Story by Michelle Hiskey, Photography by Meg Buscema
Nairobi, December 1967:
Iqbal Paroo, a willful achiever who had climbed Kilimanjaro and captained the cricket team, was home on leave from his training as an 18-year-old Kenyan military pilot. He had no idea that on this afternoon his life was about to change forever. Out for a motorcycle ride, he was struck by a car.
As the doctors at the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi were trying to save his mangled left leg, Paroo confronted them: “If it’s not going to get any better, let’s get on with the amputation.” The surgery resulted in Paroo losing his leg above the knee.
Paroo in Kenya, as a military pilot.
Grief spread through his family, whose ancestors had helped build trading routes and businesses across East Africa. For weeks, family and friends wept by his bedside.
“This is awful,” he told the doctors. “I know I lost the leg. I now want to get on with my life.”
And so Paroo took his first big step away from the accident that nearly killed him.
His path led him to Georgia State, which prepared him for his future career of reinventing hospitals around the world and helping alleviate suffering among the world’s neediest people.
Paroo’s personal challenge sparked his global focus on this persistent problem: How can we best enable the sick to heal and get back on their feet?
At GSU, more loss and opportunity
During his rehab in Nairobi, Paroo wondered why hospitals didn’t operate better. Forcing himself to walk on a wooden leg, he asked, “Was that the only way forward? Why did doctors talk about him as if he wasn’t present?”
Reviewing the U.S. Embassy’s list of universities offering degrees in the fairly new field of hospital administration, Paroo listened as an attaché described the snow and ice on many campuses — not an ideal location for someone learning to walk on an artificial limb. The southernmost possibility, Georgia State, earned the approval of Paroo’s uncle, a Kenyan executive for The Coca-Cola Company.
After numerous trips to the Embassy on his crutches, Paroo’s persistence paid off with a scholarship from the U.S. Agency for International Development and matching funds from GSU. After 8,300 miles of travel, Paroo hobbled up the Kell Hall ramp for freshman orientation in the fall of 1969, still using a cane.
Paroo expected a place somewhere between “Petticoat Junction,” and “Bonanza,” two of his favorite TV shows in Nairobi. Instead, Atlanta was tense after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The small group of international students at GSU was cautioned not to travel out of Atlanta alone.
“It was such a time of chaos in the city,” recalled Barbara Winship Turner (Ph.D. ’74), the advisor to international students. “It was a lot for them to come halfway across the world when the world was so upside down.”
International students at GSU:
THEN AND NOW
In 1970, there were 207 international students at GSU representing 52 countries.
In fall 2011, GSU hosted 1,355 international students on visas representing 117 countries, along with another 2,302 permanent residents, refugees and those granted asylum. To qualify for a student visa, international students are
required to provide proof of funds to cover a year’s tuition and living expenses. To keep that visa, they must maintain a minimum number of classes (currently 12 hours). If they drop below that number, they are considered to be in this country illegally and must leave the United States.
“The regulations mean that they have less flexibility to make honest mistakes.” said Heather Housley, director of GSU’s International Student and Scholar Services, which handles compliance with stricter federal laws since 9/11.
To smooth their arrival, GSU requires a four-day orientation that includes basics such as how to adapt to the U.S. classroom and Atlanta. As they adjust, students help others through the Volunteer International Student Assistant
(VISA) leadership program.
GSU now hosts 18 international clubs, and students can find local connections to their home countries through Atlanta’s international community. Because they face restrictions on working, GSU’s Eva Whetstone International Student Emergency Loan Fund offers assistance. Whetstone served as assistant dean of women at
GSU during the administration of Noah Langdale, who was also a patient supporter.
Paroo knew prejudice: He grew up as a minority in a British colony and, from an early age, experienced racial discrimination in Kenya. His Ismaili Muslim family left India in 1852 and settled in Zanzibar, an island off Kenya. Even though the family had donated their business profits from long-distance trade into a multiracial school, a hospital, and even a cemetery and a home for lepers, they still were deemed outsiders in Africa. The discrimination continued through the generations.
Paroo found GSU’s campus welcoming. “Noah Langdale had the vision that GSU’s growth should be not only in volume but in diversity,” Paroo said of the university president who served from 1957 to 1988. “I remember him saying, with a lot of warmth, that foreign students bring a richness to campus.”
Limited overseas communications meant that students like Paroo were virtually cut off from news from home. A few months into his freshman year, Paroo received word that his beloved father had died unexpectedly. He wanted to return to Kenya right away, but heeded his mother’s wishes that he remain in Atlanta. With finances tighter, he answered an ad for a nursing home job in Buckhead.
“I needed someone who didn’t care about Christmas and thought someone of another faith would be great, because the local kids always tried to beg off on holidays,” recalled Frank Shaw, who hired Paroo and became his mentor and father figure. “An international student is one up anyway because they’ve left home and appreciate being in a new world.” His first impression of Paroo included a slight British accent, an outfit of paisley, checks, stripes and madras, and “and a solid piece of tree for a leg.”
A year later, Paroo had worked every weekend and holiday on the Kingsford nursing home’s front desk, learned pharmacy basics and was on his way to managing the nursing home’s budget.
In 1975, Paroo left GSU with a master’s degree in hospital administration. At 25, he became one of the youngest hospital administrators in the Charter network. Paroo still laughs about a puzzled doctor on his staff in Biloxi, Miss., who asked, “What’s an Iqbal?”
Summoned by a world leader
Paroo was 27 and the president of a Las Vegas hospital when one of the world’s leading philanthropists, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, sent for him. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader for the 15 million Ismaili Muslims throughout the world. At their first meeting, the Aga Khan expressed confidence that Paroo’s résumé and cultural awareness were ideal to build a bridge from Western health care to suffering in southeast Asia.
In Karachi, Pakistan, with $300 million from the Aga Khan Foundation, Paroo became the director of commissioning and led a team that would develop a medical school, nursing school and hospital. “I didn’t know enough to be really cautious,” he recalled. “I was somewhere between being smart and gutsy, and trying something different and new.”
The Aga Khan project was a major turning point in his life and enabled him to launch his future career in international health, and later in global philanthropy.
Paroo with a cane on Kell Hall ramp in 1968 with international students.
Scaling new heights
When Paroo was 37, Hahnemann University in Philadelphia — then one of only 127 academic health centers in the U.S. — tapped him as their youngest president and first immigrant president.
“It’s not often that a relative newcomer to the United States accomplishes so much is so short a period of time here,” wrote then Vice President George H. W. Bush in a note. “Your accomplishments will serve as a reminder to all who come in contact with you … just how true it is that the United States is a land of boundless opportunity.”
While at Hahnemann, Paroo reinstated its reputation and enhanced its contribution to the greater Philadelphia community. He also met his wife, Janet, a Philadelphia banker and venture capitalist who matched his drive and loved his spirit. They married in 1996 in a cross-cultural ceremony with their blended family of seven, which included children aged 10, 12, 13, 15 and 20. The Paroo family continues to enjoy exploring cultural diversity, especially in the kitchen with a variety of curries and a collection of more than 30 hot sauces.
Paroo with Kenyan drum at GSU cultural festival.
In 2002, the need to manage critical healthcare issues hit their home when Janet Paroo was diagnosed with stage III multiple myeloma. When the standard treatment failed, Paroo turned to the newly formed Myeloma Institute at the University of Arkansas, where Janet Paroo ultimately underwent a bone marrow transplant.
“Iqbal never wavered from his belief that we could find a solution,” said Janet, who today is in remission and leads an active, healthy life.
Silicon Valley, 2002:
Innovative philanthropy to create social impact
The digital revolution shaped Paroo’s more recent career. Drawn to Silicon Valley to work with venture funds investing in health care, he connected with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. They enlisted Paroo’s help directing their personal fortune, estimated in the billions, in the most effective ways of creating opportunity for individuals to improve their lives. Paroo, who became the founding president of the Omidyar Foundation, also provided early guidance in the development of the family’s other major organization, Humanity United, which focuses on building peace and advancing human freedom.
Paroo with adviser Barbara Winship and a United National official at campus conference.
“He’s compassionate, broadly curious and action oriented. That makes him a natural leader,” said Michael Mohr, a close advisor of the Omidyars. “His thinking is like a North Star — expansive and impactful.”
“Care is not only about giving,” Paroo says. “It’s part of it, of course, but care can create dependency. It’s about self-empowerment. I know from my own trauma that I didn’t want help walking. I didn’t want people to hold me up. I would rather fall and learn how to walk on my own and not have a lifetime dependency on others to help me.”
A graphic demonstration of this belief: When Paroo rappelled in West Virginia’s New River Gorge with YPO (the Young Presidents’ Organization), he sent his leg down first. As Paroo descended unbalanced, he bounced off the rock face with his right shoulder.
“If you don’t try, you don’t know,” he says with a shrug. A willingness to try anything in the face of great challenges is a hallmark of his career.
St. Petersburg, Fla., today:
The endless horizon
After multiple careers took him around the world over four decades, Paroo finally settled in St. Petersburg, his wife’s hometown. For three years, Paroo has served as key strategy advisor to the recently retired CEO and dean of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. This summer, President Barack Obama named him to the board of the U.S. African Development Foundation, a government agency that “provides economic development assistance directly to marginalized populations in conflict and post-conflict areas in Africa.”
The Paroos recently built their waterside dream home with dolphins and manatees passing by. Incorporating elements of style and design from around the world, their home reflects the multicultural influences in their lives.
In this water, Paroo was able to stand for the first time since age 17 when he received one of the first “aqua legs.” The Gulf of Mexico’s open water offers “healing in salt water, more of a sense of being connected to nature.” For miles and hours, he swims unencumbered, feels whole again; meanwhile, his family and friends on shore are often panicked. In Bali and the Maldives, he came into view just as rescue teams were about to deploy. “The sense of endlessness is what I love,” says Paroo, now 62, whose boldness first brought him to Atlanta and still beckons him to new horizons.