WASHINGTON, DC: The essence of philanthropy is listening to those in need, said prominent entrepreneur and Chair of the American India Foundation Lata Krishnan here on October 10.
“It isn’t about what we want to get done,” the Indian American business and philanthropy leader said, delivering the second American Bazaar Philanthropy Lecture. “It is about those who are underprivileged and in need; [and finding out] what do they want, and how can we best deliver that.”
Eloquent and inspirational, Krishnan’s speech tapped into her personal experience as a businesswoman of stellar reputation — she cofounded two enormously successful companies with her husband Ajay Shah — and a highly influential philanthropist.
She recalled how she and Shah, along with a friend, bootstrapped SMART Modular Technologies “with only $110,000 in angel funding” in the early 1990s. By 1995, when the duo took the company public, the firm had more than $1 billion in revenue. They sold the company in 2002.
Currently, she is the chief financial officer of Shah Capital Partners, which invests in technology companies.
During the 30-minute speech and question-and-answer session, she repeatedly stressed the need for bringing business-oriented values to philanthropy, which, she said, is one of the two core things the organization she leads, AIF, focuses on.
If one wants to do philanthropy “properly,” Krishnan said, one has “to treat it like an investment requiring thorough due diligence and regular goals and metrics tracking and assessment.”
AIF has more than 200 people in India who “source and screen” projects, monitor them while they are being implemented and deliver values to “investors,” she said.
She also talked about her evolution from being a businesswoman to a philanthropist and the importance she attaches to her work with AIF. “[While] I have had an exhilarating entrepreneurial experience in the magic that is Silicon Valley, I have to say… what fed my soul is AIF, [and] learning about empathy, about the joy of giving, seeing the power of the multiplier effect with beneficiaries going on to uplift their entire communities,” said Krishnan, who has been involved with the foundation since its inception in 2001.
She said, for her, philanthropy is “intoxicating and fulfilling” and “working in this field only makes me want to work more, give back more.”
The Bay Area-based Krishnan, credited her Silicon Valley ties and experience for making her the philanthropist she is today. She described the global innovation hub as a place that “encourages, some might even say, pushes one to think outside of the box, does not look down upon failures, but rather use them as a learning experience, has a plethora of potential mentors and advisors who are willing to help and share their stories.”
Krishnan said the Valley has taught her to “think about nonprofits differently, espousing business-oriented values and combining them with empathy and service.”
She added: “Not only the Silicon Valley has shown me the power of entrepreneurialism, it has also been an extraordinary teacher of the generosity inherent in the American spirit. Both corporations and individuals alike have fully engaged in reaching out to the community, and strongly believe that philanthropy is a commitment and responsibility even while businesses are being nurtured.”
Krishnan also thanked her friends and colleagues in the Valley for teaching her “the generosity of the American spirit.”
In conclusion, the philanthropy leader had three advices for her audience. The first was to combine one’s passion and mission. “Everyone has a passion, everyone has a cause,” she said. “Get outside of your comfort zone and find something that you adore and you are passionate about. You will be amazed how much we are able to learn than we are able to give.”
Krishnan advised women to focus on networking. “Networking is very important — learn how to do it well with sincerity and genuine interest.” She also called on women to “take leadership roles, start businesses, perhaps in the nonprofit sector and for-profit sector.”
The third advice she gave was to put premium on action and compassion. “Just as vision without action is merely a dream, compassion without action is not a tool for change.”
Earlier Assistant Secretary for Global Markets, U.S. Department of Commerce Arun M. Kumar introduced Krishnan. “Lata has been a pioneer in many ways,” he said. “He was one of the first female executives to crack the list of the highest compensated in Silicon Valley… She has pursued with the American India Foundation, a model, a concept of how the diaspora can support development in India in a very organized and professional way.”
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” quoting Bible, Kumar, one of the highest ranking Indian Americans in the Obama administration, said. “These words capture the imperative of philanthropy. Today, we honor Lata, as one who lives and spreads this credo.”
The Philanthropy Lecture was part of the second American Bazaar Philanthropy Dialogue and Dinner, whose mission is to bring together stakeholders in the Indian American and South Asian American Philanthropy community.
The organizations represented included Sehgal Foundation, AIF, Pratham, Ekal Vidyalaya, Global Wheels Foundation, and Association of Indian Muslims, among others.
The Dialogue featured a number of prominent speakers from different parts of the United States, among them Indian American entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Islam, who was honored with the American Bazaar Philanthropy award, and Bangladeshi American peace activist Rais Bhuiyan. Other speakers included Gulab Bhavnani of WHEELS Global Foundation; Jessica Carso, an independent consultant and Administrator for World Without Hate; Ramesh Mahalingam of Pratham USA; Sachin Malhan, an executive partner of Ashoka; Venky Raghavendra, Senior Director – Philanthropy & Development at AIF; Dr. Sanjay Rai, a senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Montgomery College, and Ben Sehgal, a trustee of the Sehgal Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa.
Besides Islam, the event also honored three young philanthropists from the South Asian American community: Shreya Bhatia, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Neev Saraf, an 8-year-old from Laurel, MD, and Swetha Prabhakaran, of Ashburn, VA.
Bhatia raised $7,000 for the Insight Memory Care Center, a Fairfax facility dedicated to providing care, support and education to individuals afflicted with the Alzheimer’s disease.
Saraf raised nearly $40,000 for the Nepal earthquake victims earlier this year.
Prabhakaran, a 15-year-old junior at Thomas Jefferson, is the founder and CEO of Everybody Code Now!, a non-profit working to empower the next generation of youth to become engineers.