Conversation with leading GenX philanthropist Sumir Chadha

Co-founder and managing director of WestBridge Capital Sumir Chada, right, and M.R.Rangaswami discussing philanthropic giving at the summit.

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Sumir Chadha, co-founder and managing director of WestBridge Capital — a large private equity fund with massive investments in India — who has emerged as one of the leading philanthropists among the Indian American Generation X’ers, has said he was inspired to give by his American friends imbued with a far more generous giving spirit, compared to members of his own community, who were relatively thrifty despite their wealth.

In a fireside chat with M.R. Rangaswami, founder and chairman of Indiaspora at the second annual Indiaspora Philanthropy summit on Oct. 2, Chadha, who last year established the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India at his alma mater Princeton University in honor of his grandfather, said, “many people inspired me, but one thing I’ve been inspired by was by a lot of my American friends—how giving oriented they are, particularly compared to our community.”

“We are not very giving, particularly compared to the American giving spirit yet,” he said, and added, “So, that was a big source of inspiration seeing my American friends being very, very generous with giving.”

Chandha said, “The second source of inspiration was also seeing how a lot of the leading families in India, especially like some of them recently like (Azim) Premji (founder and now chairman emeritus of Wipro and also the Premji Foundation, to which he had recently donated $7 billion) and others, have really stepped up in a big way to support charitable giving and also the creation of the really wonderful institution, which makes it easy to give and you know your monies are going to a good place.”

“So, a combination of all of those was inspiring, and also we have a lot of young people in our team for whom giving is really a huge passion,” he said. “So, we try to channel those passions and that’s also inspiring.”

When asked by Rangaswami what made him a proponent of philanthropy, Chadha said as someone who grew up partly in India and the U.S. and “now investing in India for the past 20 years in all kinds of different businesses and spending considering time in India,” has once again brought him face to face with the abject poverty in the country of his birth, “and always a sense of frustration that we can’t do more.”

He said, “Growing up in Delhi in the ‘80s. it was such an environment of scarcity and the one thing I find so incredible is …that we have the world’s most poorest people in India and we are the wealthiest community here in the U.S.”

Describing it “as a shocking dichotomy,” Chadha said, consequently, about five years ago, “my partners and I began making more charitable efforts and making our own charitable journey,” in India.

He said he has given to a lot of causes in India because “all giving is inter-related because all of the problems in India are so inter-related—it’s hard to deal with health if you don’t deal with education, and it’s hard to deal to poverty if you don’t deal with both, and climate. It’s all linked.”

“And, so our approach has been broad-based and we really try to find…what we’ve done is being very supportive of wonderful organizations like AIF (American India Foundation), like Akshaya Patra, ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment based in Bangalore, launched by Dr. Kamaljit Bawa, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts), and many other wonderful organizations.”

Chadha also said that choosing organizations, especially the smaller ones that are not well known, is difficult “and this is a question that has come up a number of times. Typically, people tend to give to the larger causes because they have staff, they have skill.”

Rangaswami, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor, mostly in start-ups, said he and Chadha have invested in tech companies because those are what they are familiar with “and we are all looking for the next big thing.”

“I look for tech entrepreneurs who are leaving the industry to start non-profits—those who have brought the skills from the tech industry to the non-profit space,” he said.

Chadha said, “I think part of it is a journey—starting and learning,” but noted, “The way we’ve done it is not as a very organized activity. We spend most of our time still running our business, and so, this is something we do 5-10 percent of our time on the side.”

“So, you’re right, (contributions to) some of the big (charitable) organizations are easier just because there are reputed people there, there’s good governance—a lot of comfort factor.”

Asked about what prompted him to establish the Chadha Center at Princeton for India Studies, where it was not just one single endowment “but convincing many people to join in,” he said that “when I was at Princeton (Class of 1993), it was a wonderful place but there wasn’t very much about India there.”

Chadha, and engineer turned businessman, recalled, “We had a very small number of Indian students and we didn’t have the resources to study India and it was a big frustration of mine and going back to the University, I started meeting a lot of younger students who were very keen to have more India resources, more India research, more India engagement.”

“And, so, I started to work with a couple of other Indian alums at Princeton, and together, over two years, we raised the money for the India Center, and once we raised the money, the University set up the Center about a year ago.”

Chadha, who now serves on Princeton’s Board of Trustees, declared, “It’s great to see that journey come to fruition,” and said, “We just hired our first head and she started about two-three months ago.”

In Aug. Anu Ramaswami, an interdisciplinary environment engineer, began work as professor of India studies, and the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India.

The Center, according to Princeton, “will bring together scholars and students from all disciplines to broadly explore contemporary India, including its economy, politics and culture under Ramaswami’s aegis.”

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