India's Millennial Entrepreneur Wants to Call Philly Home

He didn't know what the word entrepreneur was, but that didn't stop him from starting his own puppet show business in sixth grade and grossing a .50 cent profit, which he divided amongst his friends to buy chocolates.

Nineteen years later, after starting a for-profit, e-commerce company in India which was selected as one of the top 1000 emerging business ideas in the nation through a contest in The Economic Times, Dhairya Pujara, 25, who holds a Master's of Science in Biomedical Engineering from Drexel University, is now building a startup that offers students the kind of hands-on, globalized, immersive learning experience, he wish he'd received from his alma mater.

After graduation, Pujara, who's originally from Bombay, visited Mozambique in October of 2012 to work in the rural healthcare system. The challenges were many, in particular, he says, was a gross language barrier -- he didn't speak Portuguese -- and the lack of consistent electricity in the Chicuque Rural Hospital, where his office was. An engineer mistaken for a doctor, Pujara recalls a time when a patient laid before him choking on his own blood and vomit and the staff of the hospital was relying on him to save the day. With no electricity, Pujara asked the nurses if they had a generator; they did, but it was broken.

After taking a look at the generator himself, Pujara realized that after six years of a high-priced education, he couldn't fix the machine and as a result, the man died in front of his eyes.

"I just stood there, shamed. I viewed myself as a failure, a complete failure. I have a Master's degree in engineering and I couldn't fix a damn machine, it couldn't get any worst for me. My college experience set me up to be smart, intelligent even, but not to solve real-world problems, it didn't set me up to fail," explains Pujara, sharing with me the catalyst for founding Y-Center, his latest startup.

Pujara could've given up at that moment, accepted failure and ran home with his tail between his legs. Instead, the always smiling millennial -- who says he's an entrepreneur first and an engineer second -- created an organization that will allow university students to travel the world, doing projects, getting their hands dirty and failing fast.

"I never want a student to just stand there, not being able to fix a broken machine -- or in many cases, a broken city," he says.

I met Pujara over the weekend at the Ignition Philly Summit, where we both served as coaches to more than 50 millennial social change agents in nation's fifth largest city. Over the course of three, eight-hour days, we assisted emerging leaders in becoming more memorable activists by building powerful storytelling skills. During the first day, after introducing ourselves, it was clear that Pujara had a story to tell. While witnessing a session on the "Story of Us," Pujura and I, on the last day of the summit, took a few moments to sit down and discuss our shared values, which we soon discovered was risk-taking.

Sharing with Pujara that five years ago I lost two corporate sales jobs and turned down a third in exchange for starting an online news organization with no journalistic training or steady internet access, he shares in return that he's sometimes criticized by adults in his homeland when he reveals he's the CEO of a non-formal learning center and doesn't have a degree in education.

"Your story resonated with me, out of all the stories I heard this weekend," Pujara tells me. "You didn't have journalistic training, but that didn't stop you. We're not running a circus that we need be trained for, this is our life, and we should be able -- without prejudice -- to do whatever we like. At the end of the day, everyone on this planet is involved in education. You're either the student or the teacher."

Pujara's mother was a teacher and his father a businessman, who became so out of necessity due to his lack of a college education. They both worked hard and saved all their money to be able to pay for his college experience in America. Pujara says:

My parents told me explicitly, 'We don't want you to be a businessman because we care for you.' They pressured me to study hard, and get a secure job, so I didn't have to struggle like they did. I was told to get a safe job. My parents still question why I have a great degree and choose to live the risky life of an social entrepreneur.

Pujara admits to me that he doesn't have healthcare and that his apartment still looks like a dorm, but that he choose to live this life, because it makes him happy and that his social venture that he's making these sacrifices for, will have a major impact on the world.

Pujara's student visa is up in April of 2014, and he if can't raise $15,000 at least, he'll have to go back to India. And while he's confident that he can scale his operation in any geographic region, he says Philadelphia is where he wants to ignite good, "it's the silicon valley of social entrepreneurs," he adds with a smile.

"Philadelphia and India are similar in a lot of ways, mainly in its challenges. I look at the problems and they connect with me. And it's not just the problems, but the resources, and the family-like atmosphere. I mean look at me and you. We didn't know each other seven days ago, and here you are listening to my story. That's Philly; that's brotherly love. I want to be apart of this family. My startup one day can grow to San Francisco or New York City, but I want to be rooted in Philadelphia, this is the town I want to plant my seed."