In 1990, Harsh Mariwala set up a personal care business and named it Marico. Its portfolio includes some of the most recognized brands in India. Today, over 25 years later, he is most excited about a non-profit called the Marico Innovation Foundation, which spots innovation in social and business enterprises. The foundation also serves as an incubator for Marico’s social aspirations, nurturing and mentoring organizations, including in the critical and deeply underfunded sector of mental health through the Mariwala Health Initiative.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
When and how did your philanthropic journey begin?
I think in the first few years of my career, I focused only on making money. Then you reach a stage when you say, “Okay, I’ve made lots of money. Now I want recognition.” So you go for that; then you reach a point where you’ve got so much recognition that it stops exciting you. That’s when you stop and think, “What am I doing? What’s my greater purpose in life?”
You realize you need to identify what you want to give back to. So I started reading up on this. Somewhere I read that the first 25 years of your life are for learning, the next 25 for earning and the next 25 for giving. That thought appealed to me.
Can you trace your journey from the day you recognized that purpose?
To start off, I identified four areas that I felt passionate about: entrepreneurship, innovation, preventive health and scaling up. And I was very clear that we didn’t want to just write cheques—I wanted to be hands-on with my time and my effort.
I had to be involved right from conceptualizing the model.
Tell us about any disappointments you have had on this journey.
One of my biggest disappointments is that sometimes you may really believe in a particular approach, but you simply don’t get traction from some key stakeholders. For example, when I was trying to help some of these entrepreneurs scale and make them more efficient, I heard that one of them was telling people behind my back that I was doing all this for some private gain; that I was going to turn his idea into my own business—that hurt a lot.
Can you talk about your approach to problem-solving in development?
Well, broadly speaking, we now focus on three pillars: innovation, nurturing entrepreneurs, and mental health. And in each of the three, we want to go as deep as possible. Which is a very different model compared to the holistic development approach of someone like Ronnie Screwvala, who takes one geography and equips that geography with all the major essentials: education, healthcare, livelihoods. Our approach is that when you focus on specific pillars, it allows you to go as deep as you choose to—and I find that process and its outputs enormously satisfying.
What does it take to build a strong partnership with other institutions?
I think, first of all, in any partnership, you have to be very clear why you need a partner. As a first step, we find it’s a good idea to create a shortlist of 2-3 potential partners and narrow that down to one. You need to see a match in their working styles, their thought process… if those look aligned, a lot of things are taken care of.
How do you even decide what you will do yourself and what you will get done outside?
Basically, you look at the landscape. If there are already people doing the job that you need done, and they’ve evolved to some extent and made some progress, you go to them. If there’s no one like that around, and you reckon that activity is a critical component, you see if you have the resources and bandwidth to do it yourself, and then you take a call.
How have you involved your peers and business networks in your philanthropy?
Well, to begin with, the cause you decide to back should be at the centre, and then you start plugging in everything else around that core—the right people, processes, benchmarks. In our case, when we started interacting with some of my friends and key board members, we found some recently retired CEOs had time on their hands, and were very keen to play a role in helping others. And we also knew of social organizations looking for certain skills. This was clearly demand and supply, and we realized it came down to figuring out who to place where. That fit is very important—you can’t just slot anybody anywhere.
This interview is a part of the India Philanthropy Series, a joint initiative between Dasra, a strategic philanthropy organization, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This series showcases through videos the journeys of some of the most strategic and innovative philanthropists in India.