“Give where you live,” says Mr. Raj Asava, who has been inspiring the Indian American diaspora to join ranks with him to fight hunger in the U.S.
Raj and Aradhana “Anna” Asava are a corporate power couple, community leaders, and philanthropists. Together they started Hunger Mitao, a unique community-led initiative that surpassed the initial target of enabling 1 million meals within the first seven months. In our current episode of TAL Scouts Hour, we caught up with Raj Asava to learn about their journey. He threw light on the issue of hunger and explained how a strategic and goal-oriented approach is the essential key to success, even for a non-profit.
A man hailing from a humble background, Raj Asava came to the U.S. nearly four-and-half-decades back with a one-way ticket. “I came on a buy now pay later ticket. So the day I landed, I was already in debt.” He started as a dishwasher and made it to the top of the corporate ladder with his grit and determination. Years later, when he came face-to-face with the issue of hunger and poverty in his neighborhood, he instantly connected with people facing food insecurity. He was moved to do something. It led to a massive movement called “Hunger Mitao” that mobilized the American-Indian community like never before.
Excerpt from the interview: Mr. Asava’s humble beginnings to achieving the greatest heights in his career
Inspired by the life mantra, learn, earn and return, the Asavas, upon retirement, decided that they were in the ‘returning” phase of life. To give back to society, they took up many philanthropic causes in their birth land, India. “We always felt that the United States is a land of milk and honey and plenty. Hunger, education, etc., such issues only existed in developing countries.”
However, that perception changed when their city mayor invited Mr.Asava for lunch and requested his support for the “Food 4 Kids” Backpack Campaign. On hearing this, Mr. Asava’s assumed he was probably referring to the low-income neighborhoods. “‘I’m talking about children going to school where your children went, where my children are going,'” Mr.Asava recalled the mayor’s response. “‘When they leave school on Friday, their next full meal is on Monday.'”
He explained what he had just learned to his wife on returning home. Thus began their quest to educate themselves. Realizing the vast prevalence of food insecurity in the U.S., they committed to working towards its elimination.
But, first, they worked on the ground, volunteered with food banks, and deepened their understanding. During this time, the absence of the Indian diaspora in these spaces became evident. It dawned on the couple that ignorance about the issue was possibly a big factor.
They pledged not just to donate funds and their efforts for the cause of hunger elimination but also to garner the American-Indian community’s support.
“And after two years, we were convinced that hunger was a big issue, and we need to do something about it.” My wife and I, we wrote our $100,000 check to the food bank,” he said. “Besides giving our check, we proposed to the CEO of the food bank that we will also dedicate three years of our time and raise awareness across the Indian American community and engage them in the fight against hunger. They loved that idea.”
And that’s how Hunger Mitao was born.
Excerpt from the interview: Mr. Asava on the founding of Hunger Mitao
They identified four impact pillars to target:
- Make the Indian diaspora aware of the issue.
- Encourage more people to volunteer at food banks from the community.
- Customize festival rituals to support the cause. For example, request friends and family to donate supplies instead of gifting sweets.
Through a systematic and methodical approach, they enabled 40 million meals by educating, raising funds, and bringing in more volunteers.
“So our focus is that nobody in today’s day and age should go hungry. That’s number one,” Mr.Asava emphasizes. And second, we also wanted the Indian American community to be recognized not just as smart people and entrepreneurs running giant corporations. Our children are spelling bee champions, right! We also wanted our Indian American community to be known for their compassion and empathy, for their spirit of giving back. So our tagline is, ‘give where you live.’”
Excerpt from the interview: Mr. Asava talks about learn earn and return
Talking about TAL Scouts, he believes that it is an excellent platform for youth to imbibe the life mantra of learning, earning, and returning.
“Giving back doesn’t have to be only money. Children should actually go out and volunteer. Right, Tal Scouts is the most wonderful platform that encourages youth to find out something that they are passionate about to make this world a better place. Right?” he said while also appreciating the structured focus of the organization on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
To the youth passionate about becoming social change agents and still looking for a cause to support, he advises not to re-invent the wheel all over. “Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Tal Scouts has already done much of their homework. United Nations has already done much of the homework to identify where the need is…” said Mr Asava imploring the youth to broaden their knowledge of their issues of interest. He further stresses the importance of finding a good mentor.
However, he cautions the students that this phase in their life is learning. Alongside their passion for making an impact, it is critical to learn and eventually earn. Ultimately, when they are ready to return, they can make an effective impact.