I have been extremely privileged to spend the past week in New York City listening to prime ministers, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, leading philanthropists, activists and leaders from non-profits all putting their differences aside for the common purpose of solving the world’s most pressing, intractable problems at the UN Sustainable Development Summit. From eradicating extreme poverty to reducing maternal mortality, 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) have been adopted by the UN; the target is 2030. This multi-stakeholder commitment will influence all our lives and make the world a more humane and habitable place for generations to come.
This was not my first time in New York; in fact, I lived there in the late 1990s. While similar discussions went on during that period to create the UN’s millennium development goals, I was unaware that such goals existed. Fresh out of college, I was starting my first job at a reputable investment bank, excited to finally earn money and pursue the American dream. Working 100-hour weeks, I was able to learn a tremendous amount about capital markets, and met some amazing entrepreneurs. Though I made very close friends and had an amazing group of mentors, I kept thinking about my experiences just one year earlier, volunteering with the Community Outreach Programme, educating children living on Mumbai’s streets. I wondered if my experience in banking and my desire to help those less fortunate could somehow converge. This led me to quit my job at the age of 24 and move to India to start Dasra in 1999.
I had no connections, business relationships, family wealth to tap into, or even knowledge of the Indian development sector. What I did have, though, was experience in identifying and nurturing entrepreneurs and a burning conviction about the need to empower marginalized communities. Though it took me a year to build networks, gain the trust of organizations on the ground, and analyse a large enough sample size to begin identifying trends in a particular sector, I was finally able to narrow down my initial search to fund and provide managerial support through Dasra to two budding social entrepreneurs, Matthew Spacie and Vineet Rai.
Matthew was in his early 30s, chief operating officer of travel company Cox & Kings and founder of an initiative called Magic Bus. Raising financial support from friends and family, Spacie worked with 50 underprivileged children, using sport as a medium to engage and empower them.
Rai was in his late 20s, married, with a son, and was identifying and scaling innovations from rural Gujarat. While the three of us came from diverse backgrounds and had adopted differing models of social change, we were bound together by our middle-class upbringing, a deep desire to help others and an underlying belief that our sweat equity was more important than the financial resources we could have amassed before entering the development sector. We came into this sector at an early age, which gave us the energy and drive to work through various hurdles and challenges.
Today, Spacie’s organization empowers over 300,000 youth and children across India and is a global leader in creating youth leaders. Rai is managing over $200 million (around Rs.1,300 crore) to enhance livelihoods and reduce vulnerabilities for low-income populations through the Aavishkaar social venture fund. And Dasra has deployed $50 million in the social sector working with leading philanthropists, companies and social entrepreneurs. While we feel fortunate that we have surpassed our initial targets on scale and impact, set 15 years ago, we keep resetting the bar, pushing ourselves, stakeholders and teams to work harder, smarter and with more humility.
To achieve the ambitious SDGs ratified last week, India needs new players, fresh capital and innovative partnerships. India cannot wait till you become a millionaire or billionaire to begin your philanthropic journey.
As the late Nelson Mandela stated, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Deval Sanghavi is co-founder of Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation.