No matter when someone writes to Ashish Gadnis, there is almost no chance he will answer from Austin, Texas, where he lives. He will spend a Wednesday in Rwanda and on Friday he is already in Brazil, before taking a flight to Myanmar on a Sunday.
He’s not a coffee grower, but he will talk about fair trade, and with a huge Benedictine cross on his chest, he will speak to you about Catholic Social Teaching providing a clear goal for his company – taking 100 million people out of poverty by 2026.
And Gadnis knows what poverty is.
He grew up in Mumbai, India, in the 1970s when there wasn’t “much options those days in India to get out of poverty.”
“I did not want to stay in that ration line and I realized that I could break the cycle of poverty if I could get a job as a software programmer,” he recalled.
But for a 20-year-old Indian it wasn’t really about education– it was about getting out of the country: “That’s the dogma – if you want a better life, you gotta go.”
That’s how his second life started. He immigrated first to Colombia and then, in 1994, landed in the United States. Ten years later, he was a founder and CEO of a successful IT company.
But he never forgot the poverty he left behind and wanted to do what he could to end it.
“I hated being poor in India, but I also never saw a long-term impact in terms of ending poverty with what I was doing,” he said
In 2012, Gadnis sold his company and went to Congo with the United States Agency for International Development (US AID).
“I always like to tell people that for me my first was where I was born and raised in India; and the second life was where I traveled the world, built a business, got out of poverty; and then my third life started after I sold my last company,” he said.
Congolese poverty was shocking even for someone who grew up standing in food lines.
For Gadnis, just as shocking was to see that big aid agencies – “even if they help a lot” – are not changing the situation for people living there.
“It was more like someone had hit me in the head with a massive brick and said: You are doing exactly what everybody does because you look at people in poverty from pity and the minute you look at people in poverty from pity you lose the ability to provide dignity, and for me that changed everything,” he said.
But before setting on a new professional path, he started a new spiritual one.
Gadnis carries a huge, blue Benedictine cross on his chest.
He received it from the monks on the day of his baptism in 2015 in Minnesota, having converted after seeing the faith of the Congolese people.
“I could see that their faith was their anchor, it was not their religion, but the faith in Christ and Mary that just love them unconditionally – and in spite of all the horrors they still believed in God,” he said.
He started his new venture – BanQu – after going with a Congolese woman to open a new account.
“I went to the bank agent with a woman farmer and the agent said – I can’t bank her, but I can bank you. He couldn’t bank her because she didn’t have an economic record,” he said.
The point of BanQu is to provide an economic identity for people using the same blockchain coding that is the basis for virtual currencies such as bitcoin.
When using blockchain for a transaction, everyone who participates gets an equal and secured copy of the transaction.
The clients of BanQu are large companies that are buying and sourcing their coffee, cacao or jeans from people that live in extreme poverty. Before, the farmer or jean sewer was anonymous, but by using blockchain they are given an economic identity. If there is a transaction, the virtual ID of the farmer is notified, and he gets a message on a phone allowing the farmer the ability to prove he is “bankable” — even if he never used a computer in his life.
“So when the mother sells her crop to the large brand she is receiving a receipt, she is receiving dignity and payment and most importantly through this SMS message she can prove that she is bankable, she can prove that she exists.” Gadnis said BanQu works mostly with farmers, but is also providing refugees with records of their education or work history. Gadnis has even started working to provide proof of identity for the homeless people in Austin.
BanQu was shortlisted in the Laudato Si’ Challenge – a list of startups developing sustainable ways to solve the “challenges of humanity” – all inspired by Pope Francis.
On Dec. 4-5, the organization is hosting a global event at the Vatican to celebrate the social economy and “showcase groundbreaking business solutions addressing forced displacement and climate disruption.”
Gadnis had a chance to meet Francis a year ago during a private audience.
He said the pontiff is “the poorest human being I’ve ever met.”
“His poverty in Christ. It’s his biggest strength. You can see it in his eyes,” he said.
Gadnis said what’s crucial in his business is humility.
“We don’t say ‘we pulled people out of poverty’ – that is very arrogant for me – we just say we are enabling paths out of extreme poverty.”
So far, at least 30,000 people have been helped by BanQu, and the hope is to help 200,000 in the next year. Ultimately, Gadnis would like to increase that number to the millions within the next seven years.
Gadnis emphasized the importance of faith in every aspect of his work.
“It doesn’t matter where I am – I can be in Indonesia, Africa, Syria. I can be in Costa Rica. There is a singular uniting factor in the deepest darkness of refugee camps, slums and warzones – the undying faith of the people in whoever they pray to. it is something to learn from them and that is where I started seeing the value of disconnecting from the religious aspect and going towards the faith aspect. Which by the way the Holy Father Pope Francis is all about: The faith,” he said.
Ashish Gadnis will be a keynote speaker at “Global Initiatives in Refugee & Migrant Education” conference in New York City Nov. 15th.