From donating a billion dollars of his personal wealth to philanthropy to pushing the education agenda in the country to, now, helping accelerate development in rural India, he is giving both time and money to causes bigger than himself
Shiv Nadar is a restless man these days. The chairman of the $6.3 billion HCL Technologies has been preoccupied with his self-admittedly most ambitious project yet and, he says, he can’t seem to get a handle on it. “I just can’t seem to figure it out,” says Nadar, promoter of India’s fourth-largest software company. “It”, in this case, is Samudhay, the latest initiative from the Shiv Nadar Foundation, the philanthropy organisation started by Nadar in 1994. He confesses that he doesn’t remember spending as much time on any of his big-ticket IT projects as he has on this one. “I spend a minimum of three hours every day thinking about this,” he says.
And here’s why Samudhay is presenting such a challenge: The initiative is a grand plan to develop a replicable model of development for villages across five critical parameters—education, employability, health, infrastructure and water. According to Nadar, “This is the biggest project anyone has ever dared to do in our country.”
But, like any astute businessman, Nadar is taking inspiration from his primary domain of expertise—in his case, the IT industry. “Have you heard of crowdsourcing?” he asks Forbes India. “We will use this process (of getting work done or drawing inputs from a crowd of people) to find the best NGOs in the country, whether large or small, learn about the work they are doing and apply their best ideas to this project.”
In other words, Nadar is searching for a tried-and-tested development model that can be applied across villages. “Reinventing the wheel delays development but if we can find an already successful model, we can achieve results in a shorter time frame,” says Nadar, who is ranked 7th on the 2014 Forbes India Rich List.
Unfortunately, in India there is little record of work done by NGOs. This means Nadar’s team is creating its own database. But it will be worth it, the team says. “This is so that we can learn from them [the NGOs] instead of doing things from scratch,” says Nadar.
Work on Samudhay started around six months ago. The project team has visited at least 20 underdeveloped villages in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Odisha to understand various development models. “There is an NGO called Atmashakti Trust which works with tribals in Odisha. We went and stayed in villages where the trust operates to get a first-hand experience of the issues there,” says Navpreet Kaur, officer on special duty in the office of the chairman, HCL Technologies, who is closely involved with the Samudhay project.
For instance, on the provision of clean drinking water, the team is studying NGOs that have done exemplary work in that domain. Those learnings will help Samudhay arrive at a model that can be implemented in any village across the country. “Research and discovery is on. We will find a source code (replicable model) and, depending on the condition of the village, we will implement it with a few changes here and there [to the code],” says Kaur.
Nadar elaborates on this concept by comparing it to his two-year-old grandson’s Lego set. “You can make a truck or a train out of a Lego. Our model will work the same way,” he says.
Given the scale of the project—across 120 villages in the western region of the state—Shiv Nadar Foundation will not only work with NGOs but also join forces with the UP government to implement Samudhay. The state is an obvious starting point for the project as HCL is headquartered in Noida, UP, and almost all of Nadar’s philanthropic work has been primarily concentrated in that region.
A memorandum of understanding is in the process of being signed wherein the UP government will fund the project while the foundation will provide the technical know-how. “We have discussed this with UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav because we wanted their political co-operation,” says Nadar, adding that he has no political affiliation. “I don’t and never will.”
The UP government is excited about the project, says DK Srivastava, president-human resources, HCL Corporation Pvt Ltd, who is working on this project with Nadar. “Every state wants to showcase itself as the most developed state,” says Srivastava. “We can’t construct roads or toilets but we can show the government how to get it right.”
NGOs such as Atmashakti Trust, Pratham and Biocon Foundation are already on board and the foundation is in talks with more potential partners. And, strengthened by these associations, in the next three to five years, it expects to find solutions to the manifold issues it is—quite ambitiously—hoping to fix.
Samudhay isn’t a project Nadar dreamt of overnight. While his philanthropic work has been largely focussed on education, he was always cognisant of the many other ills that needed remedies. “It is something that was always there at the back of his mind and he has finally decided that the time is right for it,” points out Srivastava.
Nadar, in November this year, revealed that he had committed a billion dollars (around Rs 6,000 crore) of his personal wealth to the foundation to be spent within 3-5 years. In the last 20 years, the foundation has spent around Rs 3,000 crore. The remaining amount will be utilised over the next few years.
Education was a natural priority for Nadar because he considers himself a product of education. (He studied engineering on scholarship from PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore.) “Education is a multiplier. In any education institution we create, we continue the multiplication process for years to come,” says Nadar. And from building an engineering college, a university and a higher secondary school to working with primary schools, his foundation is walking his talk.
As with any personality-driven venture, Nadar has been central to his foundation’s existence. But he is clear that he doesn’t want it to remain under his shadow. Instead, he wants to see it grow into an institution that will outlive him. “Philanthropy is not just about writing cheques. It is about building an organisation that has governance, accountability and transparency,” says Nadar. “We have built all this to go on.”
Adding another layer of professionalism to it, last year for the first time, the foundation published its annual report with details about its management, its initiatives and success rate as well as its audited accounts. “Top companies are usually governed well and are totally transparent,” says Nadar. “We believe we set the highest transparency standards in HCL and we want to bring the same level of clarity to the foundation.”
He hopes others will follow suit. “There are 3.4 million NGOs in India. It is very difficult to know who is doing what. If you want to donate to someone, there should be some basis for doing that,” says Nadar.
His philosophy is also espoused by his daughter, Roshni Nadar Malhotra, who is a keen participant in the foundation’s activities. She too emphasises that the only way to make an institution last is by setting up systems and putting processes in place. “This is why we have a lot of people in HCL Corporation involved in the foundation because they bring in the corporate approach. It is the bedrock of any organisation. It doesn’t matter if the company is Rs 100 or $18 million in size. If it doesn’t have a framework, it will fall apart,” says Nadar.
Roshni is a trustee at Shiv Nadar Foundation and executive director and CEO of HCL Corporation. She is also a director on the board of HCL Technologies. Earlier, Shiv Nadar and Roshni had jointly decided that she would not assume an operational role in the publicly listed company, HCL Technologies. “Roshni is a director on HCL Technologies but she will run it as a member of the board. She is a part of the governance but not of operations,” says Nadar.
Roshni, in any case, has her hands full as chairperson of the Vidyagyan Management Board which runs two Vidyagyan schools, one each in Bulandshahr and Sitapur in UP. This is an initiative started by the foundation in 2009 to handpick the brightest students from 100,000 rural government primary schools in 75 districts of UP and provide them with free world-class education. It is a residential school and has 1,400 students across the two campuses.
B Banerjee, principal of the school in Bulandshahr, says Roshni pays close attention to the smallest details. Take, for instance, uniform design. And her passionate involvement is comforting for her father. “You need someone to spend time on philanthropy,” Nadar says. This is a lesson Nadar learnt from the founders of PSG College. PSG & Sons Charities Trust, established in 1926, has set up many educational institutions, one of which is PSG College of Technology where Nadar studied. “The founders of the trust have a rule that in every generation, one person in the family will give up business-related work and devote time to the institutions run by the trust,” says Nadar. “It is an excellent practice which inspires us.”
He especially attributes this impact to PSG’s founder GR Damodaran. Recognising that publicly, “on the birth centenary of GR Damodaran, we instituted a scholarship in his name because he had a profound influence on me,” says Nadar.
And, like Damodaran, Nadar wants to create prestigious educational institutions. “We aspire to be a Carnegie or a Rockefeller,” says Roshni. “By the time we become that famous, we will all be gone. But the aim is that 100 years from now, we will be dead but the institutions set up by us will live on. The only way a foundation will outlive its founders is if it can function without us.”
In many ways, Roshni has been a catalyst for the leap of faith taken by Nadar in his thrust towards education. “My father has always felt that apart from IIT, there are few universities and schools that are aspirational in India,” says Roshni. “Our foundation had set up SSN College of Engineering 20 years ago which, today, is a reputed college. But apart from that, we didn’t have anything.”
The other initiatives started after 2009, when Roshni returned from the US. Once she was back, the foundation set up the Vidyagyan, Shiksha and Shiv Nadar schools.
TV Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education, says Shiv Nadar has delivered because of the corporate approach he brings to philanthropy. He particularly acknowledges how the Shiv Nadar Foundation has focussed on providing high quality education to children in rural areas. “You need to have a different kind of pedagogy for people who come from rural areas,” says Pai. And Nadar’s success in that context has been remarkable, he adds.
“I think my father was able to launch so many initiatives because the family was willing to commit to the Shiv Nadar Foundation,” points out Roshni. Her husband Shikhar Neelkamal Malhotra is the CEO of Shiv Nadar School and a trustee of the foundation and her mother Kiran Nadar is a trustee and chairperson of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. “Once we became involved, my father’s approach to philanthropy became all about creating institutions,” says Roshni. Institutions take years to build, “but if people are there to take things forward, we can look at a long-term vision”. .
For Nadar, this vision extends beyond the idea of creating prestigious institutions. “This project, Samudhay, is going to consume us,” says Nadar, who, in fact, is quite pleased to be burdened with it. His colleague Kaur reveals that Nadar can’t stop talking about the project. “There was a time when my wake-up call at 8 am would be from him,” Kaur says, “with some idea about Samudhay.”
Nadar’s obsession is understandable. Samudhay’s goals appear almost unachievable. For instance, the 10-point agenda includes targets such as 90 percent enrolled children must complete class X; 90 percent reduction in infant and child mortality rates; and access to toilets and solar power for all households. “Our wish list is very high,” admits Srivastava.
But his boss is not worried. “In the movie, Entrapment, Sean Connery says, ‘It is impossible but doable’,” recalls Nadar laughingly. “I would say the same about Samudhay.”