Dr. Gupta was asked to talk about his life-journey of philanthropy to a group of Indian-American business persons in Washington, DC. The full text of his talk is below.
The true spirit of philanthropy
I would like you to consider this scenario – you are thirsty and ask me for a glass of water. I bring it to you.
The question is who should say thank you to whom. Convention says you should thank me. But I look at it another way. You gave me an opportunity to do something good and so I should be the one to thank you.
This is the true spirit of philanthropy. It is a sense of gratitude for getting the opportunity to help others.
The 3 hires
When I first joined my family business as a young man of 19, I learned that the sons of a liftman, a janitor, and a security guard in our office building had just finished high school with good marks but they didn’t have the resources to go to college. So, I hired them and I got them admitted to St Xavier’s College, my alma mater.
The deal was that they went to the college in the morning and worked in the afternoon.
All three of them went on to get their bachelors’ degrees in business and one went on to become a successful Chartered Accountant.
I knew then that giving would always be a part of my life – like the sidecar of a motorcycle.
Andrew Goswami’s Story
One day 20 years ago, I learned of an interesting organization in Vijayawada and went to visit it. I was waiting in the hotel lobby for a Dr. Goswami. Imagine my surprise when a 6’4” white male came up to me and introduced himself as Dr. Andrew Goswami. He explained that he had adopted the Indian surname on coming to India.
Andrew’s story is fascinating. He went to India around 1975 after getting his PhD in Philosophy from Rutgers.
For 1½ years, he walked all the way from Delhi to Kanya Kumari on foot – literally. He didn’t even ride a bus. I guess he got to know India like few of us do.
Along the way, he met the mayor of Vijayawada who offered him a piece of land for starting a school for slum children. That was how the Child Aid Foundation was born.
It was rough for Andrew in the beginning. He would go around Vijayawada trying to raise money for the school. Sometimes when he knocked on a door, a woman would open it and, seeing him, scream and run inside. Remember, very few people had seen an American in those days let alone one asking for donations!
By the time I visited him, the school had 600 students drawn from the surrounding slums. I noticed a sign, “Cleanliness is Godliness”. Andrew explained that every child had to clean the campus daily. He challenged me to find a single piece of trash on campus. I could not. Imagine how transformative this was for children who were growing up in slums.
Many Child Aid Foundation students went on to college and some even earned their Masters’ degrees in America.
I realized as I sat down to talk to him how small I was and what a giant of a man Andrew was. This realization has been repeated many times for me as I have met other incredible humans over the years who are transforming lives of so many across the globe.
The birth of Apex in 1988; Core Values
My wife, Margaret, and I started Apex in 1988 with the idea that business should be a force for good, not greed.
So we decided that we would found Apex on three core values: integrity, human dignity, and excellence.
We empowered our staff to be truthful – to always do what is right, not what is expedient. We pledged to conduct ourselves in a manner that every interaction enhanced the dignity of the other person. And we strove to be the best in world in whatever we undertook to do as a company.
Some of you may remember the conditions in India in the late 80’s and appreciate how transformative these values were for the youth of India.
Custodians not owners
We realized that to create a company founded on these values, we would have to fundamentally redefine our own relationship with money.
We would see ourselves as “custodians” of the money, not as “owners”.
Profit would be a by-product of the business, not its main purpose.
It was with this backdrop that we started the foundation.
Foundations can have many different missions. Ours is simple: to help individuals who have been disadvantaged in some way to become self-reliant – whether it was a physical, emotional, social, or financial handicap.
Selection criteria for grantee organizations
We pursue this mission by selecting grantee organizations based on 4 criteria:
- Mission alignment. The organization must be dedicated to helping the disadvantaged become self-sufficient.
- The organization must be run by the founder or, if not, by a successor who embodies the original inspiration, passion and commitment of the founder.
- At least 90% of the organization’s revenues must reach the beneficiaries. That is, administration and overhead must be less than 10% of the budget.
- The organization must not be involved in, or condone, the proselytization of any religion.
Today, the Gupta Family Foundation supports 45 organizations across the globe – starting in India, and spanning the globe from Cambodia to Mexico and the USA to South Africa.
BTW, we have developed a pretty robust, 5-step process for selecting grantees, culminating in a personal visit to confirm that the organization is authentic, effective, and is being run efficiently. If you’ve recently started a philanthropy and want to professionalize it, please get in touch with me and I would be happy to share the process with you.
Financial giving is the most common form of philanthropy. But I want to tell you about another form, which we call self-giving philanthropy. This form of philanthropy involves sharing one’s life-learnings with others.
One example of this is the Society for Ethics and Excellence in Delhi Schools, or SEEDS, which we started at the same time as Apex. We enrolled children from low-income families in the top schools of Delhi. It was a 3-way partnership between the family, the school, and SEEDS.
On every trip to India, I used to spend the weekend with the SEEDS children.
We would go for picnics and the conversations would naturally gravitate towards meaningful topics like ethics, morality, and duty.
It wasn’t always a one-way discourse. Sometimes they would surprise me with their blinding, pure insights.
I remember the time when I was trying to get a PO Box in Delhi. After months of waiting for the postman to verify my application, I went to the post office and caught up with the postman. He said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
It was a blistering hot day in July. He explained that he walks this route for several hours every day and gets just 500 rupees at the end of the month. Not enough to feed a single person, let alone a family. He asked whether it was wrong for him, then to accept some bakshish now and then to meet the basic needs of his family. This made me wonder if there was a “threshold of morality” below which the normal rules did not apply.
The next time I met with the students, I related this incident to them and asked if it was okay for a person struggling for his basic needs to accept “bakshish.”
One 12-year old responded, “But uncle, isn’t this dangerous? What if a person convinces himself that a TV or a car is a basic need for him?” Coming from a 12-year old of modest means, this sophisticated insight blew my mind. It left open a question for which I do not have a clear answer to this day.
Today, several SEEDS children are working at top IT companies in America and one recently got his PhD from a prestigious American university.
Gupta Values Scholarships
Another example of this form of philanthropy is the Gupta Values Scholarship. GVS gives scholarships to about 40 students at three institutions: Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Northern Virginia Community College.
The scholarship is purposely not based on financial need or academic excellence. It is awarded to young men and women who have demonstrated a commitment to the core values of integrity, human dignity, and excellence – the same values on which we founded Apex.
A unique aspect of this scholarship program is that the scholars spend an entire weekend with us in Washington DC. We visit monuments and museums together and listen to lectures on ethics by luminaries. On the bus and throughout the weekend, conversations naturally gravitate to what these values mean in practice.
I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see the 30 to 40 students passionately probing, challenging, and honing these ideas among themselves and with us.
My maxims of philanthropy
In summary, I would like to share with you my maxims of philanthropy:
- Do it for yourself – because you find it rewarding. Don’t do it for recognition – this helps to keep one grounded.
- Choose the mission with care – make sure it aligns with your life’s North Star.
- Recognize that money is only a facilitator; the real heroes are the men and women who are working on the front lines to transform the lives of others every day.
- Find ways to share your life-learnings as widely as possible – engage in self‑giving philanthropy.
- Start early, start small, start now
My Theory of Value
I will leave you with my personal theory of value:
If you want to know if something is valuable, ask if it follows the laws of arithmetic. If it does, it’s not valuable. If it doesn’t, it is truly valuable.