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The “learn, earn and return” philosophy is one that has been perpetuated for a number of years as the key to living a successful and fulfilled life, and in a way it is right. It is a critical need in our lives to find a balance between these three concepts. However, when it comes to this model the idea is you practice each one sequentially. The first third of your life is spent learning skills and about yourself, gaining experiences to help identify your path –– most people will spend at least the first two decades of their life in formal schooling and others will continue well into their twenties pursuing at least one college degree. The second third of your life is when you are at the heart of your earning potential: you begin to step up into leadership positions and eventually reach your peak. The final third of your life is focused on giving back. This is when you would retire and change your focus to reinvesting in future generations and the world. Now your only job is to share the wisdom of what you have learned and the wealth of what you have earned.
While this model may naturally follow the average progression of a life, the life of Vinod Gupta has taken on a different shape. While he followed the traditional trajectory of attending school then building a successful career, he has not allowed the phase of life he is in to prevent him from experiencing any of them. Instead, he has spent his life constantly learning, earning and returning, finding the model all the more useful and gratifying by blending all three into every year of his career, if not every day. Gupta realized that continual learning is a constant of successful careers, and that many of those who wait to give back never actually get there. Even more so, by waiting to give back they miss a number of years that could have been spent experiencing life with a larger guiding purpose.
Gupta was born in Rampur Maniharan, a small Indian village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. While the rural village lacked many conveniences found elsewhere in the world at the time such as telephones, electricity, cars, or even roads and running water, it did have a small local school which Gupta attended for all of his childhood. His father was the village physician, and impressed upon him the importance of education, personally tutoring him in mathematics and biology as well as hiring tutors for other subjects. As a doctor, it was Gupta’s father who first taught him that one doesn’t need to wait until later in life to pass on your knowledge to others, or help those in need.
Thanks to his father’s influence, Gupta was able to excel in school and upon graduating from high school was accepted to the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. Gupta chose to pursue agricultural engineering, and in his time at the university met Dr. Bill Splinter, a professor visiting from the University of Nebraska in the United States. Seeking to continue learning, Gupta earned a scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska for his master’s degree and moved halfway across the world with only a single suitcase and less than one hundred dollars to his name. By the time he completed the university’s masters program for agricultural engineering, Gupta realized that he could find even more practical applications for his knowledge with an MBA and completed that program at the University of Nebraska as well.
After earning his MBA, Gupta took a job in market research at the mobile home manufacturing company The Commodore Corporation in Omaha, Nebraska. Had he been someone different, he might have performed his job, made a tidy career in marketing, then retired. However, just because he was beginning to earn didn’t mean that he was done learning, and early on in his career sought to continue learning even though his formal education was over. His boss requested he compile a list of mobile home dealers in the United States, but Gupta quickly realized that the sources available to him were insufficient. Although he knew nothing at the time about creating his own marketing list, he decided better to continue learning rather than stick with the status quo simply because it was how things had been done previously.
Utilizing his company’s resources, Gupta proceeded to order every single Yellow Pages directory available in the United States so he could create a new list himself. Unfortunately, when a large number of them began piling up at his office, his boss told him that if he wanted to take up such an endeavor he would have to do so on his own time. Again choosing to continue learning, Gupta took out a small $1,000 personal loan and began working nights and weekends out of his garage to compile the list. Learning as he went, with time and patience he went through every single Yellow Pages and ended up with a powerful marketing tool. Although he offered his company the chance to purchase exclusive rights to the list, they declined the offer and within three weeks Gupta had been offered upwards of $35,000 by their competitors.
Thanks to his continued search for knowledge, Gupta was soon able to quit his day job and found his company Business Research Services. Hiring his first employees and moving out of his garage, Gupta was able to teach others his technique for gathering marketing information for customer acquisition and set them to the task of meticulously assembling lists for other industries. After over a decade, Gupta’s company had managed to compound the entire Yellow Pages in their databases, and had widened its scope considerably. In 1992 it made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange, now operating under the name American Business Information, and saw even more explosive growth as it began acquiring key competitors and moving into new markets as the rapid growth of the internet brought with it the necessity for new methods of dispersing and acquiring information. After 35 years of building the company from a small project in his garage to a global business (now called infoGroup due to its international scale) Vinod Gupta’s commitment to continue learning saw him move on from the business he created, founding the investment company Everest Group and Infofree, a company that enables salespeople and businesses to find sales leads, and grow their sales.
Thanks to the success of Gupta’s small company, he was earning more than he had ever fathomed. However, just because he was still in the height of his career and taking new opportunities to learn and grow, didn’t mean for him that it was still time to hoard his wealth. On July 4th 1997, he established the Vinod Gupta Charitable Foundation. The overarching aim of the foundation was to empower women and girls of marginalized groups through sustainable initiatives in the field of education, enabling them to be economically and socially secure, but it has also made large contributions to education as a whole as well.
Through Gupta, one can see how the philosophy of “learn, earn and return” can be evolved past its linear past. Instead, it should be seen as cyclical in nature, which each lesson learned leading to earning that which can be returned, which in turn promotes more learning. The Vinod Gupta Charitable Foundation has donated over $50 million toward various philanthropic endeavors since it was established, but at age 78 Gupta has shown no sign of slowing down or retiring. He knows that there is no need for learning from the world around us, earning what we deserve from hard work, or returning the gifts we have been afforded to be mutually exclusive.
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