By Parveen Chopra
A versatile and energetic man, Ravishankar Bhooplapur has managed to scale the pinnacle in every field he has chosen to pursue. With exceptional success in Insurance and wealth management consulting, he has now turned a top educationist by creating one of the top 10 medical universities in the Caribbean where students with lesser means too can have their dream fulfilled of becoming a doctor. Yet he finds time for humanitarian projects, 100s of which he has led globally. Founded by him, Gift of Life (India) has already saved over 6,000 young lives, and recently he became the only South Asian inducted into Rotary’s exclusive $1 Million Legacy Donor Club.
The former Chief Justice of India, M.N. Venkatachaliah, has a succinct insight into Ravishankar Bhooplapur. “He is an extraordinary personality, full of a great impersonal love for mankind which has expressed itself in many profound ways and ideas,” he wrote in a message to The South Asian Times.
Many other key people associated with the multifaceted, multitasking Ravi also sent us messages of congratulations and acclamations on his recognition as The South Asian Times Person of the Year 2020. They have touched on the magnitude and value of his humanitarian and philanthropic work, and other aspects of his life and personal qualities.
The South Asian Times interviewed the man himself to learn the secret of his success in everything he takes on and his motivations. Some excerpts:
The South Asian Times: So now besides many other epithets for you, can one add, ‘Institution Builder’ after the success of Xavier medical school?
Ravishankar Bhooplapur: After I reached the top in insurance business, I started looking around for enterprises, the whole gamut from real estate to brick and mortar businesses to IT, even delved in some, and even lost some money. This was around the year 2000. From my young adulthood, I always did something new every 7-8 years – new and different. Actually, I have a focus group of friends who come from different walks of life, like finance, academics, some are wealthy. I learn from them what they do, how they do it and what are the trends. One of the friends asked me what I was doing. I sell insurance, life insurance, I said, and I set up pension plans. When asked about my audience, I said, a majority of them are doctors. He told me then that in America healthcare is a big industry and anything you do with healthcare you’ll never go wrong. I considered supplies business but dropped the idea. By that time, I had already launched my online travel insurance website, Easy Medical Insurance, which is doing good till today.
Then an opportunity came that took hold of my mind. At Wyckoff Hospital the CEO and Dr Bhat and his friends were meeting to discuss setting up a medical school integrated with hospital and they invited me to it. There we met Neil Simon, President of Antigua medical school. He enlightened me about the supply and demand in healthcare, especially doctors. He said there’s a need for a few medical schools if they’re properly set up. I traveled with him many times, discussed all this in detail. I thank him for giving me much insight into medical schools and even today I discuss with him and take his advice. I spent 5 years before I jumped in to Xavier at Aruba.
One good thing about me is, if I like something, I dig deep into it and what I found confirmed my abilities and the need of setting up a good medical school. But institution building is a six lane highway – you have to keep to the speed. What I mean is, you can have a beautiful building, but without good quality academicians, and a good curriculum, or a good island or the location close to the mainland, you cannot have a successful institution in the Caribbean.
But along the way, as we clocked many air miles, there were many false starts and red herrings. But all that gave me valuable experience, building my resolve and confidence. Our search ended with Xavier in Aruba. I decided when devising the detailed business plan that good education also should be affordable. Accreditations are very important. Although people give me credit, it is also teamwork. I’m very proud and happy with what we have accomplished so far in the last 13 years, getting all the required accreditations. Ours is the only school in the Caribbean which has right now three accreditations approved by WHO as well as accepted by the NCFMEA & Department of Education in Washington. I was also fortunate to have good board members, mentors and I can give a lot of credit to Dr Bhat, Dr Prahalad, and Dr Kota as well as Chairman Edwin Casey who were not only with me on this journey but also guiding and helping me in academic matters and clinical matters. Later we set up a team of trustees, who are influential as well as of our kind of mentality. Now we are building a new campus though Covid has delayed it a bit. We are proud that the 1100 doctors graduated from our school are already practicing in the US and around the world, some in very prominent positions. We have currently about 600 students and a staff of about 100. We have pre med programs in Hyderabad and Coimbatore in India. We also started in Ghana.
Q: Why do medical colleges come up in Caribbean islands?
Ravi: It is the proximity to the US. Kids and parents feel safe sending them to Caribbean countries compared to Mexico for example. There is a shortage of doctors and medical schools in America. As per the American Medical Association that controls the number of residencies required for America, 26,500 new doctors are needed every year but US medical schools produce only 21,000 doctors. Opening a medical school takes a long time and huge amount of investment. Besides, it is not a money making or profitable venture and there are many legislative headaches.
Q: What is the secret of your success?
Ravi: First is work ethics, also time management. And I go deep into the entire process of the business model. I think ahead what needs to be done today, tomorrow and three months later for a project or institution building. And how do we cultivate good people, how do you groom them and delegate to get the results? Incentives also work. People Xavier are given incentives for the hard work they do, and they are recognized adequately. I also read a lot of books on the industry and take advice from experts and learn every day new things.
Q: Are you influenced by any particular motivational speaker or writer?
Ravi: Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ – a friend of mine, advocate Sam Karanth, presented this book to me in 1980. I also attend many of the events like on time management, and by Anthony Robbins and Brian Tracy. I am very detail oriented. Everything I do is written down and very seldom I do anything on ad hoc basis. I read regularly the Harvard Review. I also reach out to the people if I don’t know something to get advice and I have multiple people who guide me and advise me to reach an informed decision. I have a lot of patience and perseverance and I don’t give up. In this business when I entered, I realized that everything is accountable, measurable. Everything we do at Xavier is by the book and transparent and reviewed regularly by 3rd party to correct our mistakes if any.
Q: What keeps you motivated to do more and more?
Ravi: I like to give back. This motivation charges me every day that I am doing good and I am successful at it. At Xavier kids initially are not sue whether they will become doctors. Parents reach out to me and I am accessible to all. I guide parents and motivate students. Initially, it was building an institution but of late I think about giving a good product at a reasonable price, making students work to becoming a doctor and it is gratifying and extremely difficult to express the happiness to see the students graduating.
Q: You are multitasking, doing so much and travelling a lot at the same time…
Ravi: Mind is conditioned now for me as to how I recharge myself. Everyone does one business: come home and the next day back to the grind. Most people’s mind works on one side: business, business and business. I break the pattern. When I have free time, I read about motivational and successful people. I also allocate my time for the priorities. I enjoy doing what I want to do. I give Fridays, for example, to do Rotary work, allocating grants. Since I do so much of charity work, almost every week I have a new request, which I analyze and evaluate. I take up ones that are going to help on a large scale, like for Covid, childcare, tsunami, healthcare, education. Something comes up and I immediately jump in – how can I help? I’m very disciplined in my own thoughts and actions.
Q: What were your major achievements as Rotary governor in 2009-10?
Ravi: All the 535 governors in the world are given an agenda by the Rotary International President every year on what areas should we be focusing on. In my year as Governor, one area was increasing membership. I managed to enlist 25% new members and I was recognized as one of the top 10 districts at the Montreal convention. We also kept the activities in a high gear, people participation was good in all clubs in my district. We groomed many young people aspiring to be leaders, giving them the opportunity to become assistant governors.
We established 4 new clubs, two of which are doing extremely well even today: Jericho Sunrise and Hicksville South. I thought at the time that there is so much of our community around here after demographic changes. Rotary is not just meant for white or black people or any color people. Also, a majority of Indians are involved with some kind of charity and Rotary is aware of our generation in India and when we migrated here. To Kamlesh Mehta one day I said, “There’s a need and we should start a Rotary club (with South Asian members)” Kamlesh was the charter president (of Hicksville South). We have members from a cross-section; Rotary is not a chamber of commerce only for business people. The ladies club (Jericho Sunrise) started because many promising ladies too wanted to be part of voluntary work, philanthropy work. I’m proud the two clubs have done a million dollars worth of projects. Also, our people have learnt how to work with the mainstream, having the Rotary platform. Plus, leadership qualities are built — Kamlesh went on to become District Governor a few years after me.
Q: Are you one of the biggest donors to Rotary?
Ravi: No, let me put it this way, I was the fourth from the Indian subcontinent to become a Hall of Fame in Rotary in 2004-5, which is the recognition they give to those who have contributed over $250,000. At the time there were only 40 Hall of Famers in the entire world; now there are 400 plus. I was also made a charter member of the Arch Klumph Society of high donors.
Q: Can we expect to see you becoming the Rotary International President one day?
Ravi: The way it works in Rotary is you apply to become a director first, only as director you are eligible to become President. I have a desire to become a director first, after that I will see how things go. Being President of Xavier demands a lot of time. For Rotary it requires 3-4 years of complete dedication.
But yes, I was for three years till recently on Rotary’s Investment Committee managing funds of $1.2 billion.
Q: What does Gift of Life India do?
Ravi: My biggest success or legacy is Gift of Life India. Gift of Life is a project started by Rotary people from Long Island in 1981, to arrange for heart surgeries for children. As its board member I convinced them to start a Gift of Life India separately. I am its founding chair since 2002. We have done no-cost surgeries and saved the lives of over 6,000 poor kids. The beneficiary kids have been mostly Indian but also from countries in the subcontinent as well as Afghanistan, Iraq. Not only surgeries are free, Gift of Life India also provides for lodging and boarding of each kid and accompanying guardian. We raise money for here and Rotary Foundation gives matching grants. A normal heart surgery in case of congenital defect costs about $1000 in India, in America it cost 10 times more.
Q: What is the biggest achievement of the Rotary movement?
Ravi: Rotary is over a century old premier nonprofit organization in the world, which is a signatory to the United Nations Charter. Rotary’s biggest achievement is ending polio around the world, including in Africa now — it is still there in pockets of Pakistan. In a recent interview about Covid vaccine, Bill Gates mentioned how Rotary harnessed volunteers to administer polio drops.
Q: Now what are you doing for Covid?
Ravi: When Covid started, I knew things were going to get out of control. So, I started with my hometown, Dharwad, where I set up a Rs 45 lakh ICU unit for poor people. I donated about $10,000 here and we secured CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds through my contacts in India – Grameena Bank in Dharwad and Tata Motors. Now we are expanding, we have received a grant approved to set up an ICU unit with ventilators and all in Kerala for $378,000. Our Covid related blood bank in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, was inaugurated last month; it is a $120,000 project in which other Rotary districts also participated.
Q: You have also been involved with many Indian community organizations here.
Ravi: Yes, I am a life member of the major organizations. I got involved with AIA (Association of Indians in America) when Dr Manvar was its president. We took a lead in raising funds (Rotary gave matching grants) for tsunami and sent to Indonesia and Sri Lanka and India. In Chennai, opposite the rail station we built a public toilets complex and a community center for fishermen. Also raised funds for distribution of AIA’s book ‘Ananya’ on India to Indian missions.
For 9 years I served as treasurer for Center for India Studies at Stony Brook after it was founded, and donated about $35000. I am on the board of a Kannada organization called NAVIKA with 2,500 members and served as its chairman for two years. At Navika, we have established scholarships for students.
For AAPI, when they established the Queens-Long Island Chapter, I was the first one to host a dinner for the young doctors. I was heavily involved with AAPI for their fundraising activities and attended many of their conventions. Actually, most of my clients in the insurance business were Indian American doctors.
Q: You were very successful in insurance and wealth management…
Ravi: Actually, insurance shaped my life. To flourish in that profession, you have to be very disciplined. I worked for AXA for many years and become one of the most successful insurance agents. I set a record selling one single policy to one individual for $127 million. I also become a Hall of Fame. Then I quit and started my own brokerage firm Vision Financial Services in 1997 and ran it full steam till about 2012. I still have brokerage but only do existing clients.
Q: How did your association with SUNY help in setting up the Gandhi Peace Garden.
Ravi: I am one of the 13 trustees in SUNY Old Westbury since 2011. Every year we participate in raising money for scholarships for its low income students, many of them from minorities. I’ve been donating personally also. In 2018, Mr Arvind Vora of Shanti Fund approached me as they needed help to establish a Gandhi Peace Garden to celebrate the Mahatma’s 150 years. I took the lead in getting approval for almost 50 acres on the campus to establish the garden. It was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Modi from the United Nations.
Q: How do you feel getting the Ellis Island Medal of Honor?
Ravi: It is a prestigious award and I feel honored to have received it for the work I have done and to be among recipients who are all very high caliber people. Your immigrant heritage is a requirement for this medal.
Q: How is the support from your family for your work?
Ravi: Initially, they would caution me why I do so much travelling. Now they know I do what I do. My kids Manali and Amogh help, support in their way. But the big support comes from my wife, Jaya. We discuss what projects we should be doing and we both are aligned in what we do.
Amogh is doing masters in law at Touro law college on Long Island. Manali finished her medical studies and will be joining residency this year.
Q: How are you inculcating your good qualities in your children?
Ravi: Some qualities they learn by observing us and working with us. They learn that everything you have to do correctly, diligently, sincerely and honestly, not half-heartedly. Also, be compassionate with other people who are in need. My son Amogh actually went to South Africa for three weeks to volunteer in an orphanage there. Manali we took to Nicaragua some years ago to work in a burn center for underprivileged kids. Hopefully they’ll continue doing the right thing– we have the Bhooplapur foundation set up in USA & India.