When Ajay Raju moved from India to America as a teenager, he was struck by something odd: Unlike in India, where the smart kids were the cool kids, academic achievers here were at the bottom of the social pecking order, well below the jocks, cutups, bullies, even stoners. What’s more, Raju noted as he got older, future Chase Utleys had a built-in ecosystem to help them develop their talents — coaches, camps, leagues, professional scouts. Future Barack Obamas or Michael Nutters? Not so much.
Raju, 44, who co-chairs the law firm Dilworth Paxson and is occasionally mentioned as a future mayoral aspirant, now hopes to do something to help those young brains. This fall he officially kicks off the Germination Project, a program that will provide intensive mentoring to some of the region’s most promising teenagers — while also, Raju hopes, laying the groundwork for a future leadership class in Philadelphia.
How’s it work? High schools — there will be 10 in the pilot phase, a mix of public, private and parochial schools from the city and suburbs — will nominate sophomores they consider to be their most promising future leaders. A selection committee will then choose anywhere from one to three kids from each school to become official Germination Fellows. While some of the schools participating in the program will be in poorer areas of the city, Raju says the goal isn’t to reverse socioeconomic inequities; it’s simply to find the generation’s elite, no matter where they might be. “We’re not trying to build the Navy,” he says pointedly. “We’re trying to recruit and train the Navy SEALs.”
If that suggests rigor, that’s the point. The mentoring portion will include more than just hints on how to write a thank-you note; kids will work with executives at institutions like Comcast and Jefferson to implement potential solutions to some of Philly’s biggest problems. And participation in the program won’t end once the kids have graduated. Raju imagines that the Germination Project will in time become a network of local super-achievers. The only catch? To remain a Germination Fellow, participants need to return to Philly after college and contribute to the improvement of the city.
Most intriguing may be the Germination Project’s website, where we’ll be able to follow participants’ lives and careers over time in what Raju says won’t be all that different from a reality show. “This isn’t a short-term thing,” he notes. “This is a 50-year love letter to the region.”
See Aju Raju discuss the Germination Project at ThinkFest, November 14th at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business.
Originally published as “Grow Your Own” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.