How This Man Journeyed 7,000 Miles To Serve His Community

For the Year of the Boomer — 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50 — here is another installment in my survey of 50 Boomers across 10 career categories who have reinvented themselves within the last 10 years.

The adage that “all politics is local” might also apply to social entrepreneurship. Bhagwati (B.P.) Agrawal is a social entrepreneur with a stellar corporate track record who decided to pivot into the non-profit world to address dire circumstances 7,000 miles away in his home state of Rajasthan in India. Plagued with recurring drought, Rajasthan has only 45 days of measurable rain per year. Agrawal, who studied in the U.S., and made his career here as a R&D exec with Fortune 500 companies, felt called to use his prodigious skills and resources to help the neediest back home in India. In the process, he has developed methodologies that he intends to use around the world to support better water and health care infrastructures. Boomers like Agrawal represent a welcome re-commitment to many of the values that shaped this generation, and a renewal of focus and energy at a time in life when most people shy away from exploring new ventures.

In 2003, after working for companies including Hughes, ITT, GTE, and General Dynamics, Agrawal founded the Aakash Ganga (“River from Sky”) project in Rajasthan to harvest rainwater from individual rooftops, and collect it through downspouts and pipes into a network of underground collection tanks. While rainwater collection was a practice that had gone on for hundreds of years, it needed Agrawal’s technological and managerial skill to implement it and scale it to 21st century standards. In 2006, the World Bank helped him expand the project to reach a total of 70 villages serving approximately 200,000 people. Other localities took note. In 2009, the Asian Development Bank funded a pilot project to bring the Aakash Ganga methodology to Guiyang Municipality in China, where the system was used to address groundwater contamination from over-fertilization and pesticide use. Agrawal’s non-profit, Sustainable Innovations, formed in 2007, is now the umbrella organization behind the expansion of Aakash Ganga, as well as other projects beyond rainwater collection as well. As he explained to the Wall St. Journal, S.I.’s mission is “to harness innovations for making safe drinking water available to rural villages and for delivery of healthcare to vulnerable populations.”

Agrawal has won a number of awards for these accomplishments, including the Lemelson — MIT Sustainability award, the Energy Globe World award for social innovation, the World Bank Development Marketplace award, and the Purpose Prize.

While we all won’t necessarily achieve this kind of success as a social entrepreneur, Agrawal’s example presents an inspiring and simple lesson for all of us who are looking to find meaning beyond mid-life: you can go home again. Boomers were perhaps the first generation to rebel against our parents and their lifestyles. We went off to college in droves, moved to new cities, started new and different careers. Perhaps now, later in life, as we take stock of what we’ve done, and look at where we’re going to be over the remaining decades, we have the opportunity to return to our roots and make a difference in our home communities. While we may be returning with substantial resources, knowledge and skills to share, we also understand what makes our home communities tick in a way that no one else can. Just as B.P. Agrawal returned to the farming community of his childhood, the rest of us, in perhaps less dramatic fashion, may be able to find purpose and meaning in being of service to our parents, our extended families, and to the local institutions that we grew up with — perhaps our schools, our hospitals or other community organizations.

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