Raja Venkatachalam, M.B.A. ’16, always thought life was easy before starting Radiant Sport, his nonprofit sports organization focused on engaging people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
“When I interacted with orphans and the downtrodden, my perspective of life changed,” says Venkatachalam, who recently earned a degree from Clark’s Graduate School of Management. “I felt more fortunate for all I had been given.”
In August 2013, Venkatachalam and a friend took the unusual step of starting the small nonprofit in India, something typically frowned upon by Indian parents who hope to see their children enter traditional careers, he said. Venkatachalam, who earned an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree from Anna University in Chennai, India, knows he was lucky.
“Most Indian parents are still ‘old school,’ and not in favor of doing things that don’t make money for a career,” he says. “My parents trusted and believed in me.”
With family support, an entrepreneurial spirit, desire to give back to the community and mutual love for sports (Venkatachalam was a district-level basketball player, and his friend a state-level tennis player) — the two forged ahead.
“There are lots of charitable organizations providing basic living needs in India, but none to help the downtrodden achieve their dream in sports,” he explains. “Yet, there are lots of talented young people who would love to be active and could be brought up to play sports.”
With a vision of “for sports, by sports, through sports,” the pair pooled $55 of their own savings to hold a simple basketball tournament in Venkatachalam’s hometown. Later, the men started collecting nominal entry fees from teams, but distributed cash prizes to the winners. They made little money at first, but knew they had something to build on.
“Not only do I have the business skills necessary to succeed, but I now have the courage and strength to be successful. GSOM brought that out in me. I will always be grateful to the staff and faculty here.”
Slowly, they were able to recruit a group of volunteers to assist them; today, that number is about 25 to 30 people. They also ventured into other sports, like soccer, volleyball and badminton.
The partners faced challenges, though. Many people didn’t trust them, thought they were selfish and assumed they were pocketing much of the money they raised. So, Venkatachalam and his friend decided that any money left after expenses and prizes should be donated to a charity. That’s the business plan in place for the eight events held every year.
“Everything is done professionally and systematically. All of Radiant Sport’s money is in a designated bank account,” Venkatachalam says. “Eventually, the naysayers came around.”
To ensure they reach a variety of participants, Radiant Sport typically chooses either an area orphanage or a small village in which to hold a charity sports tournament. One of Venkatachalam’s favorite memories is of their first visit to a tiny coastal village near Chennai.
“Ninety-five percent of the people in the village, adults and children, were only engaged in fishing. No one had ever played any sport in their life,” he recalls. “But they loved volleyball, so we rented out a school ground space and organized a volleyball tournament. It was awesome. The biggest reward was that they really wanted us to come back.”
About a year after starting Radiant Sport, both Venkatachalam and his friend left for graduate school. Venkatachalam, knowing he wanted to study in the United States, came to Clark to focus on business administration. The two recruited underclassmen from their respective schools to carry on Radiant Sport’s mission. He kept in close touch with those running the organization, and when he returned home during school breaks, he met with the volunteers to offer assistance.
Radiant Sport has become more well-known throughout the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Venkatachalam was invited to a local radio station last winter break to talk about the organization, and he’s now being approached by companies who want to sponsor Radiant Sport events. This makes him proud, but not complacent. While he’s happy to see his organization leading by example, he wants other companies and organizations to “step up to the plate.”
“We started Radiant Sport not for us, but to be a model for other organizations,” Venkatachalam says. “I know Radiant Sport can only do so much. I believe larger companies could do the same thing, and I would like to see that.”
Venkatachalam praises his GSOM experience for giving him the “perfect head start to a career path” and arming him with the leadership and management skills that will carry over into his work with Radiant Sport. More importantly, he says, is that his courses and faculty taught him how to compete in the business world.
“Not only do I have the business skills necessary to succeed, but I now have the courage and strength to be successful,” he says. “GSOM brought that out in me. I will always be grateful to the staff and faculty here.”
As for the future of Radiant Sport, Venkatachalam wants to expand it into other cities and use new marketing strategies he learned as a GSOM student. He knows Radiant Sport will not be his primary career, but it is definitely his passion. He plans to work in the U.S. for two or three years and then return to India and re-connect with the organization, believing he can take it to a new level of success.
“We’ve learned a lot through running the organization,” he says. “We learned to effectively manage time, people and money. Overall, it has been a wonderful learning experience, rather than an earning experience. People’s blessings are way more important and meaningful than money.”