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Romesh Wadhwani | Philanthropy in India is not proportional to wealth here

New Delhi: In the concluding part of Mint’s “Joy of Giving Week” interview series, Romesh Wadhwani, chairman, Wadhwani Foundation, and founder, Symphony Technology Group, speaks about his philanthropic foundation and his views on the state of Indian philanthropy today.

What is the aim of the Wadhwani Foundation?

The mission is to accelerate economic development with a primary focus on India. The idea was that the foundation would launch a major initiative every two years, each would have a major impact on the economic development in India and each could be leveraged, in the sense that we would act as the catalyst to take it to scale, but then look to others to take it to an even larger scale.

We started with entrepreneurship and the acceleration of first generation entrepreneurs. The idea was that entrepreneurship is by far the most important driver of economic development in any economy and by creating a whole new generation of potential entrepreneurs, we could create thousands of new companies and millions of new jobs.

It was intended to be a 15-year initiative and we are in the eighth year now. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will achieve our objective. Our second initiative was vocational training for the disabled. Our third was skills colleges, the fourth is innovation and fifth is policy.

What inspired you to start it?

Growth booster: Wadhwani says entrepreneurship is by far the most important driver of economic development in any economy.

I feel that India lacks a level of philanthropy that is proportional to the wealth that is here, particularly among the top 5,000 industrialists and entrepreneurs. You have some extraordinary examples of philanthropy, the Tatas, Mahindras, Azim Premji, but that is just a handful of exceptions, and the other 5,000 are relatively unfocused or uninterested in the whole area of philanthropy.

My thought was that if guys like me, who have had the great benefits of education at an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) in India and the good fortune to succeed in business in the US, it would be a real shame if we didn’t apply that wealth and that imagination and our time to really improve the lives of the needy in India. So, from the beginning, I felt that there is a higher burden and level of obligation that guys like us need to think about and it means that we can’t just give money, we have to give time. We can’t do small scale, we can’t do average, we have to do the extraordinary.

How important is connecting with the government and existing private institutions for scaling philanthropic projects?

No one is an island. All these entities that drive economic development are interconnected in one sense or another. There is a huge public role in economic development that needs to be played, and is sometimes played, by central government and state governments, but they can only do so much. They need bright ideas and the private sector and individuals to participate in the agenda. So ultimately, the best form is a public-private partnership (PPP), where ideas can come from either the private or the public sector, but the execution of the idea is done by the PPP.

I’m a strong believer in PPPs, whether it’s with government, or an IIT, or other private institution. For example, in our skills development initiative, we are working with the human resource development ministry and we are developing a partnership with them. In disability, we fund other foundations such as the American India Foundation and partner with them.

Do you believe that philanthropic models ought to be organized and run like businesses?

To make an impact at scale, you have to have an organization similar in quality and competence that you would find in a private enterprise, you need to have processes and tools like a large private enterprise, you have to have imagination and philosophy and the measurement of outcome with the same level of rigour and discipline as you would in a private enterprise.

The only difference is that you are doing this pro bono, not for profit, to give back; but giving back must be done in an organized way.

How much influence do you think the philanthropic models of the West will have on India?
I think the tradition of philanthropy is far better developed in the US than in India, as is the whole notion of giving away 50% of your wealth while you are still living and not waiting till you’re gone. That is a major new way of thinking about philanthropy that they have clearly enunciated.

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I have committed to giving away 80% of my wealth, much of it in India, but also in other countries. But it’s not just about the money. Bill Gates doesn’t just say, ‘I’ll give these NGOs (non-governmental organizations) $10 million each and they can do their own thing’. He had an idea of focusing on public health and he’s making a difference there. The Wadhwani Foundation has picked economic development and the creation of jobs as our theme and the initiatives we start all fit that theme.

The number of possible areas is so vast that everyone who has a conscience and wants to help can pick their own theme, their own percentage of wealth to give. It doesn’t have to be 50%, but it’s got to be more than zero, and it’s got to be more than money.

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