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Guest: Archana and Amit Chandra
Rohit: Good morning and welcome to Awakin talks. My name is Rohit and I am your host for today. Thank you for joining us. I request that we start our call with a minute of silence to allow our minds to step out from wherever we were before this, into the beauty and possibility, which mindfulness of the present moment invariably brings in. Thank you.
[Everyone observes a minute of silence]Thank you. And now I would like to invite Anu, a finance services professional, and now turned gardener, also a mother to a two year old. A nature and more specifically a butterfly lover, to open our call today with a small offering of a prayer to mark the spirit of the lives which our two very special guests, Amit and Archana have lived for a very long time now. Anu has spent a couple of years as a rural community of Navdarshanam before settling back in Mumbai. And she has been a long time Servicespace volunteer.
Anu sings --
Rohit : Thank you Anu for that beautiful offering. It's such a powerful reminder that to seek divinity we need not go to the temple or a place of worship. One's whole life is an opportunity, this whole world around us is an opportunity to make that offering to the divine. To recognize the divine, which is within us and in all life around us.
And we have two very special guests today, whom I'm honored and privileged to host. I think for last 20 years or more, a lot of what they have done in life has embodied that spirit. Welcome, Amit and Archana.
I would like to take a moment to introduce my cohost today Sangeeta. Welcome Sangeeta. Her life also is no less a beautiful inspiration. She had a long career as a journalist and then in digital marketing, before she took the plunge to immerse herself more deeply in working for the community. She has held leadership roles in Tata Sons, in India Leaders For Social Sector and was a co-founder at IDR Online. In the last six months since lockdown hit, what has been incredibly inspiring is despite having held roles of large-scale impact, Sangeeta has completely immersed herself in taking care of her mother who is suffering from dementia and also active on the ground and supporting the various underprivileged communities like migrant laborers as a volunteer with Goonj. So welcome and very grateful to you for joining us.
Now I can move over to sharing a bit more about Amit and Archana. I feel that their's is a story, which anyone interested in philanthropy, in using their money, time or skills for society's benefit ought to hear. I think we all have heard of people like Bill and Melinda Gates and their giving, which is great. However, I personally feel that this couple has has completely redefined the standards of philanthropy. Especially in Indian context, and in the context of well-educated sections of the society.
As early as in his mid-thirties, Amit was heading what was then largest investment bank in India, DSP Merrill Lynch. If I were to break it down in layman terms, it means that he was one of the most influential corporate leaders in India.
When his career just started peaking, when he was looking ahead at many further years of peaking name, fame, fortune and everything, he made a very curious, counter-culture choice at that time. He said that he wanted to make more space in his life for contributing to the society, through his money, through his time, and so many other ways. What started as small steps in that moment, today has compounded into, giving almost 90% of their income to various causes and half of his time.
And his wife Archana's journey has been the less public one, but equally if not more inspiring. She has been a silent force in all of these life-changing and life affirming choices, which they have made together.
Her early career was in marketing, PR & HR roles at Bennett and Coleman, Informix and the Akanksha foundation. Then she moved full-time into social work and presently serves as board member and CEO of Jai Vakeel Foundation, which is one of the largest NGOs serving children impacted by mental challenges. She is also a trustee of SRCC, which is building the largest hospital dedicated to children in the country.
For last 15-20 years, there've been visibly invisibly, supporting various causes, across India. They have worked deeply in education, in health, and more recently supporting innovative breakthrough NGOs of the country towards capacity building, an area which typically doesn't attract much funding. Their work also has been pivotal in making many villages of Maharashtra now completely draught free.
Having had the opportunity to engage with Amit personally when I was at GiveIndia and he was the board chairman, I feel very lucky to be able to get some glimpses of him as a person. Beyond the leader, beyond the public persona Amit, which one typically gets to read about in the news. I know that they have been vocal in the last few years about their giving but seeing him personally, I know it's not because that the care for name or fame, but more than that, they care to seed an alternative story of what richness means, what success means, and also to encourage and support others in their giving journey.And, I know I'm taking lots of time, but just one final small incident I would like to share. Amit it's a very small thing which happened, when I was at GiveIndia. Perhaps Amit might not remember, but we had a board meeting in our Bangalore office. We typically do board meetings in Mumbai, but for the first time we were doing it in Bangalore office. So all the directors were flying-in and you made room to actually fly in a few hours earlier, just so that you can spend time and encourage all the team members. And I think the meeting was in the evening and you had reached our office by 3 or 4PM. So it was quite late, but you hadn't had lunch. So we got the chance to offer you whatever little bit leftover food, which we had in office. We typically just cook some simple rice, sambhar and curry. I'm don't remember but maybe the curry had also finished. So it was perhaps called cold rice and sambhar we offered to you. So it was one of those moments, to see you accepting that also with such simplicity and grace, it was a really telling lesson of the simplicity and the spirit of gratitude with which you lead your life. Personally, it was one of the high moments for me, one of the most memorable moments for me in my time at GiveIndia. So thank you.
I will hand it over to Sangeeta, to lead us into the conversation.
Sangeeta: Thank you Rohit. I am particularly delighted to be talking to be talking to Amit and Archana today, two wonderful people, whose journeys we've been following with a lot of interest and inspiration in recent years especially. I've had a few opportunities to interact with both Amit and Archana. I can't recall one interaction where I've come back not feeling touched by, not just their humility and the candidness, but also by their ability to speak to every individual as an equal partner in the work they do. So thank you Amit, thank you Archana for making the time on a Sunday morning to be with us.
I want to especially recall one visit to Jai Vakeel last year. I think that's been one of the most memorable visits I've made to an NGO. We spent a few hours, exploring the space, meeting the children, the staff and watching Archana at work. And it was special and that's a spot of sunshine I carry with me even now. It was beautiful and I thank you for that experience. So let me not prolong this introduction. Let's let's just get straight into the conversation today.
I would like to read out with your permission, a few lines from a letter that Amit wrote to your daughter, about 10 years ago, in a book called Legacy. I thought that would be a good way to preface today's discussion. She must have been six or seven then I think, and he writes "If there is one thing that will truly distinguish you, it will be compassion. As you grow, you will begin to appreciate how important a quality this is, given the opportunity to spread happiness to those, you know, and the many others you do not, in this very unequal world we live in."
So I would really like to hear at what point in your lives, you had this insight on the importance of compassion in our lives?
Amit: Thank you so much ServiceSpace, Sangeeta to you, Rohit for inviting us here today. It's a privilege to be on this platform. I must say that both of us have approached this conversation with both the mix of excitement and some trepidation, because this isn't the normal sort of platform one comes and engages with.
You know, there has been a linear component to our journey. As Rohit mentioned in his introduction, we did start giving very early on in our lives. That was, I think, because of the DNA, the values that were seeded in us very early on.
So virtually from the time we got married, at that point we were staying in a paying guest accommodation, we started giving. So we had very little, but we were clear that it had to be shared because of what we were blessed with and what shaped us. And I think we kept doing more and more of that as we went along.
However, there were certainly some inflection points that resulted in the shape of that graph changing. I think there were influences in our life, be it living people, be it teachings, gurus and I think incidents and there were different things in each of our lives that shaped us. And of course, dialogues that we had with each other that then converged to result in the philosophy that we equally shared at this point of time. I would say in my case, success came early to me. I was very blessed that success came early to me. I was running the country's largest investment bank in my thirties. Virtually I had achieved all my career goals but by then I didn't feel satisfied with that success. It caused a sense of emptiness and my boss and mentor Hemendra Kothari, when I consulted him, thought it was male menopause that hit me too early.
To get answers to the emptiness that I felt, I actually went to do Vipassana. I took a sabbatical and I went and did Vipassana. I was terrible at meditation. I didn't learn the technique. The teacher characterized my brain as a "monkey brain". But, I must say it was one of the most transformative experiences I had in my life because it was the first time I spent time with myself. And it helped me answer a lot of questions because I was able to still my mind. It was very helpful because I was able to answer a lot of questions as to what the focus of my life is, how I would like to use my time, and use whatever wealth we had been able to create, with more purpose. And I came out of that with a sense of purpose. And that was one very big inflection point for me personally.
The other was when I started reading more of Guru Nanak and I started understanding his journey and I am very grateful to Anu ji for sharing that beautiful shabad with us. I am sorry I am digressing - I would just share anecdotally that the great actor, Balraj Sahni once asked Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, “You have written the national Anthem for this country. Would you care to write an international Anthem for the world?” And Gurudev said, “The international Anthem for the world was actually written over 500 years ago.” And Gurudev pointed him to “Gagan mein thaal,” the shabad that Anu ji just sang.
So actually when I read more and more of Guru Nanak’s teachings more as a philosopher and as a social reformer than from a religious perspective, it made just a lot of sense for me. It made me think again about the purpose of one's life. There is a particular teaching of his which struck me a lot which is - The tenet of one's life should be to work hard and share generously. It helped me define a lot of what I am today.
Then I would say, the third inflection point for me was when my friend Abhay Havaldar of General Atlantic Partners in India, sent me a book on the life of a remarkable man Chuck Feeney called “The billionaire that wasn't.” This was a man who went on to inspire Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, many, many others, very silently by giving away 99% of his wealth equal to 8 billion dollars. When I read about his life and then Archana read it, we just felt it is incredible that there were people like that who existed, and who did that.
Often we see a movie, we read a book, we hear a story and we feel inspired. Here, we asked ourselves that, “Why can’t we do things differently? Why just simply be motivated for a day or two days?” And so with all these things we tried to shape our lives differently, we tried to push ourselves.
We used these to change the linear graph that we were on, to use both our time and our money differently; to change ourselves. And I think that's been the journey that we've been on.
Archana : Thank you, Rohit and Sangeeta, for your exceedingly warm and kind introduction. For me, life was honestly very, very comfortable. I was born and brought up in Mumbai, gone to school, college, in a fairly comfortable fashion. I got married at 22 when I was really young and had a job at The Times of India group and then another one with US-based Informix. So in all manners of speaking, my life looked like it was heading in a particular trajectory and it was very comfortable. Then a series of events happened in 2001 which actually made me question this trajectory that my life was on.
The first thing that happened was Informix, the company that I was working for, wound down their India office. So for no fault of mine, overnight, I have no job. My dad was diagnosed with cancer and we'd lost him within a month. As his only child, I was very, very close to him. Immediately after this, we had two miscarriages back-to-back. We then went on to become pregnant for the third time and I delivered a stillborn baby. So I think, physically, emotionally and mentally, those were probably the lowest points in my life.
I started really questioning as to “Why me? What is the focus of my life? Why is this happening to me,” etc. At this point, Amit and family and friends were lovely and they kind of held us together and helped us through this. But it was at this point that I found my guru Master Choa Kok Sui and my spiritual school, which is pranic healing.
All this grounded me internally and helped me understand that there is a bigger purpose to my life than my individual life. It was also at this time that through the school, my understanding of the law of karma became a little bit better. We all understand the law of karma – we grew up with that, especially if you're from India, which is “as we sow, so shall we reap” (jaisi karni, waisi bharni) et cetera. But my understanding of this law went from it being fatalistic, to it being more dynamic. I understood that the laws of karma is are very compassionate beings. They're not here to punish us – which is sometimes what our life events may look like. And in my head, I'm thinking how can something that feels like a punishment, not be a punishment and it could be like an opportunity to learn, grow and evolve?
I related that to being a parent. Sometimes, when our children are young and they don't know better and they misbehave, we do tend to discipline them and/or even punish them. But that punishment is actually coming from a place of genuine love and caring and desire for them to be the best version of themselves, right? So I understood that the law of karma is very similar.
A couple of things I learned about this law of karma. The first one was that whatever I am going through in life today, I have sown the seeds in the past. The objective of this incident is for me to learn, grow, and evolve. If I am facing any difficulties today, I have as a soul chosen to go through and it is not a random act. And the second learning , is that if you are going through something difficult, the laws of karma do believe - and one should have the faith - that you will be able to go through them and learn, grow and evolve. So the minute this understanding came through for me, it was a huge mindset change.And with that, the whole thing in your head that you're victimizing yourself, that lens moved to see that “There is a reason and there is a lesson.” This understanding really, really helped me to heal and we went on to have a fourth pregnancy, thanks to which we have joy and happiness in our lives. It was also around this time, Sangeeta, that I visited Jai Vakeel Foundation – I knew nothing about them then but today it is a space that is so, so dear to me.
Sangeeta : I saw how much you love that place and how much of a baby it is to you when I visited. There is a tendency when we speak of karma that you can either just leave things as they are and accept things the way they are. We forget that we do have agency, we do have the choice to make powerful choices at certain points in our life. So thanks for sharing that.
And if you could also speak a little bit about the journey since then – after discovering your purpose, in a sense. And if you could also share a bit on how your approach to giving and impact has evolved over the course?
Archana : So, Sangeeta, like I said, before I went to Jai Vakeel, I knew nothing about space. In fact, it was at a social event that a really dear friend of mine said “Archana, you have to come and see Jai Vakeel, it's lovely.” And I asked what does it do. She said that all the children are intellectually challenged. And she went on and I have to admit something that I felt, “How am I going to interact with them. What am I even going to say to them?”
So I was very hesitant and nervous to even go there. Nevertheless, I landed on the campus one morning. I met these wonderful, wonderful kids with the most warm and beautiful smiles. The energy, the positive energy, the happiness quotient just hits you in the face and all of this, despite what we think are their difficulties. So that's how my heart was engaged.
It was also at this time that I understood what is intellectual disability. And I realized that it is an IQ-based condition. As against a normal IQ of 100, all my kids here had an IQ of 70 and below, which means that ability to comprehend was less. But in spite of that, you don't see them anywhere. It's almost like they're hidden. Right? I understood that intellectual disability is an IQ based condition. IQ cannot be changed by either surgery or medication. It is a whole spectrum disorder. So you have people who are at 70 IQ, but you also have kids who are at 20 and below.
And the third thing that I understood was that because your brain is affected, very often other disabilities are also there in terms of challenges for the child. I then went back and asked myself why have I never seen these people? I checked the statistics and I realized that two percent of our population have intellectual disability. In percentage terms, it seems low but when you translate that it means 1 in 50. 1 in 50! And I could not remember the last time I had seen a person like this in the theater, in the malls or in any of the public spaces I go to. It's like they were hidden, they were invisible. That's how my head got engaged.
So with my head and my heart being engaged, honestly the place and the cause made my heart sing. And I said, if I have to spend my time and resources somewhere, I'm happy to do it in a space that I think so, so needs the spotlight. So that's how I stayed. It's been over 10 years now and one of the things, Sangeeta, is that sometimes I often joke that I don't think I found Jai Vakeel, it is more like Jai Vakeel found me.
I think in terms of how that journey has evolved—and I'm talking from the space of Jai Vakeel—we went from a lens of 'care for the child' to 'what does this mean for my child'? This means inclusion. And if it means inclusion in society, then I have to measure myself. I have to show impact. Whether it's hard, whether it's difficult, whether somebody has done it before or not, it cannot be anecdotal. We have to hold ourselves to the highest standards possible, and we have to show impact. So, it's not just about activities and it's not just about doing good, feeling good, it's about actually having measurable impact and holding ourselves to that.
Amit : So this, journey of figuring out what works, what doesn't work, has been a very evolutionary journey, and I think we are still learning. We are learning at a very rapid rate, at least personally speaking. I say this to people very openly that I'm not a visionary who approaches things with knowing what the right answer is. A lot of people have very good clarity of what the world will look like, what the right answer is, 10 years from now. I approach things with trying a lot of things, figuring out what works, what doesn't work, and then doubling down on what's working, cutting out what doesn't work. That's my approach to problem solving.
And, so a lot of things that I had notions for have been dispelled over the years. I had lots of wrong notions. If I look at the last 15-20 years that I've been engaged with the social sector somewhat deeply, I think I've evolved my thinking on a lot of dimensions. I'm pretty sure that a lot of notions that I have today also will get dispelled and I'll keep forming my point of view over the years. For example, I think I'm much more clear today that the problems that exist, exist despite the fact that we have abundance in society. It's not because of lack of resources. A lot of problems can be solved through a combination of volunteering and with frugal reallocation of resources. I am much more clear that we don't need necessarily the resources of the rich to solve many of our problems. It is actually the power of a lot of people in the next strata of society and below coming together that can solve many problems. I also believe that, unlike how I did when I was far more naive, that many of these problems simply exist because of the lack of opportunity and it's the denial of opportunity which causes depravity in society. And if we actually simply provide opportunity to people, we can actually set right a lot of problems.
I also believe, which a lot of people in the social sector don't like to hear, that you do need to combine head and heart a lot more actively, that the social sector actually suffered because of leaning too much towards the heart, and that if we really want to rigorously solve the problems that we find surrounding us, we will need a much more rigorous approach which combines the head and heart.
We will need to look at some of the things, not all of the things, which have resulted in building organizations in an area that the social sector detests, which is the for-profit sector. While there's a lot wrong in the for-profit sector, there's actually some things that you'll have to look at very carefully and you'll have to imbibe some of those things to address the problems that inflict us. And so, it is a journey and we are learning on a continuous basis.
Of course, for me, one of the biggest things in all of this journey is not just changing my own thinking, but changing myself—and that journey keeps going.
Rohit : Thank you. Beautiful. If I were to read your journey in the newspapers, it would seem to me that you really have figured out what the purpose and meaning of life is. It’s not common to hear people like you say that you are still learning and changing. And I'm curious to know what are some ways in which these changes have come in your life? What are you thinking of right now? Where are you on your inquiry? What's a question or a personal aspiration or longing for change, which is currently alive in each of you?
Amit : My God. I think there’s a prakriti part of us which hasn't changed. We are both the same individuals that we were when we first met each other a little over 26 years ago. There are some aspects which probably may have evolved on some dimensions, but I would say that 80 percent of us is probably similar. I think both of us—and maybe that's a function of age and experience—are probably a little, or a lot, more reflective; we tend to think about things a lot more. Certainly, I think you also mellow down a little bit in some ways. When I was younger, I used to be more short-tempered; now people tell me and I never lose my cool. So maybe on that dimension I have changed as an individual. But Archana would be a better judge of my character than me—maybe she can comment on how I have changed. The spiritual aspect has been a very different aspect of her —and mine —in the first 13 years of our marriage relative to the last 13 years. So that's a completely different dimension.
Archana : You're really putting us on the spot! So, Amit is absolutely right in that inherently who we are and how we're wired has remained the same. But the interesting thing is that both of us are very differently wired from each other. And very often both of us will come to the same situation with completely different lenses. I can give you hundreds of examples of this, including having conversations like this. So, Amit has always been—because he himself has been influenced by other people's stories such as the book by Chuck Feeney that he mentioned—of the view that it's okay to talk about our journey and to share our journey, and if it can help somebody else, why not? Whereas I grew up with my grandmother saying neki kar aur kuen mein dal (do a kind act, and put it in the well), which basically meant you don't have to talk about it.
So, when Amit started talking about his journey, I was like, why are you doing this? You know, people will misunderstand, they will think you're trying to show 'I'm changing the world' kind of a thing. And he, very gently and patiently, kept repeating his perspective till I have succumbed and I'm here on this show today.
Amit : (Intervenes with a joke) She doesn't succub to anything, for the record.
Archana : What has happened to us over 27 years is that we've managed to get both of us to see each other's version or view and adapt in a way that makes both of us better versions of ourselves.
The conversations have been pushy and I have been thrown out of my comfort zone, I cannot even tell you how many times. But when I look back, I can see that each difficulty or being thrown out of my comfort zone repeatedly has done so much for me in terms of both on physical, mental and emotional growth.
Rohit : Beautiful. Thank you. One more thing which has stood out is that both of you have manifested this ability to step out from the ‘us-versus-them’ space and marry the best of separate worlds -- the for-profit world and the non-profit world. You very actively balance half of your time as MD of Bain Capital and rest half in numerous, service-related projects. What helps you be in this space of non-duality? Archana, you work with children with intellectual disability, one of the most vulnerable communities to be othered. What has been your experience around bridging labels and distinctions?
Amit : I've always deeply admired a number of people who have changed the world without virtually any financial resources, with just the power of their ideas, their intellect, their rhetoric, starting with Guru Nanak, whose teachings I'm a big fan of, Mahatma Gandhi because of whom all of us sit and enjoy our independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama. So many people we realize had virtually no resources and yet built powerful movements which have had deep influence. I've always been very acutely aware of my limitations as a human being. And I know that I -- I don't have the power like them but what I do have is the power of connections and the power of capital.
Then I wanted to move full-time to the social sector. There was a time when I wanted to do that. Archana asked me a very blunt question: "What makes you think your time is more valuable to the sector, than all your money and your connections?" And it hurt me to hear that question being posed to me. I had thought that I would basically be able to go and make this deep impact sitting on boards, working with social entrepreneurs.
And I thought I had done whatever I needed to do in the corporate world, so it hurt hearing that question. But when I actually thought about it, I thought about my limitations and came to the conclusion that she was right, that I wasn't like these people I greatly admired who could drive big social change by just what they were blessed with. And that it made sense for me to remain anchored in the corporate sector and do what I could with some of what I was blessed with.
Yet I didn't want to be disconnected from the social sector. By God's grace, I found an amazing partnership called Bain Capital, which encouraged that. I was truly lucky that that fell into my lap. Not many companies would allow you to do that. Sometimes you're just really lucky that you find someone. From day one I told them that I had this interest in the social sector and they said, ‘Yeah, no problem, many of our partners do it; you do it. In fact, we'll encourage you to do it.’ From the day I entered the partnership they were supportive of letting me spend some time in the social sector.
When I entered Bain Capital, we didn't have much capital actually. I am probably being silly by saying we didn't have much capital—by Indian standards we had a lot of capital—but I am talking from the standards of what we were blessed with in the next 10-12 years. We had decided that if we ever made capital, we'd give away most of it. And that's what we did with whatever we have been blessed with during our Bain Capital journey. And I must say that helping build Bain Capital has been one of the most joyous things in my life.
Everyone gets one shot at building one great company. I got a chance to build two. I built DSP Merrill Lynch alongside Hemendra bhai but I didn't become wealthy because of that. Well, again, it's relative standards, at least we were able to buy a house by the time I left, but I wasn't able to see movements and stuff like that. But at Bain Capital, we were blessed with wealth. And with that wealth, we were able to do what we've been able to do over the last 12 years. And Archana was absolutely right. It was the most sensible decision that I was able to make. Unlike running a bank, where it's a 24/7 job, here my time was my own. I was able to spend more and more of my time in the social sector; at some point of time I was able to grow the second line to take more responsibility and then move to the chairman role for the last four years and work half my time in the social sector and start building the A.T.E. Chandra Foundation team, where again we've been blessed to have a good team.
So, it's really a combination of amazing things that have happened in my life, thanks to provocative questions that people have asked. Like Archana said I pushed her out of her comfort zone, she has pushed me to think differently about things as well. And that has resulted in greater good for not just me but for others as well.
Rohit: Beautiful. Thank you. Archana, any reflections?
Archana : To your question about us versus them, you know this is again coming from my spiritual school where we're taught that we are all one —like we began today's session by actually saluting the divinity in each of us. So, if that's your understanding and that's the lens you're coming from, then there is no us and them. We all know that for all of us this is a journey. We're all at different points in the journey. We cannot do this on our own. We have to do this as a group. We have to do this as all of humanity. And therefore, these just become opportunities for us to learn, to grow and evolve together. I keep going back to giving you examples of Jai Vakeel. The magic of the energy, of the positive energy, of the unconditional love that you feel at Jai Vakeel, that little bit of sunshine these kids can give it to us —you don't find that magic anywhere and everywhere. So, we invite our donors, our supporters to actually come to the campus to see these kids, to meet the kids, to engage with the kids. There are two reasons: One is, of course, to come and see a section of population that is otherwise invisible; the other is to come and experience some of this magical energy, because unless you experience it, you don't even know what you're missing. From that lens, I think that there is no us versus them. It's just a question of being there for each other and doing this together.
Sangeeta: So, you know, Archana those last words you mentioned about oneness, just reminded me of this powerful quote that I came across a few years ago and I was hoping I would get a chance to read it out and Lo! I am so grateful I have a chance to read it out. It's a quote by Lila Watson, the aboriginal activist. She says, "If you have come here to help me, you're wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together." And I find it very powerful and it has so many messages for all of us who are working in the space of social justice. So I just wanted to come back to one question. It's interesting that you mentioned that you both wired differently and and how you constantly hold the mirror up to each other.
So I was just wondering that as a couple you have the shared dream for a better world and you decided together to write away a significant part of your wealth. I'm just curious, what are the conversations you have with each other and your family?
Amit: I think we approached it very, very differently. It made for very interesting conversations over a long period of time. So I'm a very impulsive person. For me, and in some ways you can say it's a fault of mine or a character trait of mine but I can easily operate in zero or one, with lots of things in life.
Early on in life when I was being brought up, I was very fond of my neighbors. I had an aunt. I used to call them all Aunts. I had a next door Aunt, who was from Ahmedabad, a wonderful Muslim lady, I used to call her Amma and I used to spend time at her house. She got me to love Biryani growing up. My next neighbor was a Sardarni, I used to eat chicken in her house. Another neighbor was a Bengali, I learnt how to eat fish in her house.
I grew up the most hardcore non-vegetarian that you could find in a hardcore vegetarian's house. And then one day in life something happened and I turned into a strict vegetarian. In life actually I work that way. It takes me time sometimes to make up my mind, but once I make up my mind on something, then I execute it. If a book influences me to do something, I decide to do it. If I have strong reasons I decide to do something, I do it. I decided on wealth as well, that the purpose was wealth was essentially for the greater good of the society. And so, I made up my mind on how I wanted to use it.
So I told Archana, what I think we should do with the wealth that we were blessed with. Of course I think our approach too, lots of these things, starts with me taking a point of view and she then puts out a provocative counterpoint and then we, over time get to, what we think is the right answer. And often there are other characters involved with our life who mediate and provide their perspective as well. But I think we went through a journey where we asked ourselves the question on "What is enough", which was a very important question to us. And we went through it a little bit of a nerd way, and so we put together spreadsheets to define what was enough. We got Archana's close friend who is a financial services advisor involved to help her define what is enough. She has a very motherly instinct, which every mother rightfully has, the instinct to take care of the family. So we defined what is enough in case of health emergencies, and all kinds of other possible scenarios. And so we decided what is enough and after ensuring that that was secure, we basically decided that I was free to discharge, jointly with her, the rest of it freely for societal needs.
Archana: Yeah, that's very fair and very accurate. So I think what you can also see is that, it is super fun being a fly in our house.
I think in this conversation as well while I was completely conceptually aligned, it was harder for me and took longer for me to actually convert that into practical execution. For Amit, it was easier and even now all his clothes fit easily in a single cupboard. He has consciously made his "needs" very little so to speak in a material sense, but for me it was like, "Yes, I hear you" and conceptually I'm saying absolutely but you know, we do have a child. We do have family, and therefore I do believe that it is part of our responsibilities to provide for them basics, whether it's education, whether it's health, whether it's a roof on the head, etc. So, that was one part of it but I have to admit for me, the other part was, I didn't want to feel guilty the next time I wanted a vacation. Or I didn't want to feel guilty if I wanted a piece of jewelry, and I hadn't reached that point in my personal journey when I was ready to give it all up. So I kind of put that on the table, and therefore getting that spreadsheet right took us longer than it should have. But I think the key here, like Amit said was to keep at it. To not shy away from these conversations, to not shy away from things that are important to you. There's no right or wrong. You cannot feel guilty about how you feel today. Right? We'll all work in progress. It's all a journey and I think being honest and candid and creating those spaces within our relationships to see that, is as important as actually making that switch happen because you can't leave people around you unhappy with your choices.
So I think in this, the one part is, this financial giving away but I think again, for us, the second part, the intangible part is also what kind of person are we wanting to be? So often people start by saying, "I want to be a millionaire." or "I want to be the head of a bank" or "I want to be a president", " I want to be a CEO." In the quest for doing that, you end up making wealth and then that in itself becomes the objective because now you want more, you want the second house, you want a second car, etc, etc. So I think being conscious that, that is not the purpose for which you're working but asking yourself how are you growing as a human being? Are you being more compassionate? Are you being more generous? Are you being more loving and kind in all your interactions- physical, mental, emotional? I think that is as equal a part in this conversation of giving than just the material.
Sangeeta: Thanks for sharing that. I'm curious to also know how, how did you involve your daughter in this discussion?
Amit: When we took the decision, she was obviously very young at that point of time, she was about 4 or 5. So she didn't have, kind of real sense of what we were doing, but she had a sense that we were obviously very interested in the social sector and she would see what we are doing. So very early on, she started actually getting exposure to the social sector. She would accompany me. In those days I was chairing (the board of) Akanksha Foundation. She started occasionally coming with me to Akanksha schools when I would visit. So as a young child, she has done that. Then when she grew up a little bit, she started actually going with Archana to Jai Vakeel. She has volunteering there now for a few years. She's even written exams for kids who take the nationally open school exams.
So she's had perspective of, the social sector now for sometime. That has got naturally built because of all the exposure that she's had. I think when she was a little older, probably I would say three or four years ago, she read the letter and she got a sense of what it all meant. I think now she has perspective of all of it independently. She wants to build her life. She understands what we're talking about. She understands. You know, I realized that teenagers these days are very different from how we were as teenagers.
They're so much more sensitive and aware and the good news is that we live a particular kind of life where she doesn't see flamboyance around her. We have stayed in the same house since her birth. A 1600 square foot house, we don't drive flashy cars. We indulge ourselves in good holidays because we love experiences. She sees a particular lifestyle and she sees what we care about essentially.
So that shapes her thinking too. And I think she accordingly is developing as a sensitive human being.
Sangeeta: Thank you. That's so beautiful.
Rohit: As I heard this, I remembered a quote, which I love that "Values are not taught, but they are caught". So I think, maybe, I don't know, like how much it is general teenage spirit, or rather the spirit in your home. Thank you.
Another thing, which I'm curious about is that again, when we see your life, I think it is so enriching to see the amount of big impact you've been able to have. Whether it's first, doing big in professional terms -- becoming the head of an investment bank at an early age. and now even the kind of social impact you're driving, the kind of change you are able to affect, throughout the country across different causes through your work. But, I think, as I read between the lines, I saw that it was not like a planned one-shot decision, may be like "in five years I want to create so much impact", but a lot of it was just small decisions taken in the spirit of being the change which has sort of, not in a totally planned way, rippled out to become this huge mega from ripples to tsunamis of change if I could call it.
To that, I would like to ask what has been the role of small acts of kindness or small ways of showing up, or small ways of just being the change in your life? And if that's still relevant now in your life, when you find yourself in a place where you have so many strategic levers and you can do so many big things which is so amazing, but is there a role of small acts in your life, even today?
Amit: I personally believe that there can be no discontinuity between a small act and a big act. You cannot aim for the big things, unless you do many small things. It's actually the many, many, many small things that ultimately weave into a big thing. You can not have big, huge programs, unless you have at the end of the day, kindness in your heart. We cannot basically function in one way in one facet of our life and another way in another facet of our life.
So I think kindness has to be something that we exhibit in every facet of our life. I personally, for example, Archana knows this, I hate if anybody raises their voice even in jest. For example if family members shout at each other, I don't like it. So these things disturb me and throws me in a funk for some period of time and it takes me time to then get out of that funk.
So I personally believe that. And I have seen that people who I really admired, I've seen how they, really big people, how this is wired into their DNA. So a good example of this, for me, was Dalai Lama. I have had the privilege of meeting him a few times. And I remember one time that Archana and I met him thanks to two good friends of ours Amrita and Samir Somaiya. They had organized a meeting with him (shows a beautiful picture). And I think this is probably the third time we met him. I think this was at the Tata Institute of social sciences, but in the meeting before this, he was teaching at the Somaiah Vidya Vihar and after his lecture, he came over to Kitabkhana to give a talk to a small group of us.
And after the talk he was coming down, it was, I distinctly remember it was a Sunday morning. The flora fountain was completely empty and nobody really knew he was coming, it was not a public event. So it was completely empty. And so he was coming down the elevator.
And so I came him down before him and I was waiting next to his protocol car. And a small crowd had gathered to say goodbye to him. Between Kitabkhana and his car, there was about 10 steps. So you were slowly treading those 10 steps and I noticed that there was an old bigger woman, must have been in her eighties, who was about 200 meters away in the parking lot. Lots of beggars who stay in that parking lot. And she must have realized that there's a Holy man who is basically visiting because she saw the crowd. So she just wanted to get the blessings of this Holy man, as the word had spread around.
So she saw this person descend from the exit of Kitabkhana. So she's started making a dash for him, and he was walking to his car and she had to beat him from her sprint the 200 meters and his steps of 10 steps. And of course everyone was trying to rush him into his car. And he needless to say made it to his car before her 200 meter sprint.
But from the corner of his eye, he saw this, woman in tattered clothes running towards his car and while he was being rushed into his car, he stopped everybody. He got down and took a few steps and he went and any hugged that woman and he sought her blessings. Its a scene I have never forgotten in my life.
Rohit : Wow. So instead of actually blessing that poor woman, you're saying that Dalai Lama was in fact seeking her blessings.
Rohit: Wow. That's quite amazing. And counter-intuitive. A question it brings up for me, is what learnings, this example can have for us as designers of social change, as people who work with people whom we think who have nothing and who we want to work with and improve their life.
Anyway, I don't think we'll go into that question, but just because we have you guys on the call and it would be quite unjust to not have a conversation on the topic of money. You have for a long time been giving your money very generously for various social causes. And we know that money is a critical resource, which is needed for our survival but at the same time, I'm also hearing you say that, that you have come across situations and people where, they have created amazing social change without actually utilizing any money.
So if you're speaking to any young social entrepreneur, what would you be your advice for engaging with money?
Archana : So I have been volunteering at Jai Vakeel for the last 10-12 years which basically means I get no salary. So it was a choice that we made, a choice I was fully in agreement with but the reality is for the first few months, when no salary check was hitting my account, I think at some bizarre level, it was a hit to myself. And I realized how much we measured our own self-esteem by the amount of money in the bank. That was a big ah-ha moment for me.
It was so tempting for me to just go and either ask for money, or get another job where I would get some money. And I swear I was hounded by the fact that I made no money. At some level I felt very vulnerable. So again, that was one fun dining table conversation.
Long story short. It was a journey. I had to come to terms with the fact that my self esteem, or my self worth, my self confidence should not be dependent on the money in the bank. But at the same time, I realized how important as a factor that is as well. So I remember a couple of years ago, when Amit was talking to Anika and she said "I want to grow up and be like, mama." and, working in a not for profit. And it's not about the money, and this, that, and the other. I consciously sat her down and said, it is about the money you have to learn to fend for yourself. You have to be able to look after yourself and all your needs. That is not negotiable because we're not providing it. You've read that letter.
And I said, even when I was growing up, my parents made very sure that I knew how to do everything. Whether it was cooking, driving a car, having a job, making enough money to support yourself. Having a skillset that enables you to do that. Then as life happens, you can make the choices that you want to and need to.
So I cannot stress enough on the need to equip yourself with the skill-sets, professional education and experience required for that. Having said that, just that is also not enough. There are various other factors at play. For example, at Jai Vakeel, some of the work that we're able to do, is thanks to our really large volunteer base. 33% of our senior management today is voluntary. That does not mean we're compromising on skill sets or calibre. It's just a place where people are choosing to give of themselves freely and we're welcoming it and the whole space is benefiting from it.
So from my perspective, money plays a very important role. We shouldn't take away from that. I think the best impact can be made when you marry that with doing things from the heart. Doing things for the right reasons.
Amit - I would probably agree with all of that! I think the challenge really lies with people not defining what is really enough. If you don't define what is enough, you'll get onto an endless kind of a treadmill, which is, you know, driven by greed. That ends up being very unproductive. If you have mental clarity about that question, then a lot of things start falling in place.
I think the second thing is that if you are indeed capable of generating wealth, and you feel that that's your blessing, then you should do that. But I think you should do it with a sense of purpose. If that purpose is focused on the greater good, then, I think, there's some nobility to that wealth creation. A lot of people end up losing their way when that wealth creation is for the wrong set of reasons.
Rohit - Wonderful. Sangeeta, do you have a quick final question before we close?
Sangeeta - Like you said in the beginning, you are seeing this as a work in progress. We would really like to hear from you where do you think you are headed next?
Archana - I think for me, it's about striking a better balance in my life. I absolutely love the work I do. But I also play many other roles in my life - a wife, mother, daughter, homemaker, friend, etc. And I have my spiritual practice, which I would like to do more of. I have been having a very active dialgoue with Amit about how do we, atleast, how do I create a little bit more of balance. For instance I would like to not do my meditation as an activity, but be more mindful. Also to do more at both the ATE Chandra Foundation and the Jai Vakeel Foundation. So basically, more balance.
Amit - I think for me it is two things - Personally, I feel I have done a B minus job in the social sector. Sure, a few good institutions have been seeded. GiveIndia has got to the level it has got. Ashoka University is where it is. A few NGOs have done well. But no real problems have been solved. I look around me and I still see a lot of problems. I would feel satisfied if, as a team at the foundation, we feel we have solved problems for, say, at least 5% of those facing deprivation in our country of 1.3Billion people. To be able to solve problems for that segment over the next 10 or 15 years. Then I think we can say we've achieved at least something. We need to put our minds together in a collaborative or movement to achieve that. I think we all have a lot of work to do in that. We can choose our spots. We are trying to do that in work, in rural development and social sector capacity building. I think that's a lot to do to take us from being B minus to being an A. Personally, I think there's a lot of work I need to do on myself.
I've not spent any time with myself meaningfully. I've just been so busy building organizations all my life that I've had no time for myself really. I want to create that time in the years ahead if I have the opportunity. So I'm hoping that that happens.
Rohit - Thank you so much for the lovely and generous sharing. I can clearly see from what you shared that for the last many years your life is in a beautiful upward spiral. Where you keep effortlessly and seamlessly dancing between giving to others and also enriching yourself. In that process, you have inspired so many people and created so much change. With the humility with which you hold it, you are redefining the notions of a life of success, a life of meaning and a life of richness. Thank you so much.
I think Guru Nanak Saab himself is blessing our day today. We have another volunteer, Kinnari, who is going to just join us to offer a few lines of another beautiful shabad. Thank you Kinnari! And then we'll close with a few moments of silence.
Rohit - Thank you. That's wonderful. Thank you so much. just a few moments of silence and we'll close out.
[All observe a minute of silence]