Raj Shah was older than most applicants when he applied for the Soros Fellowship for New Americans in late 2006. There was good reason for that. He’d been on active duty flying F16s for the United States Air Force in Iraq for the previous five years.
Shah, who earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, signed up for the Air Force just four months after 9/11. He flew 18 combat missions as a captain before transitioning to the reserves. Only then, mulling business school, did he remember colleagues who, like him, came from naturalized families and who had been Soros fellows; he applied and was accepted to the fellowship’s class of 2007, just in time for his entry to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“I took a different path than most of the other fellows, and I was a little bit older than most who applied,” says Shah, who now works in San Francisco as managing director of Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outreach program. “The process was pretty intense. It was probably one of the more intensive applications I’ve ever done, in that it forces you to truly be far more introspective than what is required of you for a business school application.
“They really want to understand what motivates you: what do you want to do, and why — so much so that you’re almost embarrassed to share your essays, they’re so personal.”
‘STRONG CONNECTION TO BUSINESS AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP’
The Soros Fellowship was launched by Paul Soros, older brother of well-known financier George Soros, and Paul’s wife Daisy. Paul Soros immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s after living under communist and Nazi regimes in Hungary and went on to build a global engineering firm that revolutionized port technology. He and Daisy endowed the fellowship with $75 million in 1997. Paul died in 2013; Daisy, along with her sons, continues to lead the board of trustees.
Every year, 30 fellowships are awarded to immigrants and the children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate education in the U.S. Each award is worth up to $90,000 (up to $25,000/year stipend; up to $20,000/year tuition support); awards support one to two years of full-time graduate study in any field at any graduate degree-granting institution in the U.S., with the exception of online, executive, and part-time programs. Among the more famous alumni of the fellowship is Dr. Vivek Murthy, currently the U.S. surgeon general, a 1998 recipient.
“The fellowships have a strong connection to business and entrepreneurship because of Paul Soros’s own professional legacy,” fellowship Director Craig Harwood says. “We’re always enthusiastic about applicants who, like Paul, are ready to give back to society through the private sector. We also have several fellows who are using their MBAs in the public and nonprofit sectors, in addition to those who are working as entrepreneurs and straddling all three sectors. It’s an exciting field and there is so much versatility in the degree.”
‘POTENTIAL TO CONTRIBUTE AND SHAPE SOCIETY’
If an applicant to the Soros Fellowship was born abroad as a non-U.S. citizen, then they must have been naturalized, be a green card holder, be adopted, or be a DACA recipient. If an applicant was born in the U.S. or was born abroad as a U.S. citizen, both parents must have been born abroad as non-U.S. citizens. The fellowship is merit-based and open to college seniors, those in the early stages of a graduate career, and those in the workforce who are seeking graduate training. Applications are due Nov. 1.
Harwood says the fellowship is not necessarily on the lookout for the usual graduate school superstars. They’re looking for an extra spark — a special intangible quality.
“There tends to be a misconception that fellowship applicants who are pursuing MBAs must be thinking about traditional measures of ‘giving back,’” he says. “But as a fellowship we are much more interested in an applicant’s potential to contribute and shape society. For example, someone like Steve Jobs was not a traditional philanthropist but his impact on society is profound.”
MORE THAN 550 ALUMS, MORE THAN 75 COUNTRIES
Raj Shah was born in the U.S. state of Georgia, where his parents immigrated from India. When he joined the Soros program in 2007, Shah became a member of a community that has since grown to more than 550 program alums with family origins in over 75 different countries. In 2015, the Fellowship received 1,444 applications for its 30 spots.
Fellows don’t meet often — once or twice a year, Shah tells Poets&Quants. But more important than the number of meetings is the “shared stories of immigrants,” the flood of insight into various new cultures, and the lack of ego among “probably the most overqualified group of people I’ve ever known.”
“The community part of it is a lot more valuable than the monetary piece of it, particularly in hindsight,” says Shah, who co-founded Morta Security after graduating from Wharton. “The fellowship allows folks to do what they want to do post-school, and I really wanted to be an entrepreneur, and so it enabled me to do that and start my own company rather than take a safer path somewhere.”