Can gorillas help fight poverty?
United Way Bay Area (UWBA) board member Kailesh Karavadra, who is the San Jose Office Managing Partner for Ernst & Young LLP (EY), recently shared an analogy that compares a bamboo tree’s growth cycle to uplifting communities in need.
This short story sets the tone for the interview, where he discusses UWBA’s recent merger, his love for our Earn It! Keep It! Save It! Program, and why it’s important for the tech community to support its Bay Area neighbors in need.
(The headline was referenced by Karavadra in the interview and is a quote from American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.)
“Bamboo trees grow to be 90-100 feet tall, and on any given day they can grow 9-10 feet. Someone might say within 10 days it could grow to its full height. But bamboo trees take about five years to grow to their fullest height. What’s happening during the four years, eleven months, and some change is that they grow their roots, with a foot or two of visible growth above ground.
For the longest period of time you don’t see any growth, but the tree is growing its roots, digging deep, spreading throughout the soil, and getting a firm foundation of strength until it literally shoots straight up from the ground. It is then able to withstand the winds and environmental stresses.
Essentially, if we don’t work together to build strong roots – to lift-up families and give back to our community -- we will still continue to grow, but our communities won’t be as stable and fruitful as they have the potential to be.
I encourage people to pause and ask: 'How am I contributing to building community roots?' Some of us can contribute money, time, our networks, or just spread a little joy. Any of these things will do, but it takes all of us to make these community roots strong and impactful.”
Q: Has your service with United Way had any personal impact on you?
A: As a former refugee from Africa, I’m no stranger to being someone in need at various junctures in my life. However, when I came to Silicon Valley, I think I became like many people here who-- are working at a great company and get caught up in the everyday hustle and routine of life. I think it’s very easy in Silicon Valley, as with many big cities that are thriving, to fall into this trap of complacency and to be diverted from the realities beyond our immediate experience.
When I took on the Managing Partner role at EY and I joined United Way, my eyes were opened. I learned that there’s a very different world out there. It brought it all full circle for me and it was incredibly humbling to be reminded about my upbringing, and that there are many within our own community who feel that same level of need that I felt as a refugee. When I looked at how much success we have here in the Bay Area and how many people are still struggling to meet their basic needs, I knew that I wanted to find a way to bridge this divide with the United Way.
Q: My colleagues tell me you are a big champion of the Earn It! Keep It! Save It! (EKS) Program. Why does this pillar of our work resonate with you?
A: I look at all of the need that we have in our community, and I’ve always said, ok we can help one person, we can help 10 people and that’s great, we need to do that. But if we’re going to create far-reaching change, we need to scale. And I’m a big believer in finding ways of scaling our impact.
EKS just blew my mind. I’ve had the great opportunity to participate in many social impact efforts in the Bay Area, and I just think there’s no better program than EKS to be able to scale and lift whole families out of poverty. Our EY San Jose office participates in EKS by helping low-income families with their tax returns. Last year, our associates helped Bay Area families complete 81,000 tax forms at some 800 public and community sites like libraries, United Way offices and others, resulting in combined tax refunds of $84 million.
You don’t need to be a tax accountant to help, and I encourage more community members to volunteer through the program and give back in this very tangible and gratifying way.
Q: How have you seen the EKS Program evolve in your tenure as a board member and what does success look like in 2017?
A: The merger has allowed us to become administratively efficient, and to share the story of the organization more widely. The scale of what we’re able to do now is great. We’re able to attract new volunteers, get to new locations, where there is considerable need. We’re getting some of the mayors involved in the cities, which is awesome. That’s going to be incredibly powerful to see in the communities that United Way serves.
Q: Do you remember a moment in your life when everything changed for the better for you? Could you briefly share that story?
A: It’s very vivid to me. I was born in Africa as a refugee. For two years, I was a nomad going through east Africa and India, and then eventually ended up in England. So imagine this kid who has been uprooted, and my family of five is living in this one room, we’ve just moved out of these camps that were set up for refugees, and we don’t speak English. My father worked at night, and my mother worked during the day.
I used to go to school, and I hated it, and I wasn’t a very good student. There was a Caucasian teacher, Mr. King, who would talk to me every day as I trudged in reluctantly. He’d speak to me in Hindi, my language. And he’d say, “Come on, Kailesh, you can do it! Let’s go! Make it a good day!” And I thought: “Alright, here’s somebody who doesn’t look like me, has no reason to care about me, and yet he is making an effort to try and connect with me in a way that I understand.” It just completely transformed my life into not feeling sorry for myself, and quite frankly, not having the baggage of my life circumstances weigh down on me , and to shift my focus to hope and possibility instead. I realized that I can choose to focus on what’s under my control.
Since then, I’ve never stopped learning. I’ve never turned back and it’s because of him that I have been able to pay it forward and help thousands of other people. What Mr. King did for me has now been shared with so many people, and has created a ripple effect of positive change. Those thousands of people have helped other people. We’ve created this wave of impact and I hope this ignites more action and inspires others throughout our community to do the same.
Born in Uganda and raised in India and England, Karavadra started his career at Ernst & Young (EY) in the United Kingdom as a chartered accountant before relocating to their San Jose office in 1995. He has advised some of the EY’s largest global clients on business strategy, system security risk consulting, and business process controls. Most recently, he has been the Global Coordinating Partner for all EY services worldwide for a major healthcare corporation and for some of the world’s market leading technology companies based in the Bay Area.
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