Indiaspora Philanthropy Leaders List shines spotlight on giving back


From Gururaj Deshpande to Romesh Wadhwani, the 2021 Indiaspora Philanthropy Leaders List spotlight featured the who’s who of the Indian-American world.

The nonprofit Indiaspora hosted its event on August 12 on Zoom to commemorate 100 philanthropists of Indian origin who have made an impactful contribution to their local to global communities.

The sessions featured notable philanthropists from across the globe — US, India, UK, Singapore, UAE, Canada, and Australia — providing insight and advice in panel discussions, fireside chats, and keynote addresses.

Indiaspora, founded in 2012, aims to facilitate innovation and entrepreneurship, support nonpartisan civic engagement, and focus on philanthropy and social impact. The 100 chosen philanthropists have dedicated their lives to issues ranging from health care, food insecurity, disability rights, rural development, water supply, to sanitation and more.

Indiaspora founder M R Rangaswami said the Philanthropy Leaders List hopes to “double the giving and impact of the community over the next five years,” and that the “100 individuals will help inspire, motivate and do their part to make our community, the most philanthropic community in the world.”

The event kicked off with speakers who founded organizations ranging from the American India Foundation, to SymphonyAI, to Central Square Foundation.

Gururaj Deshpande, president & chairman of Sparta Group LLC and co-founder of Deshpande Foundation, started the day by speaking about social innovation through technology and entrepreneurship, believing it to be necessary in countries such as India and stating that “you don’t survive unless you do things, cheaper, better and faster.”

There is no other country in the world where you get this intersection of freedom to operate, you know you can do what you want to do, that globally competent talent, and problems that are huge,” said Deshpande. “And so [India is] a great playground to actually come up with solutions and bring forth to millions of people.”

As the session continued, many of them shared their stories and experience in philanthropy, along with their challenges.

Like most of us, my initial giving was in the sense of charity,” said Aditya Jha, founder & chairman of POA Educational Foundation. “And I think I call myself I’ve graduated from charity to philanthropy in my own way…. To me, philanthropy has reached that place [in] that I’m giving to myself. It’s like having a garden outside my house… but anybody can walk and get the fragrance of that and the beauty of that, they can enjoy.”

In a later discussion about the use of Artificial Intelligence for social good, Romesh Wadhwani, founder, chairman and CEO of SymphonyAI and Founder of Wadhwani Foundation, provided insight to how he and his brother started their journeys with entrepreneurship with AI.

AI is both treated like the savior of the future, and the beast of the future,” he said, noticing that reports would be published about AI replacing jobs and causing a rise in unemployment.

However, Wadhwani and his brother believed that AI had a brighter future than some expected, and thus, they created SymphonyAI to connect the technology towards social development.

During the second session of the event, Ashish Dhawan, founder & chairperson of Central Square Foundation, emphasized the benefits of successful leaders to become philanthropists, recalling a famous quote from industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie while giving a speech about the rising amount of philanthropy in India

Andrew Carnegie, who was the richest person in the world at one point in time and then hung up his boots and really dedicated the last part of his life to philanthropy, famously said that ‘He who dies rich dies disgraced’, ” said Dhawan.

And I think there’s a real opportunity for many philanthropists in India — to not just run programs, but build a variety of different institutions that have a lasting effect in terms of economic and social transformation. There are so many institutional voids to be filled. There’s so much that can be done at the early stages, in terms of getting these institutions up and running.”

Ronnie Screwvala, co-founder of Swades Foundation, spoke about the benefits of philanthropy in rural India.

Philanthropy right now for me, it’s a large word and the reason I say it’s a large word is because it just reeks of ‘you need to be evolved, you need to be at a certain age, you need to have a certain bank balance.’ And that kind of eliminates a lot of people…,” said Ronnie Screwvala.

What do we need to do to make the word ‘philanthropy’ actually very accessible and identifiable not [just] to age groups, but anyone [with] any socio economic status.”

Swades Foundation co-founder Zarina Screwvala also highlighted the importance of using philanthropy as a means to help others become self-sufficient rather than dependent. She admired a model that can create “sustainable rural development,” which is defined as being able to achieve a social, economic, political and environmental balance that raises the living standards of a community.