Wealth must have definitive social purpose: Azim Premji


Philanthropist and Wipro chairman Azim Premji addressed the Young Presidents Organization in Mumbai recently on the ‘The evolving role of business in society and philanthropy’. He spoke of how his maternal grandfather, a general practitioner, was a big influence on him as a child though he had never met him. How the grandfather in the early 1900s would call on poor patients at home and most often treat them free. How he would sometimes leave money for them under the pillow. How the patients would sometimes, after they got well, pay him in kind: vegetables or eggs.

“My maternal grandfather never became a wealthy man. But he was a very happy and satisfied man. He saw himself as someone whose role was to serve society and he did it to the best of his ability,” said Premji. Using such personal experiences, he made five points in his talk.


1. Power of Action

In 1998, I looked around and saw the strides India was making. Wipro by team effort had grown as a company, and by virtue of that success, I had become a wealthy man. But what struck me most was the growing economic disparity in our society. I decided that I must do something about it, whatever little I could. But I must act now – I did not waste too much in thinking. I didn’t agonize. I simply acted. By establishing the Azim Premji Foundation in 2000, I decided to work in the field of education as I felt this would serve as a great leveller in society over the long term.

2. Believe you can actually make a difference

Eleven years ago, the foundation started working with various state governments to help improve equity and quality in the government schooling system. We learnt that social issues are far more complex to deal with than business problems, and it’s very hard to change things. It needs tenacity and humility. And while individually it may be hard to see what difference we can make, if we stick to the task with tenacity for a sustained action, it will surely work.

3. Focus your money and energy

You can make a much bigger impact if you focus your energy and money. I emphasize this point very much because in a nation like ours we have many worthy and needy causes. We can feel for each one. The only reason we are able to make any difference is because we have focused our efforts quite sharply.

As a side-effect, we have to say NO to several random requests for financial support and collaborations.

4. How much should you scale up?

An important point in scaling up is how one views one’s wealth and one’s purpose in life. I became wealthy fortuitously because of Wipro’s success in opportune circumstances. I look at wealth as an illusion. I don’t see myself using my wealth nor do I imagine my family using much more than a small fraction of it. Thus, the only way I understand this wealth is something that is entrusted to me for which I am playing the role of a trustee. As a trustee, I feel, wealth must have a definitive social purpose. The greater is the wealth one has, the higher is one’s obligation to hold it in trusteeship and ensuring its use for social purpose.

I think that scaling up as much as we can is necessary, because our society needs that collective effort. At times, it is better to raise the level of a large lake by a few inches than filling a small glass full. At Azim Premji Foundation, we therefore cautiously avoid creating islands of excellence that have no scalability.

5. The importance of timing

I only started the Foundation and got seriously engaged with social issues about 11 years ago. In hindsight, I now wish I had done it several years before, in whatever little measure I could have. Because the fact is that in the social sector, it is never too early to start. Just as most successful people never lose their appetite for business and the satisfaction they derive from it; engaging in social issues brings a completely different kind of joy and satisfaction.

(Times News Network)

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