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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Spencer Rothschild and Jai Nanda

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-28

They seem an unlikely duo, one a successful restaurateur and the other a former sports coach.

But Spencer Rothschild warmed up so much to Jai Nanda's idea of teaching inner-city children and youths the skills to succeed in the adult world, that he agreed to become board chairman of Urban Dove, a not-for-profit organization Mr. Nanda founded eight years ago.

"Jai founded it against all odds - the challenge of identifying at-risk kids and creating life-skill opportunities for them is so formidable," Mr. Rothschild, a partner at Main Street Restaurant Partners - which owns such well-known properties as Django, BLT Prime, Calle Ocho and Rain - said yesterday. "Eight years is not very many years - but the organization's impact has been far greater than anyone of us could have imagined."

Mr. Nanda, like Mr. Rothschild a man of intense demeanor, said that Urban Dove's impact could be assessed in terms of the transformation of lives.
Some 800 boys and girls, ages 8 to 18, from more than two dozen New York City public schools participate annually in programs that range from sports to internships with major corporations such as Lehman Brothers, Ernst & Young, and Citigroup.

"One-hundred percent of them graduate from high school - and 90% of them go on to college," Mr. Nanda said, adding that Urban Dove's first college graduates will emerge next year from institutions such as Brown University, and various campuses of the State University of New York system.

While such a record may cause most educators to revel, Mr. Nanda points to the sobering reality of the city's public schools, which have 1.1 million students. Some 80% of students from kindergarten to Grade 12 could be designated as hailing from at-risk communities.

"You can't help them all - so you need to focus," Mr. Nanda said.

The focus involves getting kids to travel out of their communities to different neighborhoods. Thus, someone from, say, East Harlem, will be given the opportunity to participate in a recreational or educational program in the Lower East Side.

"Kids get to understand about how people in other communities live," Mr. Rothschild said. "At the same time, they develop a larger sense of our city's diversity and ethnic heritage. They learn that it's essential to get out of one's neighborhood to see how success can be pursued."

They also get much-needed opportunities to escape what Mr. Nanda calls "negative peer pressure" - and from the insidious influence of drug dealers and gangs that's often pervasive in low-income neighborhoods.

"Our idea is to expose the kids to positive peer pressure," he said.

That exposure is provided through Urban Dove's centerpiece program, called "HiRisers." High-school students are trained to work in elementary schools teaching younger students literacy, life-skills and sports. Adult coordinators work with the youth staff on life skills, helping them to prepare for the role working with kids, according to Mr. Nanda.

Many of these students are also in the Urban Dove's "College All-Stars Program," which meets on Saturdays and helps students with the college application process.

Through such programs, Urban Dove tries to instill in kids a strong desire to succeed. They are taken to the offices of leading businesses, banks, and Wall Street companies to see for themselves how education and an entrepreneurial spirit can be humongous assets in an age of galloping globalization.

"Once they are exposed to successful companies, they love it," Mr. Nanda said, adding that several institutions such as Citigroup and Lehman Brothers have agreed to offer summer internships for Urban Dove students.

During the academic year, some of these students are taken to corporate field projects to see for themselves how economics, finance and sociology intertwine in decision making. For example, the president and CEO of Citigroup Property Investors, Joseph Azrack, recently escorted a group of Urban Dove students to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.

There the kids saw how properties were appraised, and how plans were fashioned to develop a neighborhood. The kids felt emboldened to construct dioramas, and also created PowerPoint presentations. So impressed were bank executives that they selected two members of Urban Dove for internships in Citigroup's real-estate department.

"We are also able to open their eyes to personal growth and change," Mr. Rothschild said. "Many of these kids come from homes where they simply don't have role models."

Neither he nor Mr. Nanda had such a disadvantage. Mr. Rothschild's father, John, is among the best-known cardiologists in New York; his mother, Barbara, is active in philanthropic work. Mr. Nanda's parents, Ravinder and Serena, are professors of engineering and anthropology, respectively.

"I have always wanted to work with kids, and have done so since I was a teenager," Mr. Nanda said, noting that he taught both basketball and English to inner-city kids before launching Urban Dove in April 1998.

"Urban Dove began as a 'on the ground' program, because that was my experience and my interest," he said. "But now that our programs are up and running, and are so successful, I have begun to look at how we can have a greater impact citywide and nationwide on youth-related issues in a broader sense."

To expand Urban Dove's programs would mean raising far more than the $750,000 that Mr. Nanda and his board members currently do. In fact, the organization is holding its annual fundraiser tonight at the Altman Building.

When his guests assemble - they will have paid $150 each for the event - Mr. Nanda is certain to tell them about Urban Dove's tightly run operation and its accomplishments. He is also likely to remind them that the organization does not charge city schools for its services.

But Mr. Nanda's words will also be directed at Urban Dove kids, some of whom are expected at the event.

"Kids need to understand that the sacrifices you make today are good for you in the long term," Mr. Nanda said yesterday, in what could be a sampling of his remarks for tonight.

"They need to learn that positive citizenry means giving back to the community," he said. "They need to learn about the importance of making the right choices early in life. They need to learn that it's important to find a career that one truly enjoys - and that it's also important to pay attention to health and happiness in one's family. No kid should settle for less."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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