Boulder store owner spins story of success

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Jefferson Dodge

When Narayan Shrestha left Nepal for New York City in 1977, he says he had $300 in his pocket, spoke almost no English and had only a couple of friends in America — one in Chicago and one in Dallas.

Today, the owner of the Old Tibet store in Boulder says he has poured millions of dollars into health clinics, hospitals and schools in his homeland and four other countries.

In fact, this week, Shrestha was in Nicaragua to purchase a building for a new health clinic in the Boulder sister city of Jalapa, and he says he’s going house-hunting to find a suitable location for the school he plans to open there later this year.

How did he go from being a poor immigrant to a successful businessman and philanthropist who has probably saved scores of lives?

He says it might not have happened if a kindly university registrar hadn’t told him to go to Mexico for a new visa.

There was even one day he woke up with a random phone number in his mind — if you can believe him.

* * *

Shrestha told Boulder Weekly that when he landed in New York 33 years ago, he knew so little about America that he thought his friend from the place they called Chicago would be there to pick him up at the airport. Surely, he thought, Chicago was a village close to New York.

When airport employees finally made him understand how far away Chicago was, he had to spend one-third of his money to fly there to meet his friend. In Chicago, he mistook the word “elevator” for one of the English words he knew, “alligator,” and became afraid when he was told he would be riding one.

Soon, the other friend he had in the U.S., University of Texas at Dallas Professor Peter Skafte, urged him to visit — but by way of Boulder, where Skafte had gone to college. Skafte met him in Boulder, introduced him to some friends, and Shrestha enjoyed the place so much that he ended up staying for two weeks. Then it was on to Skafte’s place in Dallas.

Shrestha had $90 left. He says his professor friend urged him to stay, attend college at UT-Dallas, and get a job. Skafte offered to help him get admitted to the university and pay his $290-per-semester tuition. Shrestha agreed, and got a job as a dishwasher in a cafeteria at the school.

But when he attempted to renew his visa and convert it to a student visa, the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied the request, and Shrestha says he faced deportment.

It was then, he claims, that the UT-Dallas registrar advised him to simply hop on the next bus to Brownsville, cross the border into Matamoros, Mexico, and get a new visa coming back into the U.S. It worked, and thanks to a law that had just been signed by then-President Jimmy Carter, Shrestha’s new student visa was good for as long as he remained a student.

While in Dallas, he periodically paid visits to the place he liked best in America — Boulder. He graduated with a B.S. in finance, got married, had a son, divorced, then moved to Boulder in 1985.

* * *

Once again, he had no money, just credit cards.

He lived in Eldorado Springs, dreaming of opening his own Nepali restaurant. Then one day he was walking through downtown Boulder and saw a small Tibetan store on Walnut Street, so he went in and struck up a conversation with the owners, who were from Nepal as well.

The owners mentioned that they wanted to sell the store. One thing led to another, and Shrestha says he found himself offering them $25,000 for the shop, which held $35,000 worth of merchandise. He offered to pay them about half up front, with the remainder paid out in monthly $1,000 increments. The owners accepted.

The problem was, Shrestha had no money. That night, he had trouble going to sleep, fretting about how he was going to get the funding before the deal was to be closed the next day at 1 p.m. According to Shrestha, when he woke up the next morning, he had a phone number imprinted in his mind, memorized, as if from a dream.

He called the number, he says, and the person who answered was one of his former UT-Dallas instructors, Don Fussell, who had since moved to Austin.

Fussell, who had married a Nepali woman, had taken Shrestha under his wing in Dallas, inviting him over for dinner on several occasions.

Shrestha told Fussell about his situation, that he needed a loan by 1 p.m. that day, and Fussell balked, saying he probably wouldn’t give him the money even if he had it. Shrestha insisted on giving him his First National Bank account number in Boulder anyway.

At noon, Shrestha says, just prior to his meeting with the shop owners, he went to the bank to check the balance in his account, which he knew had only $100 in it.

The balance was $15,100. Fussell had wired the money after all.

* * *

But not everyone believes this part of the tale. Fussell has a different version. He says the loan wasn’t given on the spur of the moment, and that he and Shrestha had talked at length about it.

Fussell told Boulder Weekly that he regrets loaning him the money, because it took about eight years to get repaid, and even then it was not repaid in cash — it was repaid with in-kind gifts, like airline tickets to Nepal.

“One of the worst things in my life was to loan him money,” Fussell says.

He also questions Shrestha’s credibility.

“People believe the stuff he purveys, and they just eat it up,” Fussell says, adding that Shrestha “lives in a fantasy world. … I have nothing positive to say about the guy.”

Still, not even Fussell denies that Shrestha has made a positive impact in his homeland.

For his part, Shrestha maintains that he repaid Fussell within a few years. He says he began to make a profit at his Old Tibet shop and relocated to its current, larger space on Pearl Street.

But before that, just after taking over the store, he says he got an idea. Using a coat hanger and cardboard, he made a sign for his front window that read, “Nepal native leads a trek to the Himalayas, come inside.”

Fourteen people signed up for the trip. Shrestha charged them $2,500 each for the month-long trek, and $1,000 of each payment was profit. He says he used that money to bring in more merchandise for his store. An article about him in The Denver Post prompted calls from many other people wanting to sign up for one of his treks, and before long, Shrestha had started a travel agency.

But it was that first trek in 1986 that spawned his humanitarian efforts, he says.

Shrestha says that on the first day of their trek, a Nepali woman approached the group, asking for a doctor. Turns out, among those in Shrestha’s group were a doctor and nurse who were husband and wife. The Nepali woman showed them her 13-year-old son, who had fallen the week before, had landed on a branch, and still had a stick penetrating his chin and protruding from his mouth. It had been there for seven days, and the wound was so swollen and infected that none of the locals could remove it.

The doctor and nurse agreed to treat the injury.

Shrestha says they boiled a pocketknife to disinfect it, then cut open his cheek to remove the stick, while several trekkers held the squirming boy down.

“He was crying like hell, man,” he recalls. “We didn’t have any anesthetic, but we saved his life somehow.”

Later
on the same trip, the group was camping near a school when one of the
school’s teachers approached them. The teacher was responsible for all
first, second and third graders, and he took Shrestha on a tour of the
school. It was a short tour.

“It
was one room with no roof,” he remembers, adding that there was no
furniture, and the students sat in several inches of dirt. The teacher
made the equivalent of $8 a month, and those payments were never made
on time.

The group
also encountered a Nepali woman carrying her young daughter in a basket
on her back. The woman was on her way to the nearest hospital, which
was more than a day’s walk, because her daughter had fallen from a tree
a month earlier and had not been the same ever since. The woman lowered
the basket from her back so that the doctor and nurse could examine
her, and the young girl was dead. She had died in the basket, while her
mother was making the long walk to the hospital.

“I almost fell down crying,” Shrestha says. “It’s so sad that people have to live that way. … “So I felt I should do something.”

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* * *

Shrestha’s
idea was to begin bringing more doctors and nurses on similar treks. He
and his second wife, Sreejana, whom he had married during that trip to
Nepal, began asking prospective trekkers if they were in the medical
field, and sure enough, the first person to express interest after that
initial trip was a doctor from Longmont, Russ Stacey.

Narayan Shrestha struck a deal with the doctor.

The
man agreed to invite his doctor and nurse friends over for a Nepali
meal cooked by Sreejana, followed by a slideshow of photos from Nepal
presented by Narayan.

Here
was his pitch: “Give me two weeks of your Bahamas vacation time, and
I’ll give you one month in Nepal, where you’ll work for two weeks in
the clinic and spend two weeks walking in the mountains.”

The
charge was $3,300 apiece. Out of the nearly 30 people who attended the
gathering at the doctor’s house, 10 signed up for the trek.

So
on Sept. 24, 1988, Shrestha took 18 nurses and doctors with various
specialties to Nepal. He ran a two-week clinic and started a school in
his home village of Khandbari. He named the school after his father,
Surya.

Over the
next three years, he took groups to Nepal seven times and, in 1992,
created the 501(c)3 organization Helping Hands Health Education.

Today,
he charges doctors and nurses $4,500 for the trip, $3,500 for medical
students. More than 1,200 doctors and nurses have participated in the
program.

One
doctor, Herb Rheingruber of San Francisco, has been on five Helping
Hands trips. Unlike Fussell, he says Shrestha is dedicated to making
the program “a people-to-people thing, with the money being expended
for human care, as opposed to making a profit. He’s the kind of person
you’d like to have living next door, as is his wife.”

Rheingruber,
whose specialty is women’s health, says his challenge on the Helping
Hands trips is to raise awareness of basic medical issues in a culture
that doesn’t always treat its women well after they pass the
reproductive age. “These people sometimes don’t even know how they get
pregnant,” he says.

Still,
not everyone has had a positive experience on Helping Hands trips. On
Jan. 7, 1999, Boulder Weekly devoted a cover story to participants who
were unhappy about aspects of the program, from alleged problems
obtaining prescriptions to travel mishaps. The article painted the
program as inefficient and disorganized. It alluded to claims that
Shrestha was making a healthy profit off the effort, and it outlined
legal entanglements, such as Shrestha being sued for non-payment of
loans.

Shrestha says that article was full of “lies.”

* * *

Progress
seems to have been made in the past decade. Now there is a 100-bed,
60-doctor Helping Hands hospital and a clinic in the Kathmandu
district, Shrestha says, and there are clinics in Khandbari and in the
districts of Parbat and Dang. He is also building a maternity hospital
in the Kathmandu district.

In
1999, Shrestha says, his organization opened a clinic in Namibia and
operated it for five years before discontinuing it because it became “a
waste of time and a waste of money,” in part because of competition
from a German-run health system there.

He
holds an annual fundraising dinner in Boulder that generates about
$17,000 to help cover the costs of transporting equipment and supplies.
He also taps into some of his store and travel agency profits to pay
for the Helping Hands program.

He
started taking trips to Vietnam off and on starting in 2004, and his
first trip to Nicaragua was in 2005. He already has teachers lined up
for the school he plans to start this year in Jalapa.

Shrestha
says he has opened a nursing school and a liberal arts college in
Nepal. American families have sponsored about 80 of the students in
Shrestha’s schools. Only $150 a year pays for a child’s books, tuition
and uniform. (More information is available at www.helpinghandsusa.org.)

The
school he launched in Khandbari started with two teachers and 35
students in a rented house. Now, he says the school is located in 13
buildings on 150 acres, with 40 teachers and 850 students.

* * *

When
asked why he did it, Shrestha says it’s because he realized that
“millions of people are living life below the poverty line and with no
facilities at all, and people are dying with small problems, suffering
with small problems.”

He
points to seeing a small boy die from swallowing a coin because the
village did not have the particular medical tool that could have easily
freed the coin from his throat.

“We have not been able heal all of them, but it’s a process that someone had to start,” he says.

Shrestha’s
office walls are lined with award certificates and plaques. There is a
photo of him with former President Carter. He met with the king of
Nepal seven times. When he returns to Nepal, he says throngs of people
follow him through the streets.

He
also got to fulfill that restaurant dream. At one point, there were
seven Narayan’s Nepal Restaurants in the state of Colorado. Since then,
he has sold some, and the rest are closed.

After proudly recounting all of his personal success, Shrestha says most of the credit should go to his wife.

“The success of my life, my name and fame, my energy, it’s all her,” he says. “Her support is beyond anyone’s imagination.”

He
says he has about 700 employees, and over the course of 18 years, he
estimates that he has spent about $25 million on the health and
education efforts.

“All
the wealth we make, when we die, we’re not going to take it with us,”
he says. “This is the way we enjoy life. This is the way to make the
world a better place.

“When we go to bed, we smile.”