Ben Rathi is, first and foremost, an incredibly kind person. The friendliness emanating from the fifth-year senior from Novi when he walks into Espresso Royale is not the oozing or overwhelming kind, but mild and genuine. And if kindness is first, helpfulness is a very close second.
While pursuing two degrees in business and computer science, stopping just two classes short of a third in biomedical science, Ben has had a wealth of prestigious internships at software, finance and health care firms; and founded a successful, now national-scale, nonprofit organization that collects unused medical supplies and delivers them to impoverished countries for a fraction of their market value. He is aware of just how successful he already is — whereas others might try to downplay their achievements for the appearance of humility, he talks comfortably and matter-of-factly. He does not hold any illusions about his success either — he knows he owes it to much more than just himself.
"I started calculating, and I swear this was in 5th grade, but I was like, 'All right, there are 7 billion people in the world,' income distribution, looked at some statistics, all that, and I was like, 'There are probably 6 billion people in the world who would do anything to have the opportunities I have,' " he tells me.
That gratitude, he says, is what gives him the motivation to stay in and work on a Friday night, to the extent that his peers think of him as "the crazy business kid" or "a machine," and what gives him his desire to help. Though business is his main passion now, coming into college, Ben planned to help people by becoming a doctor. After completing his freshman year, he decided to volunteer in a Nepalese hospital for a month.
"I told myself, 'All right, if you want to be a doctor, it's one thing to do it at a nice hospital like Michigan or Northwestern, it's another thing to feel true depravity and poverty, and witness people who might not have much going for them,' " he says. The hospital he went to, he told me, though it was one of the best in the country, suffered hours-long E.R. waiting times because of understaffing and underfunding. Patients had to share beds and would often leave sicker than they came in from a disease another patient had given them. Simple medical supplies such as gloves and bedsheets had to be reused. Working at a hospital back in Novi, though, restocking shelves, he witnessed a very different situation, in which unused supplies were thrown out because of expiration dates. As well as wanting to have a broader understanding of the world, Ben says seeing the inefficiencies of the medical industry is what led him to leave it for business.
"End goal, I would love to influence policy change, but I'm not delusional and it's tough to lobby against the medical industry," he says. "So while the waste is happening, I was thinking, ‘Is there a way to bridge the gap?’ "
As it turns out, there was. In his sophomore year, Ben founded Blueprints For Pangaea, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with more than $25,000 in prize money from several business competitions. The business, which has now expanded to nine other colleges and universities, has a model that is quite sustainable. If it can get the technically expired medical supplies for $5,000, and their value is $1,000,000, he says, governments would be happy to pay $6,000.
Weeks away from graduation, and having left Blueprints For Pangaea safely in the hands of the next generation of students, Ben's new dream is venture capitalism.
"When you're in a startup, you have to commit all your time and effort and energy into that one startup, and so while I was doing Blueprints, a lot of cool opportunities came my way, but I was committed to Blueprints," he says. "With VC you get to participate in multiple startups. You're on the cutting edge of technology. And if you couldn't tell, my life dream is just … to accelerate our ascent into the future, I guess, because I think technology can improve everyone's life, in an egalitarian way."
If he had to distill his story into one word, though, it would be efficiency.
"Academically, I was learning about efficiency on a microscale in CS, right — 'How do you get 0.1 seconds faster in the code?' On a macrolevel in business — 'How does Tesla create a cheaper battery?' So I've been studying efficiency all my life, and I'd like to continue that."
So while it may seem like a technical word, to Ben, it's just another way of practicing kindness.
See the 7 other students of the year here.