At age 22, Ajit George was a wealthy Indian American kid from New Jersey, struggling to find purpose. Then his father, Abraham, announced his plan to return to India to create a residential school for Dalit children. Known as “the untouchables,” the Dalit are India’s poorest caste. Twenty years later, the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project has sent alums to companies like Goldman Sachs and Amazon, lifting them out of generational poverty. A handful of these students came to international attention this spring through the four-part Netflix documentary, Daughters of Destiny, which follows them through several years at the school. As for Ajit—pictured here with photos of his students—he divides his time between the campus just outside Bangalore and the Factoria apartment he shares with his fiancee. Having used his inheritance to save Shanti Bhavan, he serves as both its director of operations and its most impassioned evangelist. —JV
I attended some of the best schools in the U.S., and I never learned, in my entire life, from any of the schools, anything about social values.
I went to the same high school Peter Dinklage went to. I read an interview with him about his time there, and I could tell he struggled as much as I did. Probably because neither of us fit the mold of what that school expected.
I remember being in a train station in Kolkata—I must’ve been 12, 13, something like that—and seeing homeless strewn across the train station, living on the floors, and thinking, this must be close to hell on earth for them.
On the surface, Shanti Bhavan is a school. But the way I look at it is as an ecosystem. Because we have [the students] from four years old until college, it’s a system where we can intervene at various phases.
I thought it would be easier. I thought they would get into college, get jobs, and everything would be done. But poverty permeates through so many layers of issues, from sexism, to casteism, to generational debt, to alcoholism, to domestic abuse. It’s a beast with many tentacles that tears through these kids’ lives.
I’m proud to be in America. But I think it’s easy to think about yourself pretty often in this country. The kids taught me to love deeply. To care deeply about people’s lives. A kind of capacity in myself that I didn’t believe was there.
If we understand poverty better, we can address it better.
My father is the greatest human being I’ve ever met. But he’s also a complex man. A flawed man. There are times when we get into deep arguments.
Working with him is so hard, so complicated. It’s like, where is the separation between boss and father? If I didn’t really, genuinely believe in the work I was doing, and genuinely love every part of it, I would want to have a normal father-son relationship. I can never have that.
When the 10th and 12th graders take the national exam, the whole school stops and applauds when they leave the classroom. It’s pretty intense, this massive clapping and cheering. We try to emphasize, “Don’t just take care of yourselves or your families. Take care of the larger community.”
Our family lived that example. We nearly went bankrupt. Me and my younger brother, both of us were like, “Forget the inheritance. We don’t want it.”
The kids know these stories. We tell them not to say we’re great, but mostly to say, “Hey, we’ve done this. Why don’t you think about doing this yourselves?”