Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How Ashish Dhawan gave up his high-flying investing career to solve India's education crisis

The co-founder of Ashoka University talks about setting up an interdisciplinary education institution, and how it is different from running a business

Neha Bothra
Published: Jun 13, 2023 11:35:50 AM IST
Updated: Jun 13, 2023 11:56:54 AM IST

How Ashish Dhawan gave up his high-flying investing career to solve India's education crisisAshish Dhawan, co-founder Chrys Capital, founder and chairman of Central Square Foundation, founder and CEO of The Convergence Foundation, and co-founder of Ashoka University Image: Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images
It is not very often that we come across an entrepreneur and investment manager of a multi-billion-dollar fund who, in his early forties, gave up a successful career to jump into philanthropy fulltime. This is the story of Ashish Dhawan, co-founder of one of India’s leading private equity firms, Chrys Capital, founder and chairman of Central Square Foundation, founder and CEO of The Convergence Foundation, and co-founder of Ashoka University.

Dhawan is on a mission to fast-track India’s growth by reimagining its education sector. In 2010, he co-founded Ashoka University and brought on board 170 philanthropists to share his vision of a world-class interdisciplinary higher education institute in India. He also set up The Central Square Foundation in 2012 to ensure India’s 250 million children have access to equal opportunities irrespective of their financial backgrounds.

“I didn’t want to just cut cheques. My life’s work is about building institutions,” says Dhawan, now in his early fifties, in an exclusive interview on Forbes India Pathbreakers.

PE to philanthropy

Dhawan was at the peak of his career when he made the unconventional move of opting for a full-time second career in philanthropy. “I had this idea, when I was quite young, that I would have more than one career. I read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography when I was young, and he had multiple careers. I was always impressed by Gandhiji and the fact that he was a lawyer, and barrister and then went to public service afterwards. So, I always thought that at age 30, I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was very clear, I wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and then somewhere in my mid-40s, I wanted to switch to something that is more service-oriented. I wasn’t 100 percent sure exactly what it was going to be when I was in my 20s. I was lucky, I did reasonably well during my investing career, I had made enough money, so, in a way, it was a no-brainer. Why won’t I switch?”

Plan B?

This is how Dhawan embarked on solving complex problems in the education sector to reset India’s growth trajectory. But at the time, though fully committed, he was concerned about the results. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be successful in my second career. I wasn’t sure if I was suited for something outside of investing,” he says. However, he was determined. “When you are doing anything new later in life, you think about the risks as well. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to have a Plan B. Because if you think too much, you know, if the first six months are not good then you’re like ‘Oh, I’m getting out of here’. So, when I decided to take the plunge, fulltime, I left Chrys Capital, I gave up equity in the firm, and I got off every corporate board and did not spend even 1 percent of my time on it. I said ‘Now, I am all in, 100 percent. I want to give it my best. I want to make it work.’ And there has been no looking back. Honestly, I tell friends in the corporate world that even though it takes some learning—everything has a learning curve attached to it—I think 80 percent of skills are transferrable.”

Also read: Giving as a percentage of wealth emerging highest among professionals: Amit Chandra

The transition  

Although most of skills were transferable, there was a realisation that Dhawan would have to unlearn, learn, and adapt to new systems and processes. “Higher education is its own beast. Firstly, it’s not profit-making. So, people tend to be much more mission-oriented in university. Two, academics are at its core; you have to work with the faculty. I love that because I have intellectual interest and I have a lot of respect for faculty. But I think a lot of people who come from the world of business don’t understand that it is a different world. Academia works on its own rhythm. You can’t press the same buttons. It’s not just about money. And so you need to adjust your own thinking. And unlike business, where you can start in a very scrappy manner and build something of quality later, in the university context whatever you do, you have to do in a world-class manner from Day 1, even when you’re very small,” he explains.

How Ashish Dhawan gave up his high-flying investing career to solve India's education crisis

This also meant forming a shared governance model for transparency. “It’s not going to work if there is one family that is going to dominate. We have a collective philanthropy model and there is a shared governance model with the academics. So that is very different from the corporate world, where it is much more hierarchical, where it is much more about the board and the CEO and that single structure. There are many more structures in a university.”

However, building and working with a foundation or non-profit like Central Square Foundation, which works in school education, was a different experience. “I had to learn a number of new things. How do you work with the government? The government spends Rs 7 lakh crore on education; it is the main actor. If you don’t work with the government, then you can’t have large-scale impact, and whatever you do is not sustainable. Two, there is a lot of learning about what actually works in education. It’s very complex. It’s not easy to change the classroom transaction and what suits the Indian context. Just copy-paste from Finland to India is not going to work. And so, it took a lot of humility. People in the non-profit world are motivated very differently from people in the corporate world. You have to learn to respect them, to work with them, to partner with them. So, those are all new skill sets that I had to develop over time. And I enjoyed it because part of my heart was already there.”

Also read: Why Kris Gopalakrishnan is spending hundreds of crores to study the human brain

Building Ashoka University

So, how did Dhawan break down the complex parts of the problem to achieve tangible results? “When you look at building a whole university, it can be a very daunting task. Because a university doesn’t get built in five years; it’s a 25 to 30-year project before you can say it has stabilised, before you build something of quality. So, we broke it up into chunks. We started this campus with just the first phase—these buildings, the dining here and one residence building—over only 300,000 sq ft. Today we have 1.5 million sq. ft, and another 650,000 under construction. So, when this is done, we will be almost 7x what we were when we started in 2014. But we chunked it up,” he says.

The founding team initially started with an off-campus programme called the Young India Fellowship on a rented site. "It was a non-degree programme, like our pilot. We did that well. Then we started with the undergraduate programme, with only humanities and social sciences; we didn’t start all the disciplines. And then slowly we grew and expanded into the sciences and computer science. We’re truly an interdisciplinary university. I think people often say ‘Liberal Arts’ where they think we’re only teaching humanities and social sciences. But what they don’t realise is over the last eight to 10 years, we have covered almost all disciplines, about 20.”

“What we have consciously left out are professional degrees—engineering, medicine, and law—because there are a number of institutions in India that focus on those. We said, what’s missing is this interdisciplinary university that focuses on humanities, social science, fundamental sciences, and computational data science. And that’s what Ashoka now is. It’s a place of excellence in research and teaching. So, in 10 years, I think we have come a long way. But it will take us another 10 to 15 years to build real excellence in the sciences and in research. We have a small PhD programme, and plan to build a top-notch one. So, it’s a lot of ground to cover in the coming years.”

(Watch this space for part 2 of the conversation)