Virendra “Sam” Singh ’65 grew up in a small Indian village, went to Aligarh Muslim University on a field hockey scholarship and then traveled halfway around the world to earn a master’s degree in textile engineering at Lowell Tech.
After working on a nylon-cotton blend at Natick Labs for his thesis research, Singh got job offers at nine companies—and chose DuPont on the advice of his mentor, Prof. John Goodwin. Over the next 35 years, he rose to become one of the company’s top executives, returning to India to head its Asia division.
But his career is not what’s on Singh’s mind these days. He’s more interested in explaining why he quit his job in 2000, at age 61, and moved back to his village in Uttar Pradesh State, where he started a school for girls to spur rural economic development. At the time, his friends and his family in India thought he was crazy. “A lot of people have asked me, ‘What came into your head that you quit your job, left the country, went to a village where there’s no job, no electricity, no water—nothing?’” he says.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘What came into your head that you quit your job, left the country, went to a village where there’s no job, no electricity, no water—nothing?’”
The answer is complicated. As he got to know DuPont’s board members, Singh says, he sensed they had a question they were too polite to ask: “Why are you here when your country needs you?” At the same time, he felt the pull of an Indian tradition: Once your children are grown and your family provided for, you seek higher spiritual wisdom through service and the renunciation of material comforts.
Either way, Singh felt compelled to return and put his executive skills to work on solving the problem of rural Indian poverty, starting where he’d grown up: Anupshahr, a subdistrict with a central town and 175 villages.
Singh’s research persuaded him that the biggest barrier to India’s economic advancement was its mistreatment of women. The evidence was all around him in rural Uttar Pradesh, which has some of the highest rates of female infanticide, illiteracy and child marriage in India—and a seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty.
“If you want to transform the future, you have to transform the mother,” Singh says. “Future mothers have to become financially independent so they can become socially independent. A socially independent mother will not treat her boy children and girl children differently.”
So, with help from a local social worker and activist, Renuka, he built a free school for girls in the town of Anupshahr. He named it Pardada Pardadi, Hindi for great-grandfather and great-grandmother.
He asked people in his village why—and realized how out of touch he was with their day-to-day concerns. “They’re not interested in education,” he says. “They want to know where the food is coming from this evening. They’d say to me, ‘I have a daughter. How will I feed her? How will I clothe her? In 10 or 15 years, she’s going to get married, and then where will I find the money for her dowry and the wedding feast?’”
Singh visited parents in their homes, touching their feet as a gesture of respect. He told them he would feed their daughters three meals a day, provide them with school uniforms and give them jobs in a textile factory upon graduation. He would even pay the girls to attend classes: The money would accumulate in an account the girls could access when they left school and use for a dowry or anything else. The school would feed the wedding party, too.
Still, people were suspicious. But 13 families agreed to send their daughters to Pardada Pardadi. When the school followed through on its promises, a few more families joined. The girls got a solid, basic education as well as vocational training. When the first 13 girls graduated, Singh opened a textile plant to employ them—and offered jobs to their mothers and older sisters, too.
The trickle became a flood, and the students became more ambitious. They were learning about the world outside their villages and the textile factory, and they wanted to be part of it. “The girls started asking, ‘Why can’t I do my 10th grade? Why can’t I do my 12th grade and go to college?” he says. So the school expanded to offer a complete college and career prep program.
Pardada Pardadi now educates 1,500 girls. Many graduate from 12th grade and go on to higher education, with help from scholarships provided by the nonprofit educational society. Today, 127 alumnae are studying at universities and another 130 have graduated and obtained good jobs, including more than 50 who work for IT firms in Bangalore, Singh says proudly.
The educational society has become the base for social and economic changes in the wider community, too. The school’s medical clinic provides health care to students and their families. Singh has expanded the nonprofit textile factory, iVillage, by using his corporate contacts to get contracts from large clothing firms, including New Look. iVillage now employs 375 women and donates its profits back to the school.
Through a community outreach program, volunteers and staff also educate women in the villages in financial literacy and assist them in forming self-help groups, which pool their resources to help members start small businesses. More than 6,000 women are now involved. And because many of them are small scale dairy farmers who were being paid unfair prices for their milk by brokers, Singh negotiated a contract for them to sell their milk directly to Mother Dairy, a socially responsible enterprise. “We cut out the middlemen so that they are not exploited,” Singh says.
The school and related programs attract a steady flow of Peace Corps volunteers and others whom Singh has met in his travels with DuPont. Over the next three years, Singh plans to use all of these networks to double the size of Pardada Pardadi from 1,500 to 3,000 students.
“We have a long line waiting to come to school,” he says.
“It’s not an impossible dream; it’s a dream we can put our hands around and make it happen.”
He needs to raise $9 million. Once the expansion is complete, his daughters, Renu Singh Agarwal and Ena Singh Murphy, will take over for him.
In the meantime, Singh, now 79, plans to keep expanding his vision of rural development through the education, employment and empowerment of women.
He welcomes members of the UMass Lowell community to visit and learn more.
“My job is to facilitate that future vision and talk to people and say, ‘It’s not an impossible dream; it’s a dream we can put our hands around and make it happen.’”