#IIMChat with Rohini Nilekani
0:00:16.5 Shobha: Okay, good evening and welcome everybody. Rohini, it’s a delight to be here with you today. And after that very illustrious introduction, there is so much we want to speak to you about today. So perhaps to get us started, a little bit of a warm up. You’ve come after the New Economy Forum. It’s been a heavy day for you, I’m sure. But we want to understand the person behind Rohini. Okay, so rapid fire questions. Just to get us started. This or that, and maybe a one word answer. Indoor or outdoor?
0:00:49.5 Rohini: Outdoor.
0:00:50.7 Shobha: Social time with friends or me time?
0:00:53.4 Rohini: Social time.
0:00:54.9 Shobha: Books or movies?
0:00:56.5 Rohini: Books.
0:00:57.6 Shobha: Favorite book?
0:01:00.0 Rohini: So many, but just now I just finished reading Amor Towles, Rules of Civility. I really recommend the author to everyone. I don’t read… Everyone reads so less of fiction nowadays. But the book is described as agonizingly stylish and I agree with that.
0:01:13.0 Shobha: Oh, nice. Agonizingly stylish. How lovely. Okay, since we’ve come out of a very hectic Diwali season, and three years of pent up energy, chaat or mithai?
0:01:25.0 Rohini: Chaat, chaat, chaat.
0:01:27.4 Shobha: Okay, I didn’t even need to ask you. Okay, lovely, lovely. The beach or the mountain?
0:01:33.2 Rohini: Beach.
0:01:34.3 Shobha: Where would we find you on the weekend?
0:01:37.2 Rohini: With my grandson, who’s going to be six soon and teaches me more than I can teach him because he’s far gone ahead of me on knowledge about the things we both like, which is the wide world of nature.
0:01:50.6 Shobha: What a lovely teacher to have.
0:01:52.1 Rohini: No, no, he’s teaching me. He taught me about bat-eared foxes. I didn’t know they existed.
0:01:56.3 Rohini: Yeah, it’s a bit scary what kids read nowadays. Okay, so maybe, now that we’ve warmed up a bit, you’ve had an incredible journey, Rohini. 30 years in civic engagement in a world that’s fast changing. If you look back, your first foray with, what was it, Nagarik, road safety all the way through to Arghyam, EkStep, Pratham, Pratham books to where you are today, with the Rohini Nilekani Philanthropy Foundation. What are some of the focus areas and what has brought you to this point today?
0:02:32.7 Rohini: Like all of us in this room, while we didn’t grow up rich, we still grew up very privileged. My family was part of the urban middle class in Mumbai. And I feel like just being in Mumbai was a privilege. Because now when I think of it, in Mumbai, when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, we had clean running water, we had electricity, we actually had public transport, we had roads without potholes, we had safety, we could go around in the… We had art, we had culture, we had the sea, we had everything now when I think back on it. And I think that itself was a privilege. And also I was a bit of an activist do-gooder, which nobody likes, but I learned to get a little more sophisticated about it. And so it was inevitable that I would become a journalist.
0:03:22.7 Rohini: And then when I became accidentally wealthy, because Nandan became an accidental entrepreneur, I found myself being a philanthropist. So then I could, actually support all the hundreds of thousands of amazing social entrepreneurs we have in India. So that’s pretty much the journey. But I’ll add one more thing that in my family, and in those days in India, I would say generally, because I’m pretty old, and many of you are not even up to my age yet, you’ll get there. But we were always sort of the culture was service before self, simple living, high thinking. My grandfather who was the first lot that went in 1917 to Champaran when Gandhiji called for setting up an Ashram there in the Indigo agitation. He was held as the biggest person in the family to look up to. So those kind of values instilled in us is what I think got me here.
0:04:23.2 Shobha: So what are the different areas that the organization focused on?
0:04:27.6 Rohini: We support a lot of things. I support a lot of things. Nandan and I support different things. And then finally, after he lost the election and said, “Now what shall I do?” We started working together in 2014. And it’s been quite a journey. So but yeah, we support intellectual, the intellectual infrastructure of India, a lot of policy think tanks. I’m very passionately involved in environmental issues. And education has been at the very core. I also care about access to justice, very important in a country like ours. And I’m very interested in active citizenship. And that’s what I hope we’ll talk about a bit more. So these are some of the areas that we support.
0:05:12.3 Shobha: That’s brilliant. All wicked, thorny, multifaceted, multi-stakeholder problems. Like nothing simple.
0:05:17.3 Rohini: That’s why if you say, “What did you achieve?” Most philanthropists cannot tell you what they achieved because societal change is so extremely hard to bring about. And sometimes the solutions lead to the next set of problems. But you have to keep at it and keep at it and keep at it. You have to create evolvability in your approach.
0:05:35.5 Shobha: I love that. And Rohini, you’ve been…
0:05:38.5 Shobha: Definitely deserves a round of applause. What have you changed your mind about? Because it’s been a journey. You started somewhere, you find it. What have you changed your mind about?
0:05:48.1 Rohini: I think one of the first things… By the way, we have not got these questions… I had some questions, but these are not what I read.
0:05:57.5 Shobha: Evolvability, Rohini, you spoke about it.
0:06:00.2 Rohini: Something is going on here. But yeah, I think the first thing I changed my mind on was about wealth. Because as I said, in the 60s and 70s, when we grew up, we thought wealthy people are not exactly the world’s best people. Okay, I’m sorry. That’s what we used to think. The country was a bit socialist and leftist. And we thought wealthy people best stayed away from. And then I suddenly found myself wealthy and I said, oops. So then I decided that… It took me a while, but I changed my mind about wealthy people and wealth and the responsibility of wealth. The other thing I got to change my mind about, because it’s now 42 years I’m living with one man and I got to change my mind about technology because I studied the liberal arts, unlike many of you in IIM and IITs. And so I was more interested in French literature and poetry and a little bit of economics, but was a little bit skeptical about the impact technology can have on the world. But my God, I’ve changed my mind. Thanks to you. And I hope Nandan will tell you why soon.
0:07:09.7 Shobha: Brilliant, brilliant. Okay, so let’s maybe turn to this lovely book. And you guys, for those of you haven’t read it, I had to speed read it as case material as part of this, I will admit. What a delightful read. It’s 15 years of writing. Clearly, the journalist in you is doing very well in this book and all of your speeches. The thing that stuck with me is really the title. It’s a very thoughtful title. Can you tell us a little more?
0:07:34.8 Rohini: So Samaaj Sarkaar Bazaar is what I’ve been talking about for years now. But I owe that thinking, the origin of that thinking to Prem Kumar Verma, one of our partners in my foundation, Arghyam. And we were on this road trip to Bihar in the back of beyond, really. We were going towards Khagaria from Patna and that too at night, which I’m not sure is the smartest thing to do. But at that time, he told us many stories, including how, there was a massacre at a village and my friend asked, “So where was that?” Jahan pe hum jaa rahe hai wahi pe hua tha.
0:08:07.8 Rohini: So we felt even safer. And then on the way, he also talked about how he felt and he belonged to… He was a protege of JP Narayan, who started the Sampoorna Kranti revolution in India against corruption and about peaceful development. And he said, “Pehle… ” Okay, I’ll say it in English, he said, There seems to be a great imbalance in the world, because earlier Samaaj or society used to be the foundational, clearly more powerful sector, even though they were monarchs, they really didn’t interfere too much in the life of the Samaaj and society.
0:08:46.1 Rohini: But in the last two, three centuries, especially since the Industrial Revolution, the Bazaar or the markets became more and more powerful. And he used the example of the East India Company. And then in the last century, the state became incredibly powerful. And when Samaaj… And that way Samaaj got pushed back a little, and he felt that was at the root of some of the problems that we were all facing. And I found that a very powerful way of framing the question. And I started doing a lot of research on my own, and then started talking more, writing more, thinking more about Samaaj Sarkaar Bazaar. And that need for a better balance is what animates my work and philosophy. So no matter which sector we work in, the goal is how can you strengthen Samaaj? How can you strengthen Samaaj to solve much of its own problems? And by its through its moral leadership, and through its institutions, how can it hold Sarkaar and Bazaar, society… I mean, state and markets much more accountable to the wider public interest? Because sometimes we forget nowadays, we get up in the morning and we open to Amazon or we open to Google, and we immediately become customers even before we brush our teeth.
0:10:03.1 Rohini: We are doing, clicking on something. And sometimes we see ourselves as subjects of the state, rather than citizens of a society. So is there something we need to change? Is there some mental model flip that we need to make? That is my quest.
0:10:21.0 Rohini: And it’s really a quest. I’m no expert, I’m not an economist, historian. As a citizen, I believe this. And I think there’s a dialogue that needs to be had. I think we have reached peak polarization. I think people are fed up of it. I think we can all learn to build bridges, so that this discourse, what is the role of Samaaj and society in this 21st century, can be deepened across the aisle? And without cancelling anybody at all, and without any judgement at all.
0:10:52.7 Shobha: Cancelling. [laughter] Yes. I get cancelled about a few times every day. I have two teenagers in the house. There’s no navigating this the right way. Okay, so you talked about active citizenship, the role of the rich. Tell us a little more with that anecdote in Bangalore and the floods.
0:11:08.2 Rohini: So I recently… I have been writing about how all of us actually, the elite, and in Singapore it’s not true, because Singapore is such a very highly developed society, and state also, and market also. But in India, the elite, I just described this, Mumbai of the 60s and 70s, where there was not that much of a difference between the rich and the middle class. But today’s India, the elite have, over the last four or five decades, and I’m including myself very much in that, have completely seceded from all public services, right? We have our own water, electricity, transport, everything you can… Education, anything you can think of, we have seceded from the rest. We have separated from the rest. And that doesn’t bode too well for democracy at large. So I believe now, I call it the end of secession, because we know that you cannot secede from pandemics.
0:12:04.6 Rohini: You cannot secede from bad air quality. You cannot secede from floods. And so when the recent Bangalore floods happened, and many friends we know lost tens of crores of their assets, and it was really shocking for them. And so many other slum people nearby also had all their assets washed away. That’s when I wrote about the responsibility of the 1% to do a little more, because this secession of the elite has resulted in castles being built on a very weak public foundation. So we have excellent private infrastructure, but what is it built on the back off, right? A not necessarily good foundation of public services. So can we, the elite, participate in some way or the other? And there’s always scope to do a lot in India so that that public foundation, whether it is a physical infra, digital infra, in any field whatsoever, is so strong that then on top of that, wealth creation leads to elite fine. They can build their own fortresses or palaces or what have you, but on top of the foundation that everyone can benefit from. That is the argument I was making.
0:13:21.0 Shobha: Going off script again. You talk about physical and digital Samaaj.
0:13:24.0 Rohini: Yes.
0:13:25.4 Shobha: Right? And you also spoke about the role of the rich and technology. Can you elaborate just on the responsibility as we think about how Samaaj re-imagines cities and the societies we live in?
0:13:38.9 Rohini: So one of Nandan’s abiding passions… Okay, I’m not going to take over his subject. I have to restrain myself. We have to let him speak. But we are very interested in urban governance and how cities should develop in India. And we support a lot of organizations trying to do that work. Because in Bangalore, I tell you, we have the best Samaaj of urban reformers anywhere in the world. Every few inches you can trip over one reformer. And they sometimes fight with each other, but sometimes work together. And many interesting, many of the most interesting ideas on reform across the sector come, I believe, from Bangalore as a proud Bangalorean. So that’s an important thing. But also I think that the wealthy do have an extra responsibility in a country like India. And that, right now there is no backlash, great backlash against the wealthy in India as there is in many other parts of the world.
0:14:34.9 Rohini: And I think that’s because India is still a growing economy. People are still very, very hopeful about their own future. Most of India comes at the top of optimism surveys all the time. And while people can believe that there is headroom for them to grow, then they are optimistic and don’t resent what’s happening with the very unequal wealth creation that is happening around the world and in India. But that is why the wealthy have so much of a responsibility to make that base stronger. So whether it’s about livable cities, whether it’s about how people sometimes want to go back, how are we going to reimagine our agricultural economy? Because all of us urban denizens, and you know that very well in Singapore, are so dependent on other people’s products and services, just as all urban people are all over the world. So it’s a matter of great interest to us.
0:15:29.8 Shobha: So Rohini, you talk about the agricultural sector. And one of the phrases you used in the book really stuck with me. You talk about how the irony of it all, and you say how the people that struggle the most with food are ironically the ones that are the producers of food in our country. And while all of us know this instinctively, when it’s put quite like that, it really stays with you. So tell us a little more about the agricultural, the problems in that space.
0:16:00.0 Rohini: No, no, I’m not at all an expert on agriculture or food. I had written a couple of articles on it. But I would say that things have improved so much. In my childhood, we were still reading about hunger, starvation. Today also, the pandemic has certainly put a lot of people back all over the world and in India too. But at least in South India, you will not find a single hungry soul. And in much of the rest of India, there are of course going to be pockets, we have a long way to go. But in terms of… But we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Because of climate change, our food production patterns are going to change dramatically. And the government policies and the markets are going to have to keep up. So I won’t… I’m not an expert, I won’t give any further comments, except that all of us have to be worried about food, the production of food, the transportation of food, the energy and nutrition of food, not just for ourselves, but for all people around us too. And it’s an endlessly fascinating topic.
0:17:00.0 Shobha: Absolutely. So everyone in the world today is a climate expert. And I say that with this, with the heft of the topic, but also in a lighter note. What are some common misconceptions?
0:17:14.1 Rohini: So I think in India, people are feeling the climate change effect quite directly on their lives. Floods, we’ve had floods, we’ve had droughts. And people… One disaster can change the lives, as we know, of tens of millions of people. I’m very happy to support organizations like Goonj, who are there right the minute something like that happens, and have a very revolutionary approach to helping the people get back on their feet. So people are feeling climate change. And I think they will be open to a lot of policy shifts that seem to have a lot of short term trade offs. But they can see that they want their children’s lives to be better. But I had the good fortune of bumping into an old friend called Adam Warbock recently. I don’t know if any of you have heard of him. He was the youngest president of the Sierra Club. And he was quite an environmental activist and actually helped to re-green many of America’s national parks. But then he began to understand that it’s not enough to stand outside the gates and agitate. And he started to understand that we have to work especially with corporates, of course with government, but especially with corporations, if you’re going to have a real serious impact on consumption and therefore emissions and climate change.
0:18:34.0 Rohini: Today, he works with Amazon, and he works on sustainability. And there’s been so much of gloom and doom talk over the last 30 years because governments simply haven’t been able to move as fast as all of us want. Nor have we all moved fast. We haven’t particularly changed our lifestyle. But we like to tell government to move faster than the Samaj can because that’s okay. But the best thing he told me was how companies like Amazon, for example, he said something I didn’t know that Amazon is 75% using renewable energy in its supply chain. And he said something that really made me think. We haven’t yet realized that this is some… Humanity’s most important task that humanity has ever taken up together to reverse 300 years of putting carbon into space. And he says we don’t think of it but we are on the track. It’s not yet visible but we are on the track. And I was telling him how grandparents always feel bad ki hamare grand-child ka life kaise hoga, when we are gone.
0:19:37.7 Rohini: And he says, “You know, I believe that in your grandson’s life around 2060-2070, you will have less carbon in the air than we have today. He says so many good things are happening.” And of course that doesn’t mean all of us can now pack up go home and buy our next blingy thing like how I’m wearing. But that we have to keep at it, work at it, look at our own lives, look at what we can support what policy work we can support what action we can support on the ground so that Adam’s predictions for my grandson’s 60th birthday can come true.
0:20:12.3 Shobha: What a lovely uplifting thought. So on that note, Rohini, let the journalist in you fly high. What question do you have for this group of overseas Indians?
0:20:23.8 Rohini: Yeah. So I’m very happy to be in Singapore and thank you all for coming here. So I think I’m the warm-up act but let’s see what what the rockstar has to say.
0:20:34.6 Shobha: No, no, no. Not yet. It’s what question. We’re going to reverse the panel and ask this group.
0:20:38.2 Rohini: So I’m very happy to ask you questions. So Singapore has very different issues than of course India has. But from your perspective what is the best way that you can give back to the mother country.
0:20:54.6 Shobha: Okay. Now your chance for all of you in the seats over there.
0:20:58.8 Rohini: And I know you all do a lot. We always want you to do more. That’s the problem. Dil Mange More.
0:21:05.8 Shobha: So what can this Samaj do back for India?
0:21:15.3 Rohini: I think you’ll have to volunteer somebody.
0:21:18.2 Shobha: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure, this is not a shy crowd. Yeah there. Yes.
0:21:27.4 Rohini: Can you introduce yourself?
0:21:27.6 Shobha: Yeah, your name please.
0:21:28.2 Speaker 3: My name is Tarun Mathur. I’ve been based in Singapore for 17 years. I spent 18 years working in India. Worked in technology, so engineering and then technology as background. But sometimes when I look back and I want to do things, I’m actually at loss. I don’t know where to contribute. I think I can contribute with knowledge. I don’t think money is the issue. It’s probably what you can do with that. So it’s where do I contribute? What cause do I contribute? Because there are so many of them. So frankly someone like me is actually lost. I do want to do something, I don’t know what to do and I’m like… I’m just being very candid and maybe there…
0:22:05.5 Rohini: Isn’t Bridgeable there exactly for that purpose?
0:22:09.2 Rohini: Shobha, where are you? So you just contact him immediately.
0:22:11.3 Shobha: Will become a jugalbandi now. Yes. Tanuj, we know where to find you.
0:22:15.5 Rohini: And by the way sir your money is also welcome.
0:22:20.5 Shobha: Nicely done. Okay.
0:22:21.4 Rohini: There are so many organizations that can go so far with a little extra funding and especially if you give to those organizations… You know, I have found in my 30 years if I start with trust I end up with trust on all sides. So if you can just let go a little and if you can give unrestricted support, it could be in any area of your choice, anything whatsoever. There are civil society organizations working across the board. But with a little trust and with a lot of heart unrestricted support in an area that you like, and Shobha is going to give you a list of organizations in any area you like to support and I’ll help you with that.
0:23:00.5 Shobha: Thank you for that Tanuj. I think we have a response here as well.
0:23:04.2 Speaker 4: So mine’s the exact opposite of that. I’m just so clear about what I exactly want, but I’m just wondering if this is a good time to make a funding pitch to you?
0:23:16.2 Rohini: Oh! What do you think?
0:23:19.2 Rohini: See, people who really want to make a funding pitch never ask whether it’s the right time.
0:23:28.2 S4: So here we go. Here we go. I think in the past you’ve supported anode governance. Am I right?
0:23:34.6 Rohini: E-governance? Anode? Oops. Maybe it’s possible, sometimes I don’t remember because there are literally dozens of organizations.
0:23:45.9 S4: Okay, so I think that the more generic one would be that I think we can contribute best by our expertise because, of course, money is always welcome. But I think the most fulfilling way to contribute is by our expertise. Some of us have made some attempts to do that. I spent five years in India after spending 10 years here and worked in the social sector and so on. I think there are some organizational capability strengthening institution building amongst the social sector. Here for example, we get the opportunity to do that with the National Council for Social Service.
0:24:29.7 Rohini: Right.
0:24:31.2 S4: We’re on several huge projects supporting several nonprofits that are doing that. We have the expertise. We just want to find a way to be able to do that viably in India.
0:24:40.7 Rohini: Yeah. I think that now a lot of intermediary institutions that have come up like ISDM and that we’d love to hear from some of you as to how you can give your time to bring managerial expertise to, especially to NGOs that have ambitions to scale. So thank you.
0:24:57.4 Shobha: So scaling.
0:25:00.2 Rohini: You know anyone could ask me questions either.
0:25:01.0 Shobha: Yeah, I was going to say now we could probably.
0:25:02.9 Speaker 5: Am I allowed to?
0:25:03.9 Shobha: Yeah.
0:25:04.8 S5: After you.
0:25:09.2 Shobha: Go ahead. Deepa.
0:25:10.6 Deepa: Hello. Hi ma’am. We met outside.
0:25:13.7 Rohini: Yes.
0:25:14.3 Deepa: So I just want to say that my way of contributing has been to work for women who’ve taken a career break and this is what our organization does.
0:25:25.5 Rohini: Fantastic.
0:25:26.5 Deepa: So women in India. What I do feel of course there is we are just scratching the tip of the iceberg and I do want us to do more for the girl child. Because that’s where it all starts. Right? So gender conditioning starts very early. So I think that’s something, it’s like a vision or a dream. We want to get there as well.
0:25:50.0 Rohini: Fantastic. All the best. Just just for your information, unusually my gender portfolio is to do with young men and boys, because I do believe that men are in crisis around the world, especially young men. And while there’s obviously a lot to do for women’s empowerment, I think there’s not been enough public policy orientation toward what’s happening to young males, and research after research and some of our own research is showing us how insecure they feel, how nervous they feel, how aggression is the only learnt response some of them have, how they don’t have enough role models, how they are nervous when they see their sisters, girlfriends, even mothers sometimes having more career opportunities than they have, they’re getting confused and they need support. And if we want gender equity, if we want all genders to be working and living peacefully together, I think the world needs to pay some careful attention to what’s happening to young males.
0:26:50.8 Shobha: Brilliant.
0:26:51.6 Rohini: So along with your work, there’s something for you all to think about.
0:26:55.1 Shobha: The culture of equality brings both together. Can we switch now from the reverse panel to a question please. Can we get a set of questions for Rohini? What questions do we have? There gosh, look at how many hands are up. There’s Anand, I think a few more.
0:27:06.9 Rohini: I would expect nothing less from this audience. I think Suresh wanted to ask something.
0:27:16.1 Shobha: Yeah. Suresh?
0:27:17.6 Nimisha: Can you hear me?
0:27:17.7 Rohini: Okay good.
0:27:18.8 Nimisha: So on the first leg of this…
0:27:21.4 Rohini: Please introduce yourself. It’s always nice to have a name.
0:27:22.2 Nimisha: Okay, I’m Nimisha.
0:27:25.0 Rohini: Hi Nimisha.
0:27:25.1 Nimisha: I’m an adjunct faculty at a university in Singapore.
0:27:28.6 Rohini: Wonderful.
0:27:28.9 Nimisha: So I’ve just started this journey of structured grant giving in India. I work in the field of autism. So to support the community of people on the spectrum and their caregivers. So the biggest challenge I think is finding the right people as others have pointed out. And the problem I face is that there are many many there. But if you see your organizations like Yugantar and Mahila Sanatkar that you support, they are being supported by all the same big charities Tata Trust, you call it the Ford Foundation, Azim Premji, all the same. So how do you basically find untapped deserving beneficiaries. And do you have a vetting process. How do you make sure that they are the most deserving. I mean, for us sitting here in Singapore, yes I will be making frequent trips, but how do I make sure?
0:28:22.2 Rohini: Yeah. So you have to go through the intermediary organizations like GiveIndia, and there are going to be several more coming up. Dasara is there. We are just setting up something called Accelerate Indian Giving. So all these people are going to support, and I’ve been asking some of them to focus on diaspora giving. So hopefully all that will happen in the near future. But you’re right that the smaller organizations even for us it’s very hard to find them. In autism, there is… In all these spectrum disorders, there’s so much work to do. And right now, I wouldn’t even worry about if you find an organization and if you feel even a semblance of comradeship with the person who is heading that organization, just give a little amount and see what happens because I found even in the gender space when I started working on something nobody had supported before, we started with one organization, we have now landed up with 16 and more coming. So you start somewhere. Don’t worry about, just start with any one organization and that will bring you the next and the next opportunities. So just go for it. There’s no perfect answer anyway.
0:29:28.5 Shobha: Okay. I think there’s a question back there.
0:29:32.6 Harsh Modi: Hi. My name is Harsh Modi. I am B2004. I got lucky, got into IIM. My younger brother, he runs a startup in India training teachers in primary, for pre primary kids. Now, he has been at it for a decade, but the problem he faces consistently is a lot of graft at government level, anganwadi training teachers. Lot of people are unwilling to look at the social aspect as in at the implementation level and basically look at what’s in for them. Now and this is a real world issue which and I’ve been really frustrated. I’ve been working, funding his startup for the last decade. So I know you have access but for people who are budding social entrepreneurs, how do we cut across that implementation issues and really make an impact? Thanks.
0:30:36.1 Rohini: Thank you. I hear you. I hear your frustration and I acknowledge it. I’m just a little surprised that as a social entrepreneur you encountered or your brother encountered graft especially in that space. So offline, we’ll need to know more. Just today, I met Aziz Gupta, a young entrepreneur of Rocket Learning who’s really scaled up work with 0-6 age group working with government, with the Ministry of Child Welfare, with the education departments, and we need in India to really put a lot more effort into foundational learning because that’s going to secure India’s future of work of livelihoods etcetera. And in fact he found everything to be going smoothly for him. I’m very sorry for that experience that y’all have had, but I have not seen graft being an issue in this space. So something particular must have happened. I’ll be happy to talk about it offline.
0:31:31.5 Shobha: Thanks for that Rohini. Okay, so just shifting track, we’ll come back to a few more questions in a minute. Balancing the personal and professional. It’s obviously been a journey. What has your learning been in trying to balance the two?
0:31:49.3 Rohini: I think the main thing is if you are and I’m sure you all know this personally that if your professional life and your personal life and interests are too diverse from each other, you can create unhappiness for yourself. So for at least for Nandan and me, our professional life and our private life, our personal life is not that separate. So we think about the same issues in our personal life and our professional life. So we’ve been very lucky that it’s kind of seamless. Like it’s not like the Americans who separate that Monday to Friday and the weekend like things that will never meet. And that I think creates all the issues. So we are very privileged to be able to say that it’s been aligned. But having said that of course in your… There is always the desire for the being alone with yourself so that you can think and then you can absorb the mysteries of the universe. So we’re lucky to get that time as well. I do that by disappearing into the forest. And during the pandemic, I was away for 80 days. Nandan was quite happy with this situation. And I went I would stay in Kabini, searching for the illusive Black Panther.
0:33:03.3 Shobha: And that was successful?
0:33:04.7 Rohini: At the end yes, on December 18, 2020, after five years of searching for this Kariya as he’s called, I finally found him.
0:33:12.0 Shobha: How lovely. How lovely. Okay. So one more question. You have been recently awarded the most Generous Woman Giver with 120 crores in ’21-’22 alone. What defines your philosophy of giving?
0:33:27.9 Rohini: See it takes time to learn how to give well as some of you already expressed right. It’s not so easy. So it’s been a bumpy journey. First when I came into wealth, for the first time, I came into wealth 100 crores which at that time seemed like a mountain of money. And I decided to put it all into my foundation because I didn’t think we needed it in our personal life. So when I got my first chunk of wealth, I just put it all into Arghyam. And then of course, as I said, the way the economy is structured, the wealthy make more wealth while they are sleeping than most entrepreneurs used to make in their whole lifetime. So we then, we became more and more wealthy and had to learn to give more and more away faster and faster.
0:34:10.6 Rohini: And so we became more ambitious and took more risk and had more trust in people, ideas, and institutions and that’s how it’s been going on. That’s the philosophy. Trust in good ideas, good individuals, and good institutions and let go of a little bit of control. And that’s when you find the opportunities to give more.
0:34:34.2 Shobha: Okay. That’s very insightful. Trust in ideas and institutions over time. Okay. You talk a little bit about Bazaar and how important it is. You gave the Amazon example, we wake up and do the click, click, click. Can you elaborate a bit on what needs to change there so that Bazaar can actually help balance that equilibrium across Samaj, Sarkar, and Bazaar.
0:34:55.4 Rohini: So I think all of us know. See, we all have multiple identities but when you go to sleep, all those identities have to get stripped and you are a human being first and a citizen next. And of course you may be a father or a mother too. But I think we get sometimes confused about those identities in our day jobs. We forget how much at our core we are citizens when we go into our corporate selves. And I think that alignment has to be returned. And it’s happening again survey after survey says young people don’t want to work for companies that don’t have an expressed purpose to improve the world. And I think that change is very essential. So as I say sometimes in the book and I often say that when even at, especially in the Bazaar in your corporate avatars, there’s so much change you all can do for the better by making the smallest of differences.
0:35:52.6 Rohini: And if we have those conversations in the workplace, I think aligning purpose and profit can happen better. But we have to wake up and think about it very deeply and not just at a surface level. And we know that capitalism has always evolved and tried to change based on the resistances it has found. And we’re seeing that happen. We’re seeing so much of conscious capitalism, stakeholder capitalism, all kinds of capitalism nuances coming into the marketplace. And Nick Stern said that climate change is actually market failure. And I think the market has woken up to that sense of failure and wants to find new opportunities in reversing that failure. So that’s the first thing I think all of us have to keep that conversation at the dinner table. It’s not something you forget about when you come home from work.
0:36:46.6 Shobha: So keeping it active and being conscious about it. Okay. Back to the floor. A couple of questions. There was a gentleman back there and I think there was someone… Yeah. So I don’t know who’s handing out the mic. If I could just request you please. I think we have a question back there and here right in the middle as well.
0:37:02.2 Azira: Hi. Azira here. Till this evening a bigger fan of your husband than you. But I promise to go back and read the book. My question to you is on active citizenry. So we see quite a bit of people coming together in times of crisis. So whether it be the Kerala floods or whether it be the COVID crisis, you had entire NRIs, Indians, educated people coming together giving in money, giving in effort, intellect etcetera. How do we see that panning out throughout the year to different causes?
0:37:36.2 Rohini: Yeah. I know it’s an important question because it’s easy to do something in a crisis and then forget about it. But as we see you know the short term and the long term is merging. So you’re going to have, everything seems to… Crises seem to roll about. But I at least have had the great fortune to support dozens of young leaders who are pulling together young citizens of India to solve their own hyper local problems. For example Reap Benefit and they create something called Solve Ninjas and they have 50,000 Solve Ninjas around the country who look at some local problem and activate citizens around them to solve some problem. It could be about water, it could be about some public infrastructure, it could be of education or fixing a school. There are all kinds of things that they do. Similarly, I can give you several examples. So I think people are actually putting a little part of their everyday time into this because it makes them feel very good. I met many of those volunteers. It gives them great purpose and satisfaction and it’s part of belonging to a club of people like them. So it’s moving from the once in a while to the everyday among a section of young people and that’s what we try to support.
0:38:48.3 Rohini: Also, retail giving in India has been growing by the leaps and bounds. 300 crores of money was given in just a short period during COVID by absolutely ordinary citizens who are not even used to giving that kind of money before. And today, there are a lot more people doing small giving through events like Daan Utsav which is held from October 2nd to October 9th every year. So it’s not just giving their time but also their money on a routine basis. I think that’s the best news I can give you all.
0:39:25.1 Shobha: Thank you for that question. I think we have a question back there. Is the mic not working? Do you want to just try speaking out loud? I think we’re in a small enough environment.
0:39:39.2 Gautam: My name is Gautam. As you can see, I’m at the last bench and sitting on an orange chair, so I never made it to the IIM. But I’m part of another wonderful group called [0:39:51.5] ____ BI.
0:39:51.6 Rohini: Yes.
0:39:51.7 Gautam: So my question is actually a follow up and that’s not a question. How do you monitor and look at compliance and do last mile, we can all give, but how do you ensure that it reaches the right person? Are there processes in places? Are there steps being taken to ensure that the money or the charity goes to the right person?
0:40:14.7 Rohini: So in my 30 years I haven’t encountered too much fraud or wastage of money. We do simple due diligence of course. I wouldn’t just give to anybody and nor would you. But with just simple diligence, I think you can prevent. I know you are far away, so you feel that. So you need a partner organization perhaps, the intermediary organization. They do a lot of diligence. And because of technology coming in and because of government requiring a lot more reporting and monitoring feedback, much of those old kind of practices have dwindled away. So today, I think you can be more confident.
0:40:53.4 Gautam: I think the point I was trying to make was in Singapore when we give to charity, it’s visible. You can walk into a hospital and you know that you can utilize some of the benefits or the grants that the government gives or a charity organization.
0:41:08.0 Rohini: Right.
0:41:10.6 Gautam: I guess that’s where I was coming from.
0:41:12.9 Rohini: So Gautam, if you were to give say scholarships or something, you could easily trace that. If you were to give to building a hospital or a school or a bridge, you could easily trace that. My question is how will you always be able to trace things that are invisible to define, invisible to measure, which are sometimes the most important things we need to do in a society. How will you measure agency of people that has changed from feeling hapless, helpless, hopeless to feeling capable of solving their own problems. There are no easy metrics for those kinds of things. But for the other things, sure. In Pratham Books, we knew exactly and by the way, Vidya, it’s not 21 languages. I retired from Pratham Books and an even better team has taken over and it’s not 21 languages. The Story Beaver platform is open to the world. A hundred million reads have been had on the platform and it’s in 303 languages because the people of the world have contributed.
0:42:13.3 Rohini: So that’s easily trackable. And if you like metrics then it’s okay. You can give to things where you can easily trace every rupee that you put in because that kind of work is also happening at scale in India now.
0:42:27.0 Shobha: So Rohini, one final question. I’m conscious of time. What continues to excite you about the world we live in?
0:42:36.2 Rohini: I think faith and hope are necessary things. And I get my hope and faith from the people that I meet in India. And oh God that sounds like a terrible cliche. It sounds like, it’s like the answer that Miss World they say what do you believe in.
0:42:55.9 Shobha: You’re winning. You’re winning Rohini. [laughter]
0:42:58.2 Rohini: No. No but honestly I live also with a man who’s an optimist, quite sometimes irritatingly optimistic. But I can say, it’s infectious. But what’s most infectious is definitely, definitely you go out in the field, you see people giving so much of themselves to change the world and you come back and say, Yeah I can do it too. And then my grandchild for his sake. I wake up wanting the world to be just a little better every day. And then we have great teams and great people all around us so we get motivated continuously.
0:43:36.2 Shobha: What a brilliantly uplifting close. Thank you Rohini for a wonderful conversation. Vidya?