Growing up in India, Radhika Mitra was taught to ignore the poverty around her. She was told to look away from the child beggars, the tin and cardboard shacks, the ragged street vendors selling their handmade wares on the sidewalk.
But when Mitra returned to India at 16, after living in the United States for 10 years, she could no longer ignore what she saw: Not after the day a young boy ran up to the taxi where she sat with her sister and tried to sell her a handmade necklace. When the light turned, she watched in horror as a rickshaw next to them simply trampled the boy.
"Tears came to my eyes," says Mitra, now 20 and a computer science major at Porter College. "I was really upset and angry."
Most 16-year-olds would have returned home to their clothes and friends, but Mitra didn't. Preoccupied with the idea that necklaces like the boy had made could sell for much more in the U.S. and that the boy had become almost disposable in India's economy, she founded a tax-deductible charitable organization called Renaissance Now.
Raising $10,000 in the first year, Mitra's goal was to give artisans in developing countries the tools needed to be financially successful. After a fact-finding trip to India, she came up with a plan to provide craft workers with additional training, give them the tools to work faster and better, help them market their goods, and show them how to create a niche for their product.
Traveling to India armed with training videos she helped create, new tools, and her own high-powered energy, she and her sister, Ritwika, led 300 Calcutta artists through a series of workshops.
"It was such a moving experience for me," says Mitra, who is fluent in both Hindi and the Bengali dialect. "I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Renaissance Now has since offered training to artists in Bangledesh, Vietnam, Romania, and the Maldives, says Mitra. Now, she wants to bring a similar project to the Bay Area by training high school students who want to make art their career, and also tapping the creativity and energy she found at Porter College.
"If you can make passion your work, that's wonderful," she says.
Meanwhile, her own twin passions of fashion and technology are leading her to create a web application she calls "Prim." It will be a virtual butler for your grooming needs, she says.
Someday, she also hopes to start her own technology company, although philanthropy will always play a major role in her life, she says.
"When I see something that needs to be done," says Mitra, "I put my 100 percent into it."