You have built the most successful venture capital and private equity business in India. Your cashouts and bonuses make for a generous pile. You are still in your early 40s and are not yet ready to lower gears in life to watch your three kids grow. What do you do?
If you are Ashish Dhawan, you have a go at the next big – indeed, bigger – thing: transforming the way India teaches its children. Dhawan, who co-founded Chrysalis Capital (later renamed ChrysCapital) in 1998 and built it up to be India’s biggest venture capital (VC) private equity (PE) fund backed by foreign investors, has pooled in Rs 75 crore with friends to seed Central Square Foundation. “Starting Central Square is so much like when I started ChrysCapital – dive in, start small, fail, learn, reboot and find your way,” he says. Two bedrooms in an apartment in New Delhi’s upmarket Lodhi Estate make for the office of his seven-people team, who sit around two large wooden tables.
The idea is not just to build another non-profit but to achieve systemic change, says Dhawan of his aim to raise standards in the rote-heavy Indian school education system. And for that, he wanted to play to his strengths both as an investor and as a corporate leader. “We are working at two levels. One is to act as a philanthropic VC where we identify, incubate and nurture entrepreneurs working in the education domain, especially working for the bottom of pyramid in the K-12 space. The other is to leverage on our networking and advocacy skills to provide services and best practices to enable sharing of innovation, highlight learning and knowledge that can eventually influence public policy,” he says. K-12 is short for kindergarten to Class 12.
Think of it as new-age benevolence. Philanthropy is no longer limited to age-old business houses like the Tatas. Many businesses that have made it big in the last two decades, as also successful professionals, are giving back. They are taking best practices of management to areas they want to support. “Real organisations are being built rather than just cheque book charity. It is a strategic approach at a systemic level with the quantum of money to back it,” says Dhawan. “The results will slowly show for themselves.”
The reach of corporate philanthropy is growing, too. Foundations seeded by Azim Premji, Shiv Nadar and Sunil Mittal’s family are engaged in education Infosys writes out one per cent of its net profits every year to an eponymous foundation. Retired investment banker Hemendra supports wildlife conservation. The Hemendra Kothari Foundation also arranges health services and diagnostic tests for villagers. Anji Reddy, Asit Koticha, Anu Aga, Rohini Nilekani, Rakesh Jhunjhuwala, Vineet Nayar, Kalpana Morparia, Nita Ambani… the list goes on.
Even set against such worthies, Dhawan, who wants his epitaph to read “an entrepreneur with a heart”, holds promise. He is full time with Central Square Foundation now, except for some fiduciary work at ChrysCapital, and continues to work his long days. Private equity peer Rahul Bhasin says Dhawan is very driven and passionate about education “and I hope that what he is doing does not remain an island of success but scales up into a much bigger movement”.
If Dhawan and other philanthropists deliver, India will have several models with impact on the ground to show for. No matter how difficult the odds are. As ChrysCapital Managing Director Sanjiv Kaul says of Dhawan: “To be a phenomenon in a lifetime is a one in a million chance, but to be a phenomenon twice in a lifetime, is a one in a billion chance.” A chance worth taking.