Philanthropy has to be sustainable: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Biocon MD Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw explains that her philanthropic efforts are focused on healthcare, and makes a distinction between charity and philanthropy


Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director, Biocon. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director, Biocon. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the chairperson and managing director at Biocon Ltd, a biotechnology firm. Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010, Mazumdar-Shaw is recognized as much for her entrepreneurial expertise as she is for her philanthropy. This year, she became the second Indian to take the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to give away their wealth for social good. In an interview conducted by Bridgespan in partnership with Mint, she explains that her philanthropic efforts are focused on healthcare, and makes a distinction between charity and philanthropy.  Edited excerpts:

What motivated you to start your philanthropic journey and where did you go for advice?

I belong to the breed of first-generation entrepreneurs who have basically created our enterprises with very frugal resources. Being in a field like healthcare, for me as someone who is basically on a mission to make a global impact in terms of affordable access to healthcare, I am very, very concerned about the fact that there are a large number of people in this world who need to have some access to basic rights, whether it is in education or healthcare. This is a huge global challenge which I think every one of us who has been fortunate enough to create the kind of wealth we have created, needs to do something about.

Inherently I have a social conscience which my late father inculcated in me. He was not exactly a very wealthy man but he was very concerned about the underprivileged, about the people who didn’t have equal opportunities.

Can you talk about your portfolio of philanthropic works? You mentioned you work in cancer, and initiated work in diabetes.

My philanthropy is largely focused on healthcare and I really want to make a difference to people’s lives. The poor are absolutely neglected and they are abused in many ways, because the system just totally ignores their needs, so I have also sort of allocated some part of my philanthropy funds to primary healthcare. In primary healthcare again, I want to use technology in a big way, because I feel that we have got to leapfrog if we have to make any difference to society. I have helped to create what are called ilaaj (diagnosis) clinics and we use technology to diagnose early so that you can treat early and the outcomes become better.

"(Healthcare) is a huge global challenge which I think every one of us who has been fortunate enough to create the kind of wealth we have created, needs to do something about"- Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

These are experimental times but for me philanthropy is about catalyzing a process. It is not about doing the government’s job, which very often the government believes is what philanthropy is. I don’t ascribe to that at all. I believe that in philanthropy, there are certain things where you can make a big difference like you know building hospitals where you can actually deliver affordable healthcare. I think the government needs to partner with philanthropists and with corporate social responsibility to experiment with new ideas, and that is a form of philanthropy that can really transform.

For you, what has translated from your for-profit experience into your philanthropy?

Philanthropy has to be sustainable, and that’s why I will make a big distinction between charity and philanthropy. Charity has generally a sort of temporary effect and is about giving fish to a hungry man rather than teaching a person how to fish. Philanthropy changes somebody else’s life in a meaningful way.

How is new philanthropy different from traditional philanthropy?

I think old wealth understands philanthropy and they do have a lot of philanthropic programmes to show for it, like in the case of the Birlas or Tatas. They do have a lot to show in terms of philanthropic outcomes; they have created educational institutes, hospitals and other kind of institutions. New wealth takes time to understand what philanthropy is about, because when you create new wealth, your first immediate reaction is “I got to make sure that I keep that wealth for a rainy day”.

What can be done to stimulate philanthropy in India?

Philanthropy is about setting an example and I think many of us first-generation entrepreneurs who have built very successful businesses have come together under the India Philanthropy Initiative (IPI) that Mr (Azim) Premji started. Ratan Tata was also one of the co-conspirators. I would say that many of us who belong to IPI, like Nandan and Rohini Nilekani, are like-minded people when it comes to philanthropy. We all believe that every generation has to create new wealth and the wealth that you have created, a large part of it must go back into making the society better, to make a difference to the ones who have been wronged in the society. Every one of us who has created this kind of wealth in India in recent times has demonstrated a social conscience, whether it is Infosys or Wipro, or Biocon.

"...for me, philanthropy is about catalyzing a process."- Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

What advice do you give to the new philanthropists who are early in their journey?

I always tell people to ask themselves: where do you think you can make a difference and why do you want to make that difference.

New philanthropists tend to feel overwhelmed by the needs of society. How do you decide to focus on certain things and say no to other things?

It’s not just about being a new philanthropist. Even seasoned philanthropists get absolutely bombarded by requests. Everyone comes with great ideas and how wonderful their initiative is and why you should be helping them. As a philanthropist, you have to be very clear on what you are trying to do. If something that is being done actually aligns with what you are doing, then it is very clear that you can actually help this person. But more often most requests don’t quite align with what you are trying to do, so it is very easy to say no. Personally I back ideas where I know that the person is very passionately involved with that initiative because again it is about sustainability. You’ve got to have ownership of what you are doing.

What can strengthen Indian philanthropy?

I believe that investing in incubators and accelerators through an angel investment is also extremely important, provided that you are not looking for a return on that investment and are prepared to reinvest whatever returns you make on such investments. To me as a first-generation entrepreneur I know how tough it is to build a business and to scale it up, so I think philanthropic funds should also help others to build social businesses.

What are the things that you do to be able to delegate in your philanthropy?

You do need to make sure that you build a philanthropic organization or an administrative cell that really looks at your philanthropy very objectively. In most of my kind of philanthropic initiatives, I have really invested in such a way that I leave it to the investees to really take my philanthropy forward. For instance, at the hospital project, I just leave it to the administration of the hospital to make sure that they leverage what I have given them into a very big opportunity.

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The Bridgespan Group, an adviser and resource for mission-driven leaders and organizations, in partnership with Mint interviewed several philanthropists across India to trace their journeys and share their learnings—Conversations with Remarkable Givers: India. To see the full video series, go to www.livemint.com/indiangivers

DaanUtsav or The Joy of Giving Week started on 2 October. In a four-part series, Mint examines the changes and developments in the sector, speaks to philanthropists and discusses how and why they give. We also look at how donations, even small ones, have the potential to change lives.

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