapter, he left BITSAA with a mission he called BITSConnect – to wire the BITS Pilani campuses.”
It was a second call to arms, and one that was to unite the entire BITSAA global community.
The BITSConnect movement was led by Silicon Valley BITSians Jayan Ramankutty, Prem Jain and Karthik Krishna in New York galvanized the globe into its first major joint action. Venu says “Sandeep Arora managed the new complexity of hundreds of donors, pledge cards and messages from around the world. Being Treasurer of BITSAA suddenly became a big job.”
Venu is proud of what we achieved. “BITSConnect succeeded, and over $1 million of equipment and services were installed on the campus.” Anupendra adds.
“The Sandpaper 2.0 team rejoiced in its success by creating a cover of hot air balloons taking off. BITSians on campuses were now free to connect with the rest of the world. It was an empowering moment”
After the success of BITSConnect, BITSAA’s energies waned. The big project was over, the initial bout of nostalgia done. BITSAA needed a new mission, a new purpose. It had to be more than just about the University. It had to be about the alumni. Anupendra expressed this view to Venu often. Yet neither had an idea of where to take the organization next.
As it happened, things worked out by themselves, and BITSAA got a new direction wherein to expand, as we shall see in our next post.