Tajay Bongsa, a Buddhist monk, plans to explore the connections between social and economic justice. “One of the things we learn at HDS is how much we can give back to society,” he says. “Religion, in relation to entrepreneurship, is still an unexplored territory.”

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

A monk with one foot in the world

4 min read

Tajay Bongsa wants to unite social and economic progress with dual master’s degrees in theology and business

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Tajay Bongsa has seen conflict firsthand.

He experienced it growing up in an indigenous community in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, he saw its consequences in Sri Lanka, and he heard it from the victims he visited in former war zones there while interning for an international relief organization.

Those experiences have fueled his desire to better understand people, and to help people better understand each other.

“Talking with those people and hearing their stories — you just want to do something more to help,” he said. “From Harvard Divinity School, some of the qualities I’ve learned are humility, openness to learning, and connecting with people in deeper ways. I think they are important in whatever we do.

“Maybe we go into business, become a politician, but whatever it is that we do, if we really want to make an impact, we have to connect with people in deeper ways.”

Bongsa, who will graduate from Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in May with a master’s degree in theological studies, wants to earn an M.B.A. next. His path ahead may at first sound a bit unlikely for a Buddhist monk with a Divinity School degree, but it makes sense when he offers his reasoning.

While at HDS, Bongsa took advantage of the opportunity to enroll in courses at other Harvard Schools. He took CS50, as well as “Microeconomics of Competitiveness” at the Business School.

“Here at HDS we tend to talk about social progress, social justice, and at the Business School it’s more about economic progress. I feel like we need to bring them together,” he said.

When people hear of Bongsa’s direction of study, they tend to be skeptical.

“There is a frustration about capitalism and big corporations. Even theology or the field of the study of religions face similar frustrations, such as the belief that religions are the problem in the world, without realizing the depths and breadths of religions.

“There of course are organizations and businesses that are addressing social problems and there are efforts like the Religions and the Practice of the Peace (RPP) Initiative at HDS that are doing so much to foster sustainable peace. We need to look at things holistically and see that today’s problems are complex and that addressing them will require us to go beyond our comfort zones,” said Bongsa, a student assistant for the RPP Initiative.

Bongsa wants to create one of those businesses that address social problems. He has a vision for a startup that will connect people, including scholars, educators, and activists, so they can together solve problems and share ideas and best practices for conflict transformation.

“I realize how technology can be a powerful tool for social change,” he said. “One of the things we learn at HDS is how much we can give back to society. I feel that religion, in relation to entrepreneurship, is still an unexplored territory.”

His interest in technology started years ago, but he wasn’t able to fulfill it until he came to the United States for the first time in 2014 as a student at HDS.

“I looked for the opportunity here and I took hold of it,” he said. Bongsa helped launch a new student organization at HDS, the Tech & Social Entrepreneurship group. He also served as a student consultant for the FAS Academic Technology Group and as the communications chair for the HDS Student Association.

Over the last two years, interacting with and learning from people who bring their own unique stories and backgrounds to Harvard has inspired Bongsa to reinvent himself.

“I have been through a lot in Bangladesh. I come from an indigenous community … that has for decades been socioeconomically and politically marginalized because of the conflict. While I was living in Sri Lanka, we’d go on demonstrations to raise awareness about the violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts,” he said.

“I want to help people understand each other. The moment we close our hearts and the moment we stop learning, it becomes a problem, not just for us, but for other people as well.”