Values & Vision — At Zara Charitable Foundation, we value happiness, and our vision is to fulfill a moral responsibility through quality service.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing the mother-daughter duo Laura Merage and Sabrina Merage Naim.
Brothers Jay Sobhraj, Ken Subraj, and the late George Subraj, who immigrated to New York from Guyana, are the founders of Zara Realty, which has grown from operating one building with 44 units to 60 complexes with 5,000 units located throughout Queens and Nassau County. The family’s various charitable endeavors were born out of Zara’s success, which has fulfilled their mission to be a force for good, improving the lives of thousands of families.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Growing up on a rice farm in Guyana instilled in us a deep sense of family values, as well as a strong work ethic. My brothers and I are also proof of why education is the great equalizer in life. Through academic excellence, each of us has been able to defeat poverty and pursue our dreams. These qualities positioned us to seize opportunity and create a successful business that now funds charitable operations in New York and Guyana.
We have kept the words of our rice farmer father — Mr. Sobhraj Bhooklall — in our hearts and minds as we traveled the road to success. He told us that family must stick together. He taught us that hard work plus smart work equals great work. Most importantly, he emboldened us to rely on faith and education to achieve prosperity. When we faced constant discrimination and numerous denials in getting financing for our real estate ventures, we knew that this was the fight our father prepared us for… and because of him, we remain victorious!
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
A great leader is “Hands On.” They gather facts, evaluate information, and ask a lot of questions before they act on an issue. They maintain perspective in the face of both accolades and abuse. Lastly, a leader must remain humble to be accessible, easy to approach, and, most importantly, keep their word.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
The most painful lesson we learned is that no one is coming to help. We like to believe that the government is going to solve problems; however, we have seen problems prolonged because of government inaction. This why we chose to invest our time, effort, energy, and money into uplifting our community as much as possible. We must act to help ourselves and help each other to make life better. If, and when, the government shows up, we will welcome their support.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
We are very passionate about helping our community, both in Queens and in our homeland of Guyana. Through our community investments, we can help more people seize opportunity and achieve their dreams. We designed a system of giving that produces high-impact, measurable results. For example, we donate over 5,000 pairs of eyeglasses annually to health clinics in Guyana to give the gift of sight. We also build research centers and laboratories to advance healthcare, as well as provide qualified doctors who can perform lifesaving procedures for seniors and children in Guyana.
In Queens and Guyana, we have constructed numerous libraries, teaching/research centers, and funded tutorial services and scholarships for students to advance their education. We never forgot how we started and how we wished we could have had more help along the way. We are humbled that our philanthropy is an expression of our gratitude for God blessing us with the ability to propel others towards pursuing a fuller life of liberty and happiness.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
There are three main tenets that fuel our passion to serve: Faith, Family, and Fun.
There are many at the margins, hanging on by the thinnest of threads. Our “Faith” teaches us to be like a steel cable to help others handle the weight of life’s pressures. My “Family” values service to our community. We band together to strengthen the social safety net so families can get a boost in times of need. We find “Fun” and fulfillment in helping others. To see young people reach their best potential through educational services, along with improving the quality of life for those without adequate healthcare or safety in their communities, brings us “Joy” in making a positive, lasting impact.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
One of our local scholars went on to earn a college education and ultimately become a digital engineer. They went on to work in Silicon Valley, contributed to the growth of Robinhood Markets and participated in their initial public offering. This is one of many success stories that show how investing in education and building confidence in disadvantaged youth can help them overcome adversity and triumph in life.
Besides education, our passion is also for medicine and medical care, having made lifesaving contributions to benefit patients in Guyana. In 2008, my late, great brother George Subraj pioneered Guyana’s first kidney transplant by bringing in a team of transplant surgeons from Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, to save the life of a 17-year-old boy. In the ensuing years, countless more liver and kidney disease patients have been saved.
George later introduced pediatric heart surgeries to Guyana, saving the lives of eight children, whose parents were unable to raise the huge sums necessary for the same surgery only available overseas. His efforts helped build out facilities, bring the necessary life-saving equipment, and recruit leading U.S. surgeons to help Guyanese doctors establish specialty pediatric and cardiac care that could save even more lives in the future.
Over recent years, our family’s efforts were instrumental in bringing eye care treatments and ophthalmological exams to Guyana all while donating more than 5,000 pairs of glasses for people losing their eyesight. We also introduced and facilitated the first cataract surgeries in Guyana as part of the family’s medical missions, bringing much-needed medical help to those who would otherwise go blind without the procedure.
While George passed away in November 2016, his legacy of “treating life as a gift” continues through the hard work and dedication of his loving brothers, Jay and Ken.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
The first action is to “Believe” you can make a difference. The second action is to “Plan.” The last step is to “Execute” your plan by putting your faith in action.
In practice, we were disheartened by the scourge of poverty in both Guyana and parts of Queens County in New York City. We knew we could make a difference through charitable work, as well as by providing quality housing — homes for families that are clean, safe, comfortable, and affordable. We planned to break the cycle of defeat for people at a disadvantage by investing in various tools to help them help themselves. This relates to increasing access to healthcare, to building digital community learning centers to promoting technology education. We vigorously executed our plans to remove barriers so members of our community can create the future they imagine and enjoy a happier, purpose-driven life.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
When asked about his secret to success, Jackie Robinson responded that you must, “Keep your eye on the ball!” It sounds simple; however, opportunities vanish quickly, and situations change even faster. The secret to consistently hitting the ball ─ that is, remaining consistently successful as a non-profit ─ is working together as a Team and merging collective talents to keep the ball in play.
Becoming a successful team requires more than just seeing and swinging at the ball. There are 5 foundational principles upon which to build an effective organization to make a lasting impact. They include:
- Values & Vision — At Zara Charitable Foundation, we value happiness, and our vision is to fulfill a moral responsibility through quality service.
- Strong, Talented Teams — There was no room for laziness in our farming family and that attitude translates into our belief in recruiting strong, talented teams whose efforts will convert this vision into action, guided by our core values.
- Continuous Planning to Stay Prepared — Every detail matters. Every scenario must be thought through. At Zara, we “Focus” on relentlessly planning our goals and staying “Hands On” in executing operations to achieve key results.
- Prevention is Better Than the Cure — Discipline and determination are huge factors in staying ahead of problems.
- User Friendly — Always be kind. People remember how you make them feel. Treat others how you like to be respected and the universe will reward that positive energy.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
Leadership has a chance to impact lives. That is what we tried to do with our funds both before and throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. We recognize that “Leadership” must evolve and respond to crises in real time by solving problems before they get worse. The pandemic proves our point that Leaders must do things, not get trapped in discussions or wait for someone or something to fix what’s broken.
In 2008, when the U.S. economy collapsed, had we waited for the politicians to do something, thousands of people in our community would have suffered more had we not built computer labs to facilitate job retraining as the economy adjusted. Had we not donated over 1 million dollars to the Guyanese Police Force, many precincts would still be waiting for computers and software systems to administer justice. Had my late brother George not recruited doctors from Walter Reed to fly with their tools to Guyana to conduct the country’s first pediatric surgery, lives would have been lost.
In sum, we define success as “acting for good” and “solving problems” — no matter how big or small — to make a positive impact on life. The pandemic has given us another chance to do more work to help people along the way. In the early days of COVID, when masks were in short supply, we made 7,300 high-quality masks available to our residents in New York. We also donated 3,000 medical grade masks to Jamaica Hospital — a local public hospital, along with 300 cookies to thank our healthcare workers at Elmhurst Hospital — COVID’s Ground Zero in New York — for their dedication and amazing work to heal the sick. The pandemic is yet another opportunity to do good.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
Whenever life deals a setback, I look back on my roots on that rice farm in Guyana. In our family, we view setbacks as a challenge to defeat. Our father taught us to never give up. We never gave up then, and we must never, ever give up now. Along the way to building a successful real estate business, we encountered discrimination and every disadvantage one could imagine.
We faced extreme hardships when we went to purchase our first 44-unit building in 1982. Being three immigrants of color, with accents, attempting to enter an industry in which very few people looked and sounded like us, getting a loan from a bank to buy a building in Queens, NY was a Herculean task. When we were denied, my late brother George led the charge to pool more family resources to eventually get a bank loan. We stuck together. We worked harder. We refused to let the setback stop our plan to enter the real estate arena.
The lesson is to draw strength from rejection and use the experience to fuel your determination to get past “No.” That same relentless spirit is with us 40 years later and has helped our business to strengthen and grow into 5,000 apartments across 60 complexes in Queens and Nassau County, NY.
Always remember, setbacks are invitations to a destination called “success.” The point is to get there.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Two of my heroes are Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. While they are not with us, I would like everyone to know why they are my heroes.
Gandhi said, “Education is the only way out of poverty.”
Mandela said, “Education is the most effective tool to change the world with.”
They were both right.
Education opened the doors for my family to leave Guyana to work in London, Dubai, and New York in professions ranging from engineering to real estate brokerage. We used our education and respective talents to create a business that has grown to fund a charitable juggernaut in Queens and Guyana. The words of Gandhi and Mandela inspired us to invest in education and invest in our community. Over the years, we have invested at least 2 million dollars into scholarships and tutorial services so local aspiring scholars can reach their best potential at schools including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. We were once these kids, but without the charitable boost. We are humbled to be in a position today to fulfill prophetic visions of my heroes –Gandhi and Mandela, who sacrificed so much to make the world a better place.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.