What Best Drives Samaaj, how Private Initiatives Drive Social Change

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Sunil Kant Munjal, at the recently held AIMA Golden Jubilee Convention, a rare event when two luminaries in philanthropy, share their insights in the Art of Giving. An important ‘read’ to ensure we are all ready to ‘give’ back to the society to which we owe our own being.

Sunil: So, let me start with you as a person, because you have been in many ways, a very public person and in also many ways a very private person. You’re a prolific author, you run amazing initiatives on the philanthropic side. I was trying to figure out what is it that drives you? I was reading about your grandfather the other day who got driven by Mahatma Gandhi’s message and actually set up his first ashram, I believe, and he worked closely with Kasturba Gandhi to focus also on sanitation and education. Is that part of your driver? Is it some of it genetic that drives you?

Rohini: I don’t know if the genes pass such things on, but culture certainly does. So, in my family, we were always, in those days when I was young in the 60s, the term simple living and high thinking was something that, of course this was pre liberalisation, so everyone had to do simple living anyway, but the high thinking part we took rather seriously and my grandfather’s legacy was very much held to us as a positive example of how you should live your life. So, I was very inspired definitely by that.

Sunil: I understand your grandson, Tanush was the inspiration for a couple of your books.

Rohini: Oh yes, and for a lot of my work because what is the world we are going to leave for the grandchildren and the great grandchildren. That’s something I think the minute you become a grandparent, I think today that’s the first thing you think about.

Sunil: Yeah, it kind of tends to change our behaviour and also in some ways how you look at the world back again to your writing. You’ve been writing books and some wonderful stuff. I’ve managed to read some of them. However, lots and lots of people are very happy and comfortable. Just reading off, little bit off a screen, off the net on WhatsApp messages and all and the like. Do you think the habit and culture of reading is actually going away? Do you believe it’s something we need to hold and protect?

Rohini: Actually, I don’t think it’s going away. I think reading is absolutely critical. Wherever I go, I tell young mothers, I tell grandmothers the first gift to a child should be a book. Actually, when the mother has a child in a womb, she should start reading to him or her. Reading is absolutely critical to put yourself on the path of self-learning and there is no path more empowering than the self-learning path. I don’t think people are reading less. If you look at the sale of books worldwide, if you look at Pratham books, which I co-founded in 2004 today has, we’ve created an open creative common platform called Story Weaver, and today it has more than 26 million reads, more than 55,000 stories in 340 languages contributed from all over the world. So, people are reading, children are reading and parents are helping them to read. A reading nation is a thinking nation. A thinking nation is a nation that is going to innovate and progress.

Sunil: That is fantastic by the way. So, since Nandan is here as well, I am going to ask you a question about Infosys. And also, Nandan always said that he was an accidental entrepreneur. As you said, you are an accidental philanthropist. Many people said what actually made Infosys was not just these founders, but it was these strong, powerful, purposeful women behind these men. In each of their cases, something significant was done either a big sacrifice or to support the spouses to help build this company. I read somewhere that Sudha Murti gave Narayan Murti a loan and you did some such similar thing. So how were those days for you when the early days of the struggle of setting up a new enterprise of Infosys was the norm? Was the day in and day out for you?

The Gender lab, The Vidhi Center
The Gender lab, The Vidhi Center for Legal Policy

Rohini: This was 1981. In 1980, they took the decision. 1981 was when Infosys was set up. It was also the year Nandan and I got married. So, two big things happened in our life together. I tell you a moment is journey. Both were like roller coasters. The idea of Infosys dominated our lives. It was much bigger than anything else we wanted to do or could do in our personal lives. We saw the dedication of the founders and we supported them. I used to be a chauffeur. I used to be a cook. We used to have young engineers staying with us and I used to worry about them like a mother. We were young, we were free, carefree, we could afford to take the risks. Of course, Nandan and others worked extremely hard 24 by seven. They weren’t really there, but I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice. It was a great learning journey and by God’s grace, Infosys was successful. But even if it hadn’t been, we would’ve done the same thing and backed our spouses in exactly the same way.

Sunil: So, you wrote this very interesting book about Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar. Clearly three great influences on our lives, on policymaking, on action, on what actually happens. The Covid pandemic that we went through recently was a wonderful example of the ability to work together but doesn’t happen often enough and doesn’t seem to have a natural smoothness to its functioning. What do you think we ought to do to improve the rough edges in this relationship?

Rohini: Yeah, thank you for that question. For me, this trifecta of Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar is very important, but for me, Samaaj comes first and I do want to reiterate that to everybody. Delhi is a lot about the political space, the Sarkaar space, but I do believe that even if you’re a CM, even if you’re a CEO or anything else, you are part of the Samaaj first. You’re a citizen first. So, every evening we do have to take out our other role hats and come back to being a human and a citizen first. So, how we are as citizens and what is the leadership? The kind of leaders that we want in the Bazaar and the Sarkaar are going to come from the Samaaj because Samaaj is the water in which we all swim. So, my attention in my work and my life has been very much how do we keep on improving our Samaaj?

How do we ourselves become better part of the Samaaj? But I agree completely that Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar have to work together to achieve any societal goal at all. So, what we try to do in our work, and certainly EkStep Foundation is one example of it with Nandan and I and Shankar co-founded in 2015. We have to think how can we continuously reduce the friction to cooperate? And I think there are clearly ways to do that and we saw some of that in the pandemic when there’s a higher goal that people subscribe to, everyone wants to cooperate to work towards it, and there are ways to do it. There are new technologies which can help everyone do their own part and do it with much less friction.

We also saw a very strong role for the state and we would go state government to state government to help make sure that children could get books in the libraries of government schools. So, the state had a role and the market, we encouraged the market because our books were free publishers. We wanted to improve access to books through the entire publishing industry. And if I may say so, we did have a significant impact on the bazaar of children’s publishing as well. That’s one example. The other one quickly is EkStep where the tech team that Nandan and Shankar set up helped the union government to set up its national teacher platform called Diksha. And now Diksha, the government has encouraged private education sector players to participate in it. And billions of learning transactions happen on that platform every month. It is kind of the basic public open infrastructure for learning in India.

Sunil: You have been a very open philanthropist, you have been a local philanthropist, you have participated in multiple philanthropies, you also participated in the India philanthropy initiative. And this is rather unusual in India where a lot of people are not able, are not willing to share what they do in terms of charity or philanthropic initiatives. How come you are so vocal about this and would you encourage others to do the same?

Reap Benefits, The Vidhi Center for Legal Policy

Rohini: Yeah, Sunil, you were part of IPI with me as well, and one of the things we realised is yes, sure, there’s a culture in our country where you say the left hand should not know what the right hand is giving. And that’s very wonderful because it means that you’re not going to boast about your philanthropy, you’re going to do it quietly. But at a time like this in India where so much wealth is accumulating in only few hands, to be very honest, unbelievable wealth, then you have to question what is the role of that wealth in a society like ours? Why would societies tolerate the accumulation of private wealth so rapidly and in such a degree if it was not showing itself to do good for society at large? And if we can’t talk about this publicly and keep this question alive, I think we don’t want a culture where the wealthy are not showing any responsibility for the progress of the whole nation. So, we decided that we want to be completely transparent about our giving and it took us a while to again overcome that cultural barrier. But we joined the giving pledge and said at least 50%, hopefully in our lifetime of our wealth, we will give away. And I think the signalling is very important and I think every wealthy person in this country should find their own way of clearly and transparently signaling their own philanthropy.

Sunil: That’s wonderful. You’ve also said that in the Indian philanthropists need to be a little bit more audacious. Why do you think so?

Rohini: Well, look at you, maybe I am turning, see I was a journalist. I always turn around and ask some questions myself. Why do you do Serendipity, the Arts festival and it’s so great. Tell us why you do, what motivates you to do something. Most people in the country, there’s enough data to education help or charitable giving when they give. Why are you doing something so bold and different?

Sunil: So, my belief is for any nation state to be considered successful, there are four pillars that need to be in place. One is a growing economy, so the people can live a prosperous, safe and prosperous life. Second is the ability to defend yourself. Third is to be able to play beyond your own borders, so be a part of geopolitics. And the fourth is to have a strong cultural underpinning. On the first three, India is doing exceedingly well. On the last one we have slipped and we have slipped continuously for the last five centuries. So, I had this conversation along with some friends of mine that we have changed the very model of how the arts in India were practiced or taught. Originally the big patrons were the royalty. They did not segregate theatre or music or dance or crafts. So, both the teaching and the practice of the arts was done collectively and was available and accessible to everybody. That has changed today, arts have become an exclusive domain of a very few. Our attempt was to democratize the access to the arts and to bring back the actual Indian methodology of looking at arts as complete, it’s actually about complete life almost in the sense of speaking, because we also look at food as an art form.

Rohini: There is truly so much to be done! Philanthropists need to take on a little bit more risky philanthropy. When I say risky, I don’t mean politically risky as much as risky in terms of that you may not necessarily see the benefits accruing very, very quickly. You need patient capital for a long time. You need to be able to trust civil society organizations to do what they do best because they know how to work in their context. Open up, go beyond your fence and work in areas that are very, for example, mental health and so many others. I think this is the time for Indian philanthropy to challenge old ideas and just innovate rapidly.

Sunil: I also think we need to understand the distinction between donors, philanthropists, and social entrepreneurs because each one has a role to play and each one is critical to the needs. But interestingly what we find is that every generation appears to have a slightly different approach to philanthropy itself. So how would your daughter’s Janhavi’s approach, for example, differ from yours in philanthropy?

Rohini: So Janhavi came back with a PhD from Harvard and I thought she’ll do some post-doctoral research and some archaic thing, but she suddenly switched lanes and decided that she wants to push her new-found passion because when she was pregnant, she did a lot of research for doing respectful birthing in India. So, she started doing a lot of research about what happens to women when they’re giving birth, and I’m sorry to say she believes we do things too little too late to give them a very decent, respectful and joyful birthing experience. So, she set up both a nonprofit and a for-profit to do that. She’s put in some of her money, she’s managed to convince her parents to put in some of their philanthropic capital and she is doing very well with Aastrika Foundation. My son is part of my board and he has several ideas about how to give forward. Both of them are solidly with us on the fact that we have to give forward as much as effectively and as fast as we can.

Sunil: So for you, the exposure that you had, you travelled the world, you meet leaders around the world in business, in politics and society. Has your own view changed over the period of time that your exposure has increased towards society and towards philanthropy?

Rohini: Yes. I think we are at a critical juncture where people really, really need to understand the importance of civil society and democracies. Even people in the corporate sector, of course, people in government, they’re doing whatever they can to take this country forward, but business cannot go below a certain line. You cannot reach those without paying capacity. No matter how hard it is, cannot go to every door. It cannot set up such a large establishment. Who is there between the people who are left behind, the people whose aspirations are to be in this room. Very often it is civil society organisations who represent them and make their case wherever it needs to be made. And civil society organisations right now need help. I’m happy that foreign donations are coming down. The government believes Indian money should go up, and this is the time for people like all of us in this room to support whichever area you are passionate in, to support civil society organisations. And that kind of passion of intent, that hard work, that moral leadership is something I think, whether you’re in government or in the corporate sector, you can learn. And philanthropy, I have learned that definitely India has now a chance to show the whole world a new model of philanthropy.

Sunil: I think it’s a wonderful inspiring message because there is potential for each one of us to do something whether we do it around ourselves. We often forget how blessed and fortunate we are to be able to make decisions, choices, and say no to things. There are not many people in the world who can do this. So, people who are cleaning our floors did not have this as a light ambition saying, oh, when I grow up I’m going to clean Rohini’s home. Now that person does not have a choice. Can we allow the children to be able to make choices? So, if we can start literally from within your home, that is a very easy but a very powerful thing to do.

Rohini: And we have seen, I’m sure there are many people who can give examples in this room where they have helped to educate the children of people who work with them. In one generation, have we not seen such a rapid transformation where somebody was working as a maid, her daughter or son is now studying medicine or engineering or even becoming an entrepreneur? Of course, we can do it. This is what I mean by the role of Samaaj. If you want to create a better Samaaj, then you have to start with yourself.

Sunil: And we often don’t realise how much of this is due to opportunity access of to opportunity. We run a school actually, we run multiple schools and one of them in Ludhiana was set up specifically and specially to encourage children of industrial workers to come in and study. When we started, the principal had a problem because some children came who were four years old, eight years old, and 14 years old and had never been to school. They didn’t know how to handle them. Now for the last 10, maybe 15 years, every year in Punjab, in the top 10 in the entire state, there are at least two or three kids from this very school, one school.

And they’ve gone on to join IITs and become doctors and all kinds of things. And it just shows you is not as if any one of us is born smarter. It is about opportunity. A large part of the philanthropy is to expand the opportunity pool.

Rohini: What do you think the corporate sector can do better to do this, build a better Samaaj, create more equity of opportunity? How can corporate sector, especially today when India needs to grow at 7-8% scorching pace that we need to grow to get all the remaining people to the level where they want to be, how are we going to do that with the risks of climate change, with all the other risks that we have in terms of global supply chains? What should corporate India do differently? Especially because you have a philanthropic mindset.

Sunil: I can share what we do. What we were tempted to do is in all of our foundations and we run separate foundations for every activity. So, people who join the companies usually end up retiring from there, but they don’t actually retire when they come close to retirement. They would usually say, can I join this school or this hospital or this college or this other initiative. So, we’ve actually got some of the best talent available in the country running our philanthropic initiatives. We’ve also put in the same processes in these as we have in our companies. We’ve also put in ERPs in the foundations. So that’s what I meant by when I said we are using our knowledge of the way we run our businesses. We have transmitted that knowledge into these foundations. We’ve also set up things like KRAS goals for them to monitor. And we actively encourage people making mistakes. What I mean by making mistakes is we tell them to experiment all the time to try and do things quicker, better, faster, easier, cheaper, lower wastage, et cetera. And to do that, if you have to experiment, it’s absolutely fine.

And if you stumble. So, what we do is in a town hall we call up people and anyone who has done something special gets called up and gets a pat on the back and somebody who tried but failed gets the exact same recognition.

Rohini: That’s wonderful. Actually, in the non-profit sector every year now we have a failures conference. Maybe corporate India should have a failures conference every year, where you are able to share in a very safe space what you learned from any failure that you might have had. And we find that idea has started picking up in other places as well.

Sunil: Another issue, is corporate philanthropy a strategic tool for business? So, there’s another interesting question. It says, do you think philanthropy is being misused by many to get political patronage?

Rohini: I don’t think so. To get political patronage, I don’t think you can get, but philanthropy can be misused certainly to get certain kinds of power. Let’s be very clear. Money comes with power using money comes with power. And that’s why to me, it’s very important that philanthropists always keep a mirror in front of themselves to understand that their power should be used only for the larger public interest. If you don’t do that, yes, you can go wrong.

Sunil: So, this question says there are very few philanthropists working for elder care where the need is increasing rapidly. Any thoughts or suggestions on this?

Rohini: No, definitely Sunil, we have to start thinking about this because India is going to age very rapidly in 30 years. We need a lot more philanthropy for thinking through the implications of an ageing India. The HelpAge and other organisations started almost 40 years ago to think about it. But I agree with you, this is one area which is quite neglected. There’s some innovation happening. There are young leaders who have started civil society organisations that are thinking differently about ageing. I do hope more philanthropy will come in.

Sunil: So, while on young philanthropists, is there any advice you have for the next generation of philanthropists, people who are not yet earning but will be in the coming years?

Rohini: Many young entrepreneurs ask me that. And the best thing, best news is they are already asking that even before they’ve made their first billion. They say, if you make hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re still all right. The minute you make a billion dollars, you try to change the world and hopefully for the better, but not guaranteed to do so. So, they want to know, what should I do first? I think the first thing to do is don’t wait. Don’t wait until you become too old and too rich to really do anything. Start early.

Some of the wonderful young people I know who are entrepreneurs have already joined the founder’s pledge, which says that they will give some 10% of when they sell out or they come into their first money, they’ll commit in advance. They’re committing that they will give 10% of that away. And there are many such models that have come out which are saying, don’t wait. You owe your success to faith, destiny, and luck. And you must share that forward. And so, I would say don’t wait.


Rohini Nilekani is the Chairperson of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and Co-founder and Director of EkStep, a non-profit education platform. Her work has been exceptional in philanthropy across social sectors, and is an influencer when it comes to giving to charities.

Sunil Kant Munjal is an institution builder, a social entrepreneur, an angel investor, and a thought leader. He has been joint managing director of Hero Motocorp and is currently Chairman of Hero Enterprise. Munjal actively oversees higher education, healthcare & capacity building projects managed by various family trusts. He is Founder, Serendipity Arts Foundation, a unique social project that promotes and incubates fine and performing arts.

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