Philanthropy on a wing with Shiv Nadar

Vinay Kamath | Updated on March 12, 2018

Shiv Nadar with students of Vidya Gyan rural school at Bulandshahr.

The 12-seater Embraer 650 business jet is waiting on the shimmering tarmac of the Chennai airport. It’s early afternoon but there’s no post-meal torpor as a truck load of CISF personnel, chatting animatedly, arrive at a secluded gate inside the cargo complex. One of them does a quick baggage scan and physical check. No queues. After all there are just a few of us travelling on that corporate jet.

With ten minutes to go for departure, IT magnate and Chairman of the $6.2-billion HCL Corp, sweeps in. Clad simply in a woollen kurta and pyjama and sandals, 67-year-old Shiv Nadar does not come with any of the appurtenances of modern gadgetry. No iPad or Blackberry; he’s looking quite relaxed. He uses a laptop to swiftly reply to all his mails, one is told later. Along with him is Saurav Adhikari, President, Corporate Strategy, HCL Corp, and advisor to Nadar on his philanthropic Shiv Nadar Foundation.

Nadar has just returned from chairing a meeting of the SSN research advisory council with top academics and scientists at the SSN College of Engineering on the outskirts of Chennai, an institution he founded in 1996 and which has emerged among the top 20 engineering colleges in India.

It’s not every day that one gets to travel with a billionaire on his corporate jet so I accept with alacrity an invitation from him to chat on board. Over the next two-and-a-half hours to Delhi, Nadar talks passionately about his philanthropy, what motivates him and how he sees the many institutions he’s founded, including the eponymous university in UP and schools in the NCR region, evolving.

The aircraft interiors, needless to say, are plush; towards the rear, beyond a few seats, is a lounge with a sofa running alongside the wall of the aircraft. It makes for easy conversation, facing Nadar, himself ensconced in a large comfortable seat. The lone hostess on board plies us with magazines and chocolates. Soon as we belt up, the aircraft takes off.

Fount of research

Apart from the SSN and SNU, the Shiv Nadar Foundation has established two schools in Delhi, one each in Gurgaon and in Noida. I ask Nadar what further foray in education he plans. The idea is, he says, is to scale up the Shiv Nadar K-12 schools to 25 in the near future.

“The expansion will be in the NCR and in Chennai, basically where I live and where I come from. But, a school is a very expensive proposition. A 5-acre school each in Noida and Gurgaon, is what we have; it costs Rs 50 crore to buy the land and another Rs 50 crore to build the property. That’s the capital cost alone,” he explains. The two schools can take up to 2,000 children eventually but with the schools building up their reputation quickly, Nadar says supply will be an issue.

Nadar strongly believes that educational institutions also need to be a fount of research and that is what he aims to do with the SNU.

“When you take the best of universities in the world, all of them have research and education contiguous; the person who teaches you could be a Nobel laureate. Some subjects are at the tri-junction of many subjects put together.”

The SNU will allow free flow of inter-disciplinary choices; an engineering student can choose also to do an economics course. “The future consists of cross specialisation; that is how university systems abroad have evolved,” he adds.

But Nadar, some of whose answers are supplemented by Adhikari, is under no illusion that the task will be easy. “It will take a minimum of Rs 1,500 crore and take 20 years to gain scale. We have to stay the course,” he says. SNU, he envisions, should evolve like a Yale, Carnegie Mellon or Johns Hopkins — good at everything they do, but excelling in a few chosen areas, like Hopkins’ reputation as one of the finest medical schools.

With his daughter Roshni intent to be in the not-for-profit space, Nadar is clear that she will have the long-term focus a philanthropic foundation needs. “In a lot of ways only a woman can lead it. She’s 31-years-old, she has a lot of time to go, but she has the patience of a mother and is not looking for quick results.”

Creative, not corrective

Nadar calls his brand of philanthropy creative as opposed to corrective philanthropy which looks to ameliorate immediate problems. Nadar says he’s the product of education (he is an engineering graduate from PSG College in Coimbatore) and strongly believes a good education can transform lives of the underprivileged with the ripple effect it can create. So, the institutions he is contributing to and creating, he says, are there for the long term and can exert powerful socio-economic transformations. Institutions outlast individuals, like the endowments made by steel baron Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller, whose names are immortalised in universities and institutions such as Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Foundation.

The rural schools, Vidya Gyan, he expects will also have that same force-multiplier effect — from literacy to hygiene — when kids, who are handpicked from the VI standard on re-visit their villages. With one school in Bulandshahr and another in Sitapur, one more is planned near Varanasi, covering 75 districts of UP. The two existing schools, with a 60:40 boys to girls ratio, educate around 1,300 students as of now. It costs the foundation Rs 1.25 lakh a year to educate a child. Lunch is served now, and it’s definitely not standard airline fare! Some grilled fish and chicken salad for Nadar and me, while Adhikari, despite his Bengali moorings, plumps for curd rice! Some sugar-free mousse follows for dessert.

I ask Nadar about the long-term sustainability of the Shiv Nadar Foundation. Even a billionaire can only spend so much.

“A founder can carry an institution only so far and then others have to step in, even the alumni. That’s how an institution becomes one. At SSN, which is in its 17th year, there are others who are contributing to the endowment, establishing scholarships.”

SSN has been named after his father Sivasubramaniya Nadar, a former District Judge. The young Shiv studied in the Tamil medium and travelled all over rural TN, seeing the big city lights of Chennai only when he was 21. The big break came for him when he joined DCM in Delhi in the ’60s as a management trainee.

Scholarship support

At SSN, the foundation has been liberal with its scholarships. Till date, around 6,500 students have benefited from scholarships awarded and over Rs 52 crore has been disbursed. This year, 2012-13, 570 students will benefit from scholarships amounting to Rs.4.5 crore. To illustrate how others are stepping up to the plate, Temenos India’s CEO S.P. Jayanthan has given a Rs 25-lakh corpus for a music scholarship and a Rs 25-lakh corpus for a sports scholarship (football). The interest is given away as scholarships. Nadar says the college supports outstanding sportspersons as well — India cricketer R. Ashwin, among several other national-level sportspersons, is from SSN, he says proudly.

SSN’s rural scholarship programme started in 2008 with 20 students in the first batch. Toppers from district rural schools are admitted on a full scholarship. This first batch graduated in 2012 and all eligible students were placed in jobs at different companies with an average salary of Rs 3.15 lakh. Each year, 25 students are taken in; and at any point in time, 100 study in the college. The Trust spends Rs 2 lakh per student on education, hostel and training.

Mum’s the word

Nadar owns around 62.1 per cent of HCL Technologies, India’s fourth largest IT company, employing around one lakh people, with a market cap of Rs 47,000 crore, putting Nadar’s net worth at around $5.6 billion. I venture to ask Nadar how much he intends to spend on education. “I had said in the past that we will set aside 10 per cent of my net worth towards philanthropy but the way it’s going, it looks like it will be 20 per cent.” The foundation has invested approximately Rs 2,000 crore so far and could well spend another Rs 3,000 crore in the five-year time frame it has set for itself.

One asks Nadar, an ardent movie buff — he saw an old Tamil movie and Race 2 in the space of a few days — what the inflexion points in his life were. He’s ruminative. When HP bought a 26 per cent stake in HCL in the early ’90s, Nadar came into a lot of money. “I was planning to reinvest in the business and was thinking of building more businesses. In 1994 my mother said I was building more and earning more and she was pleased with my enthusiasm. But she asked me, was I going to start thinking about others, the less fortunate? I was still in my ’40s. She said that if you keep waiting for the right age, then you may never get started. She told me that I am a product of education, so why don’t I build an institution.” SSN was born soon after. I point out that other billionaires such as Anand Mahindra and Ratan Tata have donated to create chairs at their alma mater in the US and how about him. Nadar says he already has. Last December, Carnegie Mellon University, with which SSN has a deep relationship for over a decade, created a Shiv Nadar Professor of Engineering Chair. “The chair will support pathbreaking and innovative initiatives in engineering,” adds Nadar. How much he will donate to the chair is a figure that will be decided later.

It’s around 20 minutes to land and we talk about movies and cricket over a cup of steaming coffee. We land in Delhi and are greeted by a red carpet laid out by the aircraft and two Honda Accords to take us and our luggage to the terminal. Well, it’s nice to be a billionaire, I think, and to have the heart to spend it on causes dear to one.

How job-seekers kept away

While creating the HCL edifice, Shiv Nadar, surprisingly says, there haven’t been too many requests to give jobs to people. “Once my mother put her foot down, all relatives backed off,” recalls Nadar.

What about government, one asks, considering the fact that HCL was started with a 26 per cent stake of the UP government’s. “The government has never interfered with what we do. Between NCR, Chennai and Coimbatore, we have one lakh employees and not even one job has been sought by any government.”

But, this was a policy he established right at the beginning. He recalls one incident from the 70s when he got a message that the then UP CM’s nephew should be given a job. Nadar stopped the interview. One wintry morning, at 5 a.m. he got a call from the UP CM who began by saying that there was a candidate related to him. Nadar stopped him saying the business depended on people and brainpower. “He listened to me patiently and said I am not asking for a job. Because a message was sent to you, you stopped the interview for this candidate, now please interview him on merit. I asked for the papers. This boy was second in the university, he was excellent and he was given a job. I called him and said, what, there was no need to go to the CM. He said his father had made the request and because of that it disqualified him. I told him he got this job because of his own merit. Since then, no other call has come, that is 36 years.” It’s the same for admission to his colleges — only on merit, no calls or letters work!

Published on February 05, 2013

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