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Rohini Nilekani’s Keynote at DH Changemakers

Civil Society | Feb 1, 2021

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote talk at DH Changemakers, an annual feature by Deccan Herald to honour people who make a difference in Karnataka.

What do we mean when we talk about change? We all know that change is the only constant in our lives. Change keeps happening, but I think as we get older we come to realise that change is the rule, but it does not need to be our ruler. We can embrace change without getting swept away by it. This past year is a perfect example of how humanity had to cope with so much change. Anthropologists, scientists, and evolutionary biologists all tell us that human beings can’t change easily. But within a matter of months, nearly two billion people learnt how to cover their faces with a mask to prevent a virus from infecting them. We were able to change and adapt to our circumstances very rapidly. So each one of us has had a marvellous year of learning how to deal with change. Of course, a lot of people suffered tremendously which we mustn’t forget. But to me, change represents an opportunity. When something is not right, that’s when we use the opportunity to create change. My philanthropy is based on the optimism that there are many people in the world that want to be changemakers and we must support them so that we can collectively create positive change.

All of us wear many different hats and sometimes we think we can have different perspectives when we wear different hats. But I actually don’t believe that. I think there needs to be a single, unifying principle through all your identities. This does not mean that we can’t change our minds though, otherwise I don’t think we can make progress in this world, either personally or as societies. So I have learnt how to change my mind because when we are younger, we are full of hubris. I thought I knew everything – I soon found out that I don’t know anything at all. I had to keep my mind open and allow my world views to change as I learnt more about the world. It’s important to keep your mind open enough that you can change it in response to change, and I’ve tried my best to do that. This has been challenging in my experience. I was brought up in a middle-class family and all the stories I was told were about selfless service, simple living, and high thinking. In college, I was a bit of a leftist and an activist, so when we suddenly came into a lot of wealth later, I was not ready for it. As a shareholder of Infosys, we became more wealthy than we ever thought was possible, and to deal with that change took years for me. I had to change my mindset and view this wealth as an opportunity for me to help people change the world as they see fit.

When I look at this year’s 21 changemakers that have been chosen, I feel extremely hopeful. My philosophy is that all of us must work together to create a good Samaaj or society. These 21 people are perfect examples of this, where they are not waiting for someone else to create change for them. They don’t want to remain part of a problem, they want to be part of the solution. For that, I salute them because that’s exactly how we create a good society. To me, a good society is the foundation for all human progress. What they do next will depend upon their ambition, persistence, commitment and the circumstances and opportunities that come their way. But I hope that each one of them will continue to draw in other people to expand their work, so that even if they and their organisations don’t scale, their ideas and their mission for society continues to scale.

If changemakers have the ambition and the desire to create a large impact and if they are able to collect the resources for it, they should be able to achieve that goal. Inaction is never a good thing, you must continue to try. With any project, the goal is never to just mindlessly scale, that won’t work. But if you have a passion in your heart and a fire burning in you to improve on something in your communities, you may attract many others to your cause. I think people should connect with other changemakers to widen the impact that is possible. Rather than chasing scale for its own sake, I would urge young changemakers to say, “Even if my organisation doesn’t scale, even if my effort alone doesn’t grow, how can I keep connecting more dots so that my ambition and my mission for society can scale?” That’s how we should approach this challenge. My team has come up with something called Societal Platform Thinking, which tackles the challenges of getting impact at scale by distributing the ability to solve. For example, if one individual or organisation is able to make a difference, they can share their story and methods so that others can also take up what they are doing – that is a way in which scale can happen. So there are many pathways to scale and we must aim for more impact through more action.

Some questions to keep in mind then are ‘Why and with whom are we trying to scale?’ and ‘Are we keeping our core values while scaling?’ It’s a very challenging thing to do – I liken it to a small child growing up and the problems that parents have to face become more complex in the process. Just like parents, we have to face these problems and sometimes we will fail, sometimes we will succeed, but we must face them head on. We should know what our core values are and that those should not change, so each new member joining our team when we want to scale should share those clearly articulated values and goals. This reduces the risk of sudden scale. Throughout my 30 years of working in the philanthropy space, I’ve had to deal with scale and I’ve tried to abstract the lessons by which we can scale in the proper way.

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