June 4, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:58 pm

Loomis influence in India

Contributed Photo
Contributed Photo
At Fabindia, William Nanda Bissell has built sales of $100 million through marketing the work of artisans in India.

The story of William Nanda Bissell's success reads like an advertising brochure for Connecticut's Education Corridor.

Growing up in India as the son of a commercial entrepreneur, he'd been the Shakespearean schoolboy creeping unwillingly to school because he'd been told — on the basis of quantitative tests — that he was not good enough.

"In India, I had been treated as a well below-average student. And I suffered from being told that," Bissell said, adding that his experience is not unusual in a country whose educational system, for the most part, equates intelligence with quantitative skills and the sciences.

On the other hand, Bissell had a voracious appetite for books. And that stood him in good stead at Loomis Chaffee and later at Wesleyan University in Middletown.

"I had an advantage because they looked at what you brought to the table — how you explain an idea, how you critique it. This didn't show up in quantitative tests in India," he said. "I began to get a different sense of my self-worth, which was the most important contribution that came from outside my family. Loomis gave me that. "

Bissell, now 45, was so deeply inspired by his experience at Loomis — the power of education to instill confidence, creativity and leadership — that he co-founded, along with his father, the Fabindia School in Rajasthan, India. The English-medium school educates nearly 1,000 children from under-privileged backgrounds. Of these, 40 percent are girls. The tuition is subsidized.

"Annual fees are what students would pay to attend three classes at Loomis," Bissell said.

The school seeks to create a global vision in its students while at the same time instilling pride in their roots. Loomis and the Fabindia School are forming close ties with the goal of helping students understand the world that is beyond their communities. This March, for the second consecutive year, a group of Loomis students and faculty members traveled to India and spent a week at the school volunteering. And two 15-year-old Fabindia students attended Loomis this year as exchange students.

"It was spectacular to see all these children in the Fabindia School so excited about coming to school," said Betsy Tomlinson, director of international students at Loomis. The gift of an education unfolding right before your eyes is a powerful experience."

Keara Jenkins, a Loomis 10th grade student, visited two years in a row. She helped build trenches for harvesting rainwater and taught English grammar to elementary school kids.

"It opened my heart to become an advocate for girls education and human rights," she said.

For William Bissell, coming to Connecticut also allowed the American citizen and a permanent resident of India to experience part of his heritage and strong family ties here. His grandparents lived in Avon at the time.

His paternal great-grandfather Richard Mervin Bissell, president of the Hartford Fire Insurance Co., purchased Mark Twain's home in 1902 for $28,800. In his book on the Mark Twain House, Steve Courtney wrote that Bissell's son, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., remembered that his brother kept a pet alligator in the home's conservatory.

William's father, John L. Bissell, was a buyer for Macy's when he traveled to India in 1958 on a Ford Foundation grant to study the process of designing and marketing Indian textiles for global consumers. Two years later, he founded Fabindia.

In New Delhi, John Bissell met Bimal Nanda, who he learned later, had vacated her office to make room for his. Nanda had moved on to become social secretary to U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles but for the next five years, Bissell courted her with a rose every morning.

"It was the '60s when Americans in India were not commonly sighted. My mother's parents were apprehensive," explains William, adding that his own courtship was nothing as interesting as that.

"I just got lucky," he laughed, speaking of his wife Anjali. The couple, who have a young daughter and son, live in New Delhi and visit Connecticut each summer to spend time with the extended Bissell family of aunts, uncles and cousins.

After Loomis, Bissell attended Wesleyan University and then returned to India to help run Fabindia, which he now heads. Today, he's among India's leading socially conscious entrepreneurs and Fabindia's double bottomline approach has been a Harvard Business School case study.

An advocate for capitalism with a conscience, Bissell is often invited to speak at forums around the world. He's kept up his love for books. One of his favorites is Mark Twain's "Following the Equator."

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