Melwin Joy
AUTHOR

Melwin Joy

All stories by: Melwin Joy
Never again in the dark

Manoj Bhargava is offering India something that we can never resist. He is offering electric power for life across all nuke and corner.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was unimpressed with Manoj Bhargava when they met for the first time a year ago. The Indian-American expressed his will on how he wanted to use most of his wealth, estimated at $4 billion, to help poor people.Modi thought the man was bluffing. Two days after he unveiled a machine to bring power to the villages of India that was still under darkness. Free Electric, the stationary cycle can light up 24 bulbs, run an electric fan, and charge a cell phone and a tablet when pedaled for an hour. It was designed in a $100-million engineering laboratory called Stage 2 Innovations, located in Bhargava’s 25-acre suburban corporate campus in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The cycle will cost Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 in India.

The equipment consists of a sleek frame, a battery and a turbine generator. “It is in the nature of experts to find flaws in great inventions. Thomas Edison, I’m sure, had the same problem,” he said. Leena Srivastava, of The Energy and Resource Institute, believes the cycle might find takers among fitness-conscious people in cities but it will only add to the tiresomeness of rural life. She wonders if farmers will find the time in the busy harvest and sowing seasons to peddle the cycle.Moreover, with 100 per cent electrification and sufficient power becoming a distinct possibility in the near future, Bhargava’s cycle could stare at an uncertain future. But Bhargava is not all paying attention to all of this. He just wants to contribute to a better world. At least three leading Indian bike companies have shown interest in manufacturing Free Electric by now. Bhargava was busy gathering support for his cycle recently. “Free electricity is coming,” announced full-page advertisements in leading newspapers. “I have to get every constituency together,” says Bhargava. There’s plenty of ground support in Uttarakhand where the first 50 Free Electric cycles will be tested in nearly two dozen villages before the launch.When Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat rode the cycle at his Bijapur residence in Dehradun, everyone saw his interest for the equipment. He seemed really interested. “We are working on the same wavelength,” Rawat said. Not for nothing has Bhargava pledged to invest Rs 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) for development in the hill state.

Younger days Bhargava was raised on the first floor of a two-storey house off a busy road in Lucknow’s Khayali Ganj. Rows of stalls that sell second-hand text books, household items and inexpensive garments fills the pavements.There is a cinema hall located three buildings away screens B-grade Hindi films. When he turned 10, Bhargava was pulled out of Lucknow’s Mahanagar Boy’s High School and was sent off to Woodstock School in Mussoorie, which had more international than Indian students at the time, in training for the family’s move to the US three years later.

The family of five landed in America in 1967. His father aspired to pursue a PhD at Wharton, His mother was keen on studying accounting, and two sons and a daughter in school. Bhargavawas in ninth grade then.From having his own room in Lucknow, the 14-year-old found himself spending the night in the living room of the family’s two-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia. The standards of education at his low-cost public school made things worse for mathematics-loving Bhargava. So he called the Hill School, one among the several schools that served as a gateway for Ivy League education. “They said that the school was for the elite of the country,” says Bhargava. Bhargava anyways took a math test and aced it. However, it wasn’t easy to arrange the tuition fees. A full scholarship soon followed. Few years later, he got into Princeton, his father’s top choice.As more and more of wealthy Princetonians started turning to him for advice on the deepest of emotional issues, an epiphany struck Bhargava: “i thought they’re way richer than i am but it turns out i’m already ahead of them. this whole idea of getting rich by going to college seemed pointless.”he dropped out of princeton. “my father almost killed me,” bhargava laughs.

Around the same time, Bhargava read about Vivekananda’s spiritual journey, which inspired him enough to pack his bags and go to India. He spent the next 12 years doing meditation, attending satsangs, and volunteering at the various monasteries of Hanslok, an ashram headquartered in Delhi and with a branch in Haridwar. To make ends meet, he would drive a cab whenever he was in the US.By 1990s he would finally settle in the US to look after the plastics manufacturing business run by his family that had since moved to Indiana.

In 2003, after Bhargava accidently came across a formula for energy shots at a natural products fair, his massively successful 5-hour Energy came into existence and in 2012, he signed up to the Giving Pledge, an effort kicked off by Melinda and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in 2010 to get the mega-rich to commit much of their wealth to good causes.

Bhargava has seen his share of troubles too. A reporter by the Centre for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit, said that the US Food and Drug Administration had been suspicious of the safety of 5-hour Energy after more than 20 deaths were potentially linked to the energy drink. “In the US, suing people is a lottery system. No matter what product you have, they’ll sue you,” says Bhargava. He also went on to say that people have been drinking tea for thousands of years, but no one would complain of the amount of caffeine in the beverage.”But if it’s in a little drink, they go: Oh my God.” He says the FDA never really questioned him. “They said: we know it is nonsense.” During his time in India,Bhargava befriended with one of the four sons of Hanslok’s founder. MahipalRawat – who renamed himself BholeJiMaharaj, now divides his time between New York, New Jersey and India – close to Bhargava. It is a bond of over 40 years. The nonprofit Hans Foundation was born out of their friendship. Maharaj’s daughter, Sweta Rawat, is the foundation’s chairperson.

When he’s in Delhi, he enjoys going to kavisammelans and is known to pull pranks on colleagues. At a recent costume party on her brother’s birthday, Bhargava showed up wearing a T-shirt, chunky gold jewellery and black jacket. A gentle-looking Bhargava, who ridicules billionaires who often appear in power suits, is also a tough boss.Soon after he founded Stage 2 Innovations in 2011, along with former Chrysler CEO Thomas La Sorda, Bhargava fired most of his engineers because when he looked at them he wondered what are they typing so much when they should be making stuff.

He then started looking for people who would like to get their hands dirty, “crazy people with no degrees who like to make stuff.” The lab in Michigan is like that. There are no cubicles or computer desks– instead 25 engineers that lean over wooden benches, strewn with nuts, bolts, and other objects. Bhargava believes in keeping things simple – and practical. The practical value of the billionaire’s latest innovation has even caught the attention of the world wide over.

Melwin Joy
AUTHOR

Melwin Joy

All stories by: Melwin Joy