Manraj Matharu ʼ15 with friends who helped him build a playground in rural Uganda.

Manraj Matharu ʼ15 has journeyed from aspiring medical student to successful construction and fabrication business owner. He began at Lehigh with a double major in chemical engineering and pharmaceutical chemistry but soon found that what he really liked was engineering, so he switched to bioengineering with a mechanical engineering track.

A Change of Direction
“After graduation, I wanted to go to medical school but liked the idea of a Ph.D. as well. So I entered a master’s degree program at the Commonwealth Medical College (now Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine) in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see if I really did want to go to medical school,” Matharu explains.

He was accepted to medical school but decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do. Since middle school, Matharu had worked on weekends and summers with his father at Five Rivers Development, and that’s what he did full time after grad school.

“It helped me make that final decision — I wanted to be my own boss, be the best contractor in the Lehigh Valley, and turn Five Rivers into a million-dollar company,” he says.

The full-service construction company builds everything from restaurants to concert venues to office buildings. Five Rivers notably acquired a government contract to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy and do other construction work at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

“Our next project after Ellis Island was going to involve a lot of steel fabrication work,” Matharu says, “so we invested in a plastic table to do computer numerical control (CNC) cutting.” As luck would have it, COVID-19 hit and the project was scrapped.

Manraj Matharu with a red skull and playing cards logo made in his fabrication shop

“So I started playing around with artwork on the CNC machine, making little skulls, American flags, things like that, and selling them on Etsy,” Matharu explains. “Sales blew up and we ended up separating that business into Five Rivers Fabrication. We went from a little shop doing fabrication work to a packed shop with all kinds of CNC equipment, press breaks, mills, lathes, shears, engravers, and things like that.”

The company makes customized signs and logos as well as other items, all sold online. Meanwhile, Five Rivers Development has continued to thrive, with current contracts to build restaurants in Easton, multiple custom homes throughout the Lehigh Valley, a Ford dealership expansion, manufacturing plant office buildings, and other miscellaneous projects.

Lessons Learned at Lehigh
The highlight of Matharu’s Lehigh experience came as the result of an Iacocca internship at Mountaintop Campus one summer. He and his teammates, charged with creating a sustainable project, successfully produced a design for a windmill to pump water for wells in Africa, made out of readily available bamboo and spare parts.

Wanting to make an even greater impact — as well as visit Uganda, where his family was originally from before fleeing the regime of Idi Amin — Matharu delayed graduation his senior year to complete Lehigh’s Uganda Sustainable Livelihoods Program. In the research- and internship-based program, students spend the summer tutoring youth at a primary school and shadowing medical staff to assist with public health outreach at a community clinic.

“I was sitting on my bed in my host family’s home one night, pondering how to make a greater impact for the people there, when I had an ‘aha’ moment,” Matharu recalls. “One of the biggest problems for schools in Uganda is retention. Kids come to school for a while and then just don’t come back — they don’t want to go to school at all. And I had noticed that there wasn’t a playground at any of the schools in the community where I was working. So I built one.”

Using his own funds, Matharu designed and constructed a fully functional playground with slides, swings, and climbing equipment. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” he laughs, “because there’s no Home Depot, no hardware store in rural Uganda. I had to find someone with land, buy a tree, hire someone with a chainsaw to cut down the tree, have it milled into lumber … It cost a lot more than I expected, and it was quite a process, but we made it work.”

Raj Matharu with Ugandan students.

Matharu’s playground opened on his last day in Uganda, a very satisfying culmination of his summer journey. “I was able to see all the kids running around and absolutely loving the playground. That experience was responsible for much of my learning and what I’ve become.” He found the project so gratifying that he returned to Uganda with his best friend a few years later to build a second playground.

Matharu credits his Lehigh education with teaching him to think outside the box. “It wasn’t necessarily the content of my curriculum  — I don’t really do organic chemistry in my free time,” he laughs, “although I do use the engineering I learned. More importantly, Lehigh taught me how to come up with solutions to any problem. That’s a skill I use every day.”