Passing the torch to the next generation of societal leaders

The Journey of Peru Dharani

Unveiling the Ripple Effect: How Generosity, Open-ended Conversations, and Ideas Forge Impacts on Society

Peru Dharani, a Fellow of Cohort 2022 of Belgium’s 40 under 40, wears many hats: a Scientific Scholar, an Innovation Director at Barco, a Belgian citizen, a husband and father, a community leader, and an advocate for social generosity. While spending his childhood on an Indian farm, little did he know these elements would come to define his adulthood. Thanks to a series of scholarships, fellowships and the generosity of many people, Peru embarked on an exceptional journey that led him across the world. Two decades later, he stands with us before the 40u40 Community in Brussels, sharing his life journey at the Cohort 2022 graduation.

Peru Dharani at the graduation of Cohort 2022
Peru’s story is a reassuring tale of the power of education, social generosity, and open-ended initiatives. Born and raised in a world that resembled the pages of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” Peru’s childhood was in a stark contrast to his life in modern Belgium. In the hearts of the tropics, Peru grew up on a small farm, isolated from the world’s agitation. His typical school day started by inspecting his shoes for scorpions and walking through sugarcane farms teeming with deadly cobras. The overwhelming force of nature in the tropics dominated his everyday worldview as a child. Peru led a simple but sufficient life in his village without continuous electricity, telephone, or a computer, let alone the internet. The only sneak peek he received from the outside world was through a “Year Book” – an annual edition his father would buy him, summarizing significant events and figures of the year. Peru attributes some of his inspiration to the deep spiritual connection he developed with the world through his parents. He remembers one ritual where he and his father would hike up a hill every weekend for years, arriving at sunrise. There, outside a temple, they would sit, close their eyes, and meditate by listening to the sounds of nature. 

The meditation mountain – in the western ghats – Tamil Nadu, India

Peru’s father was a farmer, and apart from following his father’s footsteps, education was the only alternative for Peru. “I was exceptionally lucky to be curious and good at science and mathematics, and a math teacher along with some others at my school believed I should do something with it, go somewhere with it. Go where?” Peru reflects. The world outside of his village was something he read about in a book, but always felt just out of reach. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, Peru received a scholarship to the state run engineering school far away from his village to study Electronics. He left his farm with a big bag to the capital city of his province that was 500 kms away. 

Young Peru, in his tropical backyard, two decades ago

Peru spent the following years pursuing his education while also working on India’s first student satellite project, which started his career in Intel Corporation in India. At approximately the same time, in Brussels, a group of idealists came up with the idea of the “Erasmus Mundus Fellowships” to bring worldwide talent to Europe across all fields of study. This open-ended fellowship was a generous and bold experiment that allowed the fellows to study a master’s degree across several EU countries over a two-year period. As Peru was introduced to the world of photonics research at Intel, driven by his scientific curiosity and the desire to pursue a research education in Photonics, he applied for and obtained this prestigious fellowship that was about to bring him to the heart of Europe. This fellowship and the people he would meet during these two years would profoundly transform his life.

In the summer of 2007, at the age of 23, Peru packed his two bags and set off for Ghent. For the next years, he would travel to various countries and universities, joined by his peers from around the world. His academic journey took him to Ghent University, Vrije University of Brussels, KTH in Sweden, TU Delft in the Netherlands, and University of St Andrews in Scotland. While delving into his studies, one question kept bothering Peru: Why was he, a farm boy from outside Europe being paid a fellowship by the European taxpayer to study under the most talented minds of this continent? Looking for answers, he went to Brussels to meet a European Commission official and asked the same question. The bureaucrat smiled and responded: “Peru, Europe has the reputation of being a dark fortress to the rest of the world, and we want to change it. We want the world to come here, and we want to have the best talents of the world come together in Europe so they can build long lasting connections for the future.” 

The three members of the Olympia Academy: Conrad Habicht, Maurice Solovine, Albert Einstein (Source: ETH Library Zurich, Image Archive)
One fellowship followed another one, and Peru found his way to Lausanne in Switzerland, where he pursued his Doctoral Research in Condensed Matter Physics among the alps and under the influence and inspiration of Albert Einstein’s work. Einstein lived in Bern from 1902 to 1909, working as a patent examiner. During this time, he faced some financial challenges. As a response, Einstein published an advertisement in the newspaper, offering physics and math lessons. Only one student turned up, expressing a desire to talk about philosophies instead. Einstein embraced the opportunity and started to invite people to engage in open-ended discussions about ideas, problems, philosophies, and a wide range of topics. This endeavor led to the formation of a group known as the “Olympia Academy.” In 1905, Einstein published his “annus mirabilis papers” in a scientific journal. These four papers would change the world of science forever.

While in Switzerland, Peru visited the Albert Einstein Museum and discovered that Einstein always spoke highly of this academy and remained close with its members till the end of his life. Einstein attributed some of the inspiration for his work to the open-ended discussion of the Olympia Academy. Cultivating the exchange of ideas and a willingness to embrace various perspectives is a guiding principle not only for Einstein but also for Peru and for Belgium’s 40 under 40. When sharing this story, Peru emphasized the parallels between the Olympia Academy of Einstein and Belgium’s 40 under 40: Two open-ended initiatives, cultivating the exchange of ideas and a willingness to embrace various perspectives as a guiding principle.
Upon completing his studies in Switzerland, Peru returned to Belgium, and in the course of time, he obtained Belgian nationality. This significant milestone left him filled with a sense of pride, gratitude, and questions about the meaning of being Belgian. In his quest for answers, he stumbled upon Belgium’s 40 under 40 — an organization driven by generosity, reminding Peru of Erasmus Mundus and his other fellowships, offering him a platform to grow and learn.  During the graduation ceremony, Peru felt compelled to express his heartfelt gratitude to the founders, acknowledging, “You do not know what you have started, the impact of this program will only be felt through time, the snowballing of this, it will inspire people, who again, will inspire more people, who then will have an impact in this world. This is the beauty of open-ended discussions and generosity”. 

Peru Dharani, Alumni of Belgium’s 40 under 40

For Peru, Belgium’s 40 under 40, much like the Olympia Academy of Einstein’s time, serves as a space for individuals to share, inspire, and engage in meaningful conversations. Peru’s story is a beautiful invitation to actively participate in these conversations, to maintain an open-mind and a generous spirit, and to continue contributing their ideas to the world. His journey would have never been possible without the generous acts of so many individuals and social institutions who believed in building a better society for the future. 


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