Conversations of Change | Gautam John, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

Jan 24, 2023


The ‘Conversation of Change’ series is a video interview series centered around one of the most pertinent crises of our times- Climate change. This is an attempt to synthesize perspectives around climate action, skills, talent and journey of various climate leaders and their role in the climate ecosystem. In this session, we discuss various themes on the work done at @RNP_Foundation, speaker’s key learnings for those aspiring to work in the philanthropic world, growing involvement of climate action in public discourse, how the governments & CSOs can address the escalating climate risks and much more.



0:00:05.2 Koushik: Morning, everyone. So for this conversation of change, we have our guest, Mr. Gautam John, the CEO at Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. I’ll start by introducing our guest and then we’ll start getting into the questions. So, Gautam John is the CEO of the Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. Prior to this, he also worked as the director of strategy at the Nilekani Philanthropies. He also worked with Pratham Books Akshara Foundation, and Gautam believes that it is powerful to give people the ability to make a choice and that everyone is a agent of change. Now, prior to his current role, he spent several years working with nonprofits, building open source collaborative impact platforms, and he’s a TED Fellow, was an entrepreneur for six years and graduated from National Law School in 2002. Welcome, Gautam, to this conversation today.

0:00:58.0 Gautam John: Thank you, Koushik. Thank you for inviting me. I’ve followed Climate Asia’s work with a great deal of interest, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

0:01:06.9 S1: Alright, so we’ll start with our first question, Gautam. So we want to know what does a typical day for you as a CEO looks like in the philanthropy? And if you can describe also your work and what’s the kind of intersectionality with climate, if there is you know, given the thematic focus areas of the philanthropy.

0:01:27.9 GJ: Good question. I want to preface it by stating that the CEO role is a very new one. The organization is also a very new one. We formally incorporated the Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies Foundation only this year. And prior to that, we worked as consultants to Rohini, and there weren’t very many of us. And today, we have a team of seven, maybe eight people by the end of the year. But for the first many, many years as I worked as a consultant to the family, it was just me. So, while the CEO role sounds like I have a large team, we don’t. Our internal joke is that the only thing we lead is ourselves. And in that vein, I think our work is really about enabling. We co-lead, we enable each other to do our best work. Much like our role in the philanthropy is to convene, connect, and nourish our partners and our portfolios for them to be able to do their best work. So to that extent, our day is a lot of conversation, is a lot of learning and is a lot of enabling. That’s really what our role looks like. And we all play that role, irrespective of the titles we carry. So the CEO title sounds important, but it’s also that someone need to be CEO, not necessarily that it’s a weighty role.

0:03:10.5 GJ: On your question around the climate, fair question. I think our journey in climate is a new one. We have many decades of work that Rohini has embedded deeply in conservation and biodiversity and now in climate change. And the way we came to the question of climate change wasn’t only around climate change impacting the work that we do in environment, but that it impacts our work across everything we do, whether it’s our work on access to improving access to justice, whether it’s our work on citizenship and active public engagement. Climate change really impacts all of the work we do. And I think the corollary is also true that climate change, we have an ability to impact and mitigate and adapt and build resilience towards climate change across all of the work we do. So it’s emergent, but it is definitely a horizontal that we see is functioning across all of the roles we play. Yeah.

0:03:55.3 S1: Right. Thanks. And you also had been an entrepreneur and later worked on strategy and building open source collaborative platforms. Like in this whole journey, how do you describe the learnings that you had and how did it prepare for you to work in this philanthropic world?

0:04:15.0 GJ: So I really think that there were key insights in each stage in my journey that I have been able… I’ve had the privilege of being able to double down on. I think for me as a lawyer, I was very interested in intellectual property rights. And the joy over there was really how do you strike a balance between public good and private return for the entrepreneurs themselves, but also for the general public. As an entrepreneur, the thing that I really became excited about was the generative ideas that entrepreneurs have and the ability to create their own realities, which was really, really fascinating. It comes from a place of abundance. It comes from a place of creativity and enablement. And that’s the part that I really enjoyed when moving to the development sector, of looking at abilities to create limitless solutions for everyone. And also using both the law and entrepreneurship, or at least the ideal of entrepreneurship, of creating net returns, cap… Creating more value than you capture for everyone.

0:05:26.7 GJ: So the move to the development sector was kind of building on those two narratives and trends that I found interesting and also the interest I had in technology, so the whole collaborative platforms came from that. And, for me, the privilege of being able to head a large philanthropy in India really has deepened my interest in the idea of leadership. What does it mean to be a social entrepreneur? What does it mean to be a systems leader? What are the journeys that leaders take for themselves before they take for their teams, organizations, and ecosystems? So really that’s the journey that I’ve been on and the one that I find most fascinating. And I think if there were three to four mindsets that have held me in good state, and I see reflected in the most effective leaders that I get to work alongside, it’s definitely one of curiosity, this constant beginner’s mindset.

0:06:35.3 GJ: This balance between compassion and rigor, of being very compassionate, but yet holding yourselves to high standards, of being humbled in their approach, but not modest in their ambition. Everyone wants to change the world, or at least change their world, but are very humble in how they go about it. And I think the one that I’ve learned at least in the last few years of being in this role has been the value of trust. Rohini talks about trust being something you start with rather than something you end with. And I’ve come to see the importance of that. So, yeah, for people taking any journey, not just in the philanthropic world, I think curiosity, compassion, empathy, trust, humility, but not modesty. Modesty and ambitions are principles that I have seen reflected and valuable.

0:07:28.4 S1: Thank you for sharing that. And as the organization’s tagline, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar, and also the book, Samaaj, Sarkaar, Bazaar, which Rohini has written. So I think there’s a whole section on water and environment, like I was also going through the articles back from the day, and you mentioned about focus on resilience and adaptation when it comes to climate work within the programs that you’re doing. So if you could share a little more about what’s your sense of how CSOs are addressing this and how can the CSOs or the nonprofits can be supported in the ecosystem through your work?

0:08:09.8 GJ: Great question. And like I said our work in climate is very new, and we get to learn alongside the work of others. Civil society organizations in India, particularly ones that work with groups who are vulnerable or marginalized, are at the frontline of responding to climate challenges. Right. Almost everything we see today is in some form or fashion caused by anthropogenic change or intrusion. So in a sense, ground grassroots organizations in India are far more likely to be able to respond urgently and immediately to incipient climate challenges than philanthropies can. And I think it’s for philanthropies to A, acknowledge that, and B, listen to what they have to say to be able to articulate their own positions.

0:09:00.2 GJ: Whether it’s building networks of trust that can be called upon during challenges, whether it’s improving community resilience, whether it’s creating new livelihoods that are not just climate-sensitive, but also build and deepen bio-diversity, the roles of philanthropy are myriad, but I think the most important role is for us to listen very carefully and be very close and truly hear what organizations at the frontline of this work are doing to be able to acknowledge that they are the ones that are best placed and most proximate to vulnerable communities to be able to respond and build these networks of trust and resilience. And for us to support that rather than necessarily for us to come in with only our own thoughts and ideas. We truly believe that Samaaj is the first sector. And to do that we need to A, listen to Samaaj actors, acknowledge their proximity of knowledge, their native and intrinsic knowledge, and then build from that rather than replace all of that with our centralized thinking.

0:10:00.7 S1: Right. And I think the philanthropy also focuses a lot on building gender equitable society, like bringing young men and boys into the gender conversations. I think there’s a lot of great non-profits that you support in the work you support. We also, dabble with this whole intersection of gender and climate because as you know, women bear the brunt of climate change in the country. So could you throw more light on the initiatives that you have and how important it is for gender equality also from the climate lens?

0:10:35.7 GJ: I think that’s true, I think that’s very true for any marker of vulnerability, right? Whether it’s gender, whether it’s caste, whether it’s class, whether it’s economic wellbeing. If you are vulnerable, climate risk will make you doubly vulnerable. Women, in particular, bear that brunt, whether it’s access to water, whether it’s access to livelihoods and food, that will become harder and harder for them. While we haven’t specifically explored the intersection of climate and justice… Climate and gender justice in our work, we’re very, very cognizant of the nascent conversation around just transitions. And it’s something that we’ll definitely engage with in greater depth. Secondly, if we had to acknowledge that a gender equal or a gender, and a gender-equitable society is what we’re looking to build, while we acknowledge the vulnerabilities of women, part of the question is also what is the work for men to do in building this future? And those are questions that we hold and explore over the next few years of the philanthropy, the intersectional approach is something that we’re beginning to understand, A for climate, B for the just transition work, but also for public problem solving and some of the other areas in which we work like access to justice. So yeah, great question. And I’m not sure I had a complete answer, but at least we have the start of the questions that we are asking ourselves.

0:12:03.7 S1: Right. And a totally different question away from the programs that philanthropy does, like as a law practitioner or a student of law, we keep hearing, there have been calls around how the nature including entities like rivers and animals have to be treated as legal entities. So there have been calls by certain groups of environmentalists. So what do you think of that idea and do you think that kind of an idea can be materialized in a country like India or even in the world?

0:12:37.8 GJ: There are a couple of ways of looking at it, right? One is why do we need to give them legalistic rights as entities? It’s because we don’t necessarily have a framework that protects those intrinsic rights. But I think the more important one is for indigenous… To recognize that indigenous communities have a far greater claim on those resources, and treat them as parts of their community and ecosystem in ways that we don’t necessarily understand or acknowledge. So both of those are really, really important. And it’s evolving jurisprudence, and I’m very curious to see how it lands. And it could go many ways, but I think the acknowledgement is that these are vital elements of wellbeing for communities and that many indigenous and native communities across the world and in India have treated them as such. So it’s really acknowledging what exists rather than perhaps creating something new.

0:13:35.0 S1: I agree. Right. And coming to talk about organizational capacity building, which is also one of the areas that we focus on. So in one of your articles you mentioned about building this culture which makes learning as the center for the organization, and you also mentioned that every organization eventually will become more sustainable and environment friendly, and that’s the need and necessity. So, how do you think creating such policies or systems for organizations… For a learning organization can be addressed? Because this is something we keep constantly getting from organizations as well, who are becoming more and more conscious about sustainable ways and how do we incorporate that into our work and learning? So what are your views or sort of thoughts around that?

0:14:33.6 GJ: I think a learning organization doesn’t happen by default. I think it happens intentionally, and that intention has to be set by leadership. And it also doesn’t matter that if leadership says a learning organization is important, what matters is that they actually practice that. So it’s easy to say, we want to be a learning organization. It’s much harder to build the culture of it. And that kind of flows, like I said, the attributes of leadership that we’ve seen in our communities and networks of being curious, of being humble. If you’re not open to that, then how will your organization be open to that? So it is for the leader to show up with… The leadership to show up with those qualities that then builds the culture within the organization from which you can evolve the practices of the organization. But fundamentally it’s for the leadership to A, acknowledge it’s important, but then B, also practice that themselves before asking the organizational culture to respond to it.

0:15:34.0 S1: Right. No, I think I agree. I think the intent and willingness from the leadership and making it intentional is important and this is something that we see from some of the consulting work we do with some of the organizations. Although sometimes it comes with a very scholarly theoretical approach that we want learning and development frameworks, but the buy-in from the leadership becomes very important.

0:15:58.3 GJ: It’s more than buy-in, right? It’s the practice. If people see that the leadership doesn’t practice the values of learning, why would anyone else do it? Ultimately, all of the frameworks are pointless if people don’t necessarily believe that it is the culture of the organization. A culture is not something that is embedded in frameworks, it’s something that’s embedded in how people show up in the organization.

0:16:25.0 S1: Totally agree. And how do you personally find balance between your work and life, and what are some of the things that you do to unwind from your work, Gautam?

0:16:36.3 GJ: So, good question. I’m not entirely sure I have a fair answer to it. I have… I’m fortunate to have a eight-year-old daughter, so that by itself is a significant portion of my life and she is very firm about drawing boundaries between time with her, and the time with the family, and time at work. I’m also really fortunate that work itself is rewarding because we work across so many areas, and I’m able to have so many conversations where I can show up as a beginner and nobody is going to push back. So work itself is rewarding. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful family that we draw hard boundaries and protective of our time. And yeah just it’s really that, I think the takeaway is that to add meaning to your life you have to take away something from your list of things to do. Adding meaning cannot come from the addition of more things. I have a colleague of mine, Natasha, to thank for that insight. You cannot attain wellbeing by adding more things, you first have to subtract things. So yeah, [chuckle] I try and subtract things from my day to be able to make space for the things that I value.

0:17:57.6 S1: Awesome. Great. Thank you for sharing all of this. I think we went really quick with all the questions, and you’ve also been…

0:18:04.6 GJ: Thank you.

0:18:05.3 S1: Very crisp with your responses. A final question from my side would be, “What are you reading currently, are there any books, movies, or any media that you’re consuming that you would recommend?

0:18:17.5 GJ: Yeah. I mean, good question. The book that I’m reading right now is this new book called “The Dawn of Everything.” I don’t know if you’ve read it. It’s by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It’s a new book that kind of re-posits the… Or rather re-imagines the history of humanity based on new discoveries. And it’s one that’s challenging. I’m really really enjoying reading that. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction. I just finished, you know, I recently finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s, “The Ministry of the Future,” which was uncomfortable because while it was written as science fiction, it feels real enough to be current. But those are two things that I was reading currently that I’m really really enjoying.

0:19:09.6 S1: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that, Gautam. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and thanks for joining us today. We look forward to engage with you on more such engagements that we come across in Climate Asia, around the climate and around the careers and jobs and transitions that we are focusing on. Thank you so much for your time today.



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