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Rohini Nilekani on the Role of Women in Philanthropy

Ecosystem Building | Sep 15, 2015

Rohini Nilekani on the Role of Women in Philanthropy – Dasra India.

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s talk on the Role of Women in Philanthropy at the Indian Philanthropy Forum held by Dasra.

The Economic Times has reported that Indian women are the most stressed in the world. 87% of women here feel stressed most of the time, and 82% feel like they have no time to relax. We see this reality reflected in our day-to-day lives, but it’s shocking to see the statistics, put the state of things black and white terms. The cause of this, according to the article, is that India today functions with a 21st century economy but with a society that is still stuck in the 20th century. The role of women in our society is still constricted by a very patriarchal framework. So much of the work that women do is invisible and undervalued, which affects the kind of economic rights they have. There are, of course, women who do have a clear sense of how we add value, how we create both visible and invisible wealth, and are therefore aware of the role they can play in giving back to society. But I think, for the majority of women in this country, this is not true. So in a society where it’s difficult for women to accumulate wealth, we need to understand that women can be philanthropists in many other ways.

Only a few women are wealthy, either through their own efforts or through inheritance of family wealth. These are the philanthropists who would be able to give away large amounts of money to serve the public good. But women have played a far greater role in philanthropy than merely giving wealth away. As a philanthropist, there are many things you have to offer including your time, energy, and talents, to work towards a better society. Throughout history, this has been the impetus for philanthropy – the desire in people to create positive change. This is the starting point of philanthropy, and women have been doing this for centuries, regardless of their position in society or the wealth they possessed.

In India, Maharashtrian women played a seminal role in advocating for and advancing the political participation of women in our society. From the days when Manu said that all women should stay at home and be controlled either by their fathers, husbands or sons, Indian society has moved forward. We have won battles, but the war is still being waged. Throughout, it was women leaders who moved out of their comfort zones and worked to ensure that everyone had an equal voice in society.

For example, in 1848 Savitribai Phule, Jyotiba Phule’s partner, set up the first school for girls in India. Lady Avabai Jejeebhoy who was thinking about public infrastructure back in the 1840s, funded the construction of the Mahim causeway. Women like Dr. Iravati Karve, Durgabai Deshmukh, and Pandita Ramabai, were key female figures throughout Indian history. They gave back to the community, but they also did so in a way that was a form of political action. These are the kind of women on whose shoulders so many of us stand and we owe them a huge debt for making it possible for women to participate more fully in Indian society.

When I think about myself, I would say that I’d always end up being an activist. Whether I had become wealthy or not, in some way or the other, I would have been in the field of social action. As it happened, I did come into some wealth through Infosys. At the time, I really struggled with this. Whose wealth is it anyway? It wasn’t my wealth. Could I really do whatever I like with it? Can I buy whatever I like? Can I give it away to whomever I like? It took years for me to be comfortable with the idea of wealth on that scale.

When Infosys was set up, I actually did put in some real equity, Rs.10,000 to be precise. Half of this amount was a gift from my parents and the other half was from my savings from my Bank of India account. That was put into Infosys between ’81 and ’82. Now that happened to turn into this kind of wealth, but did I make that money myself? No. This led me to think about how wealth creation really happens in our society. If we think of any institution in society, can we really say that it was the Ambanis or the Nilekanis or the Tatas who created their own wealth? Of course not. It is a completely social venture. Many things need to be in place before an innovator or entrepreneur can create new value. It comes from what exists. So that was the first thing that I had to struggle with.

The second thing I had to struggle with was how much of that work is invisible? I started to think about the kind of work that some of us did for Infosys. If there were mostly men working there, the women were chauffeurs, cooks, and supporters of our husbands. Shouldn’t that also be counted as work? What if I hadn’t invested my Rs.10,000 in Infosys? Would that still allow me to share the wealth and think that it’s mine to give away? It’s important for us to think through these things, because that wealth doesn’t belong to Nandan or to me particularly, it has to belong to all of society. Only after thinking through these issues did I say, “I am a trustee of this wealth. In any case, this is neither Nandan’s wealth nor mine. We are holding it for a while, we’re holding some of it very closely and buying this nice saree and these earrings. But a lot of it must go forward.” And I became more comfortable about it after that.

Then, of course, the great exciting adventure is to figure out how to give it away. You cannot live with this amount of wealth in a society like India. It’s just ridiculous. You cannot happily live in a country where we’re unsure whether 400 million people are going to bed with all the nutrition they require for the day. The great adventure is to say, how can we change this? In that process, we will have to think about how to change the accumulation of wealth in the first place.

A lot of wealth today gets concentrated in the hands of people like me, because we allow certain intellectual property rights to accumulate to individuals and corporations. What if it was not like that? Centuries ago, when the Ajanta and Ellora caves were made or other such examples of art were built and created in this country, they were done as open source creations. What if we brought that sort of culture back to the 21st century, when we’re tackling so many unprecedented problems which require collective action? If we had a more in a collaborative open source kind of model for value creation going forward, then how would wealth creation itself change? Women, I think, would play a vital role in bringing these issues to the forefront.

I believe that the future of India will see women coming into their own, and becoming official wealth creators. This will substantially change the way women will give back to society, going forward. Women in philanthropy will play an increasingly bigger role, giving with a feminine, nurturing energy, which might change how we all give back to society. We talk a lot about impact, and I think women will hopefully tackle the root causes and real social issues. It’s not only the wealthy women who are going to be giving in India. Women of all social and economic classes have been giving in many ways, and they’re going to do more structured giving. For me, the biggest example of this is the self-help groups that we’ve seen forming all over the country. Over the last 25 years, around five million self-help groups have been formed, each with 10-15 members. So we have anywhere between 50 and 70 million women of a lower to middle economic stature in this country who are working towards social good. Women really do have the potential to change the face of Indian philanthropy.

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