Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Purpose of Wealth

In the past few years, business leaders have created enormous wealth for their shareholders and for themselves. Is there a way to now use that wealth to solve complex social problems?

Published: Nov 19, 2009 11:45:32 PM IST
Updated: Nov 20, 2009 03:12:22 PM IST

Mehmood Khan grew up in Mewat, Haryana, one of the most backward districts in the country. Hard work and native intelligence took him to London, headquarters to consumer products giant Unilever, where he was head of global innovation. While there, he decided to use his network and business skills to help pull out the 4 million-odd residents of Mewat out of the boondocks. So he networked with IBM, Future Group and Mother Diary among others to build local enterprise using local talent.

He focussed on women in a district where female literacy levels were an abysmal 2-3 percent. After six to seven years of convincing young girls to make school a habit, literacy levels have shot up to 86 percent in the six to 14 age group. Along the way, he discovered large swathes of rural customers who, he believed, held value that could be unlocked.

When we first wrote on Khan in June this year, it was clear the story had struck a chord. It was widely circulated among his alumni at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Khan says he was flooded with offers to help via SMS, email and phone calls from all over the world.

Shortly after Manmohan Singh’s government was re-elected in May, Khan reckoned it was time for some serious soul-searching. A few months later, he opted to retire from his job at Unilever and commit himself full-time to resurrecting Mewat. It is time, he said, for people like him to give back to society. He now lives there, travels widely across the district, and leads a team of volunteers on projects that promise enormous change.

Now, it isn’t difficult to see why Khan’s story inspired a section of our readers to act. Many are trapped in jobs that hold no meaning. A few find a cause they identify with, but their involvement is usually limited to writing out the occasional cheque. Only a handful of leaders I know of go beyond passive giving and engage deeply to solve complex problems confronting society. I have oft en wondered, what holds them back! These are high-performance individuals who have been there, done that. Three weeks ago, I decided to find out why.

Tarun Das is the best go-to guy out there, if you are a business leader looking for advice. You can trust him to give you the truth and nothing but the truth, even if you flinch. Two weeks ago, Das stepped down as chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). He intends to spend his time helping businesses find ways to integrate with society.

During his tenure at the helm of CII, Das says he was witness to an incredible revolution. For much of the eighties and nineties, Indian industry was uncompetitive, laid back and destined to go under when liberalisation came knocking. That destiny though went the way of the Malthusian nightmare — it remained a fable. Instead, Indian industry learnt to stop whining and learnt to become globally competitive. It has come to a point where even an 800-pound gorilla like General Electric is being compelled to look closely, and perhaps emulate the innovative services and products sweeping its markets from India. This, Das says, was the first revolution. He now wants to see a second one in his lifetime — businesses stepping up and engaging deeply with social development

What, I ask him, will galvanise business leaders? His answer is a simple one. After they’ve built their businesses and earned their glory, every leader in the country craves only one thing. Respect. Respect of the kind Ratan Tata commands. It’s the kind of thing that isn’t earned overnight. It is built brick by brick, by engaging deeply with the society they live in.

I took the thought to somebody who knows a thing or two about the personal transformation business leaders ought to go through. As head of the Azim Premji Foundation, Dileep Ranjekar has had the opportunity of working closely with Premji. The foundation is focused on primary education. Ranjekar says a social mission requires long-term commitment from the promoter.

In their case, he says, there was no way they could figure out a sensible agenda without actually taking the plunge. They considered a few options before deciding to stick with primary education. That is where, they reckoned, they could bring considerable change. Bringing systemic change though is a bit like peeling an onion they figured along the way. Take for instance something that appears as simple as training teachers. Primary school teachers are trained by high school teachers who in turn have never taught at the primary levels.

How do you deal with the gaps this deficiency causes? Th en there is the fact that students come from diverse backgrounds, some from homes where both parents are illiterate. So, says Ranjekar, you’ve got to take a holistic view of things, understand the linkages, and keep plugging away. Progress can be painfully slow.

To Premji’s credit, he wasn’t interested in just writing a cheque to support the cause. He was equally concerned about how the money he contributes is deployed; understanding the issues on hand; the impact the foundation could create; and whether or not it actually helps in transforming lives.

In 1998, when Premji first spoke to Ranjekar about setting up the foundation, Ranjekar recalls asking his boss a question: Would you be willing to run it a professionally as Wipro is run? It wasn’t a trivial question. Because in many companies, corporate social response (CSR) activities are oft en handled by a junior team or the promoter’s spouse. Premji told Ranjekar to go ahead and hire the best people, empower them with the resources needed to act, and build internal capabilities. It also meant shying away from publicity. In Premji’s mind, publicity kills credibility.

Today, the foundation has close to 400 full-time employees and hundreds of part-time volunteers on its roster. By all accounts, it is run as professionally as Wipro is. It has been a long, arduous journey. But Premji stuck to his word.

This raised yet another question in my mind. How does one get the best minds to engage with the challenges our society faces? It isn’t easy in India.

There is a reason for it, says Nachiket Mor, president of the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth. He created a stir when he walked out of a high profile career at ICICI Bank to help set up the foundation in 2007 A few years ago, says Mor, he was at a dinner at the United Nations in New York after attending the board meeting of CARE, a leading NGO. While there, a senior business person who headed the local chapter in the city narrated a deeply personal experience. He was a high flier in a leading global firm and by all accounts was destined for the top job. That was until the chairman called him in one day and told him the board had been studying his resume closely.

While his track record at work was impeccable, they were concerned about the fact that there was nothing to show by way of his contribution to society. That was his wake-up call. Abroad, CEOs often take great pride in the fact that they are on the board of some NGO or the other, says Mor. It is time, he says, for boards of Indian companies as well to look for CEOs who can play the role of an eff ective steward or a trustee of the assets placed at their disposal. Are we getting there? Slowly, but surely, yes. Take Nandan Nilekani, for instance. Technocrat, entrepreneur and billionaire. Earlier this year, he plunged into public service and took on the task of building a unique identity programme for citizens. In the bargain, he garnered huge support and is fast earning a reputation as a “rockstar” CEO. Each time he speaks at a public forum, there seems a virtual stampede to listen to him talk.

Perhaps, Indian business needs more role models like Nilekani. And the Manmohan Singh government is willing to call upon specialists from the world of business to help them improve governance. Arun Maira, former advisor to the Boston Consulting Group, was the most recent high-profi le entrant into the Planning Commission. By all indications, he won’t be the last. Professionals can become change agents and through personal example business leaders can set an example for professionals to step up and contribute to social causes with both their time and financial support.

And for a moment, don’t underestimate the demonstration effect. For instance, when Nachiket Mor decided to move out of ICICI Bank, he almost spurred Amit Chandra, then the managing director of DSP Merrill Lynch, to do the same. “I thought very hard about following in Nachiket’s footsteps. I discussed it with my wife and close friends.

But I realised that I wasn’t ready to take the plunge and was better off being an active supporter while still in the corporate world,” says Chandra, who is now the CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Chandra is now closely involved with two causes, GiveIndia and the Akanksha Foundation. He and his wife give six hours every week to both these causes. He is also an active board member on both the NGOs he serves and gets involved in strategy and execution.

Chandra’s batchmate from the Indian Institute of Management, Venkat Krishnan N., a director at GiveIndia, was one of the many catalysts behind his decision to take up a social cause. He has watched business leaders gradually evolve into more confident givers. He’s also noticed some business leaders take a portfolio approach.

They start by placing small bets on many causes. “It could involve contributing Rs. 20 lakh each for say, five different causes. That allows you to learn the space and through a process of reviews with the NGO, you begin to understand the kind of impact you could make,” he says. That experience allows the giver to focus on the cause he decides to adopt. Once you start to sink your teeth into it, you start to realize the impact you can have in a country like India. That’s when most people begin to wonder why they didn’t jump in earlier.

I begin to wonder: India has always had a tradition of giving. Religious scriptures, be it in Hinduism or Islam, have been strong proponents of philanthropy. Somewhere along the line we seem to have lost that edge. Why? Some put it down to the pains that the Indian society went through over centuries of British rule. Did that fundamentally damaged our confidence in our ancient wisdom and our way of life? Or is it simply a matter of evolution? First generation entrepreneurs invariably tend to be consumed by materialism, a desire to show off their wealth and tell the world they’ve arrived. Is Indian society at that stage, where higher level needs like recognition and self-actualisation will follow in due course? Perhaps that time is now.

In the US, the work of two leading Indian academics is gaining currency through a movement called conscious capitalism. It stemmed from the works of Rajendra Sisodia and Jagdish Sheth (with David Wolfe), which resulted in a major business best-seller — Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Firms Profit from Passion and Purpose.

The triggers for the research were pretty obvious: Environmental consciousness was exploding; public distrust of business was at historic highs; many employees and customers were disconnected from the companies they worked for or bought from; suppliers felt squeezed; communities often organised to keep certain businesses out.

Ironically, all of this comes at a time when the reach and impact of business across the world is growing. Today, it has greater power than to enhance or diminish overall wellbeing in society. As its power and influence grow, so too must its sense of responsibility and “stewardship”. The authors believe conscious capitalism is the answer to a new business paradigm.

So what unites the kind of firms that practice conscious capitalism? They tend to focus on a purpose beyond just profit maximisation. They tend to be a lot more stakeholder oriented, rather than narrowly focussed on maximising shareholder returns. And they are led by more evolved leaders who reject trade-off s and believe in systemic change.

Some of this may sound almost mythical. But Sisodia says their research around 18 exemplary firms in the US discovered they outperformed the overall market by a 9-to-1 ratio over a 10 year period. They dramatically outperformed companies cited in the book Good to Great, which were chosen purely on financial criteria. John Mackey, the chairman and CEO of Whole Foods Market, is one of the mascots of the new conscious capitalism movement.

He writes a blog on the subject on his company Web site and is trying to pull out unhealthy food products from his portfolio and concentrate on selling the concept of health foods to a nation besieged with obesity. And make no mistake. He isn’t the kind who wears his heart on the sleeve, but is a card carrying member of the club that believes in free markets.

On a trip to India, Sisodia says he presented his book to Dr. Manesh Shrikant, his old strategy professor during his graduate school days at the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute in Mumbai. Shrikant, now the honorary dean at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, sat up late that night to read the book. Next morning, he told Sisodia that much of the knowledge contained in the book was no different from that of the timeless wisdom of the ancient scriptures like the Bhagwat Gita.

To my mind, if individual passion can learn to coalesce with business purpose, the results can be dramatic for a society like India

(This story appears in the 04 December, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Lubna Kably

    Thank you for such an interesting article. It is time that policies also made it easier for corporate entities and individuals to give back more to the society. Simple procedural changes, like permitting a company to directly credit dividend (at the behest of the shareholder) into the bank account of an NGO, providing tax sops for donations in kind - such as medicines donated by a pharma company (Today varying tax breaks are available for donations in cash u/s 80G) would go a long way. Best regards, Lubna

    on Nov 22, 2009