Helping people get what they need most in life is at the heart of successful philanthropy. It is no coincidence that fulfilling peoples’ needs is also the foundation of a successful business. I see no contradiction between them.
Any venture, whether it is commercial or philanthropic, should aim at improving the lives of as many people as possible. Both should use technological tools to overcome infrastructure barriers and build scale. And both must be self-sustaining to be considered truly successful.
I want to share with you what I have learned about philanthropy as person who was born in modest circumstances, as a boy who learned to take advantage of opportunities, as a businessman seeking new ways to create something of value for others, as a philanthropist trying to overcome global challenges, and as a father who wants the best for his children.
At each stage of my life I have found that the values that matter most are those of an entrepreneur . . . someone who takes a risk and makes things happen; someone who is not afraid to fail because there are lessons to be learned from failure; someone who is focused on a mission rather than a static.
I am convinced that only by applying the values of an entrepreneur to philanthropy will you ever be able to meet the needs of the greatest number of people.
I understand human needs. I grew up where far too many people lived day to day without elemental needs like food and shelter. Compared to them I was fortunate.
My father was a civil servant in the northern Indian where I was born. As a boy I saw the dire effects of poverty and illiteracy, especially on women and children. It often seemed that the only thing separating me from them was luck.
But my parents didn’t believe in luck. They believed in hard work and in preparing me to take advantage of opportunity. Like many parents, they taught me to be generous but never to depend on the generosity of others.
Because I was poor I had one special advantage. When you are poor, and basic survival is your concern, you have no alternative but to be an entrepreneur. You must take action to survive just as you must take action to seize an opportunity.
That’s not to say no one helped me. Many generous people helped me and my family when we needed them. And that motivated me too. I promised myself to work hard so I would never be hungry and work harder still so that I could replay my neighbors’ generosity many times over – not just with money but with a clear path out of poverty.
In some places the path out of poverty is through sports or other fields of excellence. In India, the path is through education.
My parents drilled into me the importance of an education. It was a gift they themselves never had. I remember how my mother quizzed me in mathematics first thing in the morning and would often demand, “Don’t make me solve it for you.” Little did I know that she couldn’t solve it because she had never been taught math in school. They made sure I had the advantages they never had.
I studied hard and earned an engineering degree and then an MBA. Because of my education I was ready when business opportunities began to open for Indian engineers. I seized one and used that opportunity to create many more as the founder of Moon Express, Intelius and InfoSpace.
Along the way I never forgot who helped me and what I owed to them and others like me. I promised myself that one day I would be in a position to help my fellow countrymen and women, as well as anyone who is held back by lack of education, or by sexism, and grinding poverty.
Today, I am privileged to be able to do that but not simply by giving money away. That is a temporary fix. Rather, I am approaching philanthropy in a strategic and systematic way just as an entrepreneur approaches a new venture. That’s the only way to make a self-sustaining difference in the world.
My experiences as a child in poverty, as a business creator, and as philanthropist have taught me that there are at least four key elements for philanthropic success
Overcome the Infrastructure. Many of the problems of poverty and need are really problems of physical infrastructure — not enough hospitals, too few schools, insufficient roads, bridges, and a lack of tools. This is what makes traditional philanthropy so daunting. You could build a thousand new hospitals in some parts of the world and barely make a difference. But what if you could capture the expertise of the world’s best physicians and create software that can diagnose patients remotely? Then infrastructure no longer matters. By turning an infrastructure problem into a technology challenge, you can eliminate the physical constraints of time and space.
Build Scale. Technology allows you to replicate knowledge cheaply and reach many more people with it than you could in the physical world. To continue the example above, with diagnostic software you can now diagnose patients in every town, village, or farm in India. And you can do so objectively without the biases that even the best human physicians harbor.
Make it Self-Sustaining. The problem now becomes, how do get this valuable diagnostic software and the device it runs on into the towns, villages, and farms where it can do the most good? You could enlist a wealthy donor to buy the devices and distribute them widely. But then you are beholden to physical constraints again — and even worse, you are dependent on a lifeline of someone else’s money. Instead of giving away $200 devices, why not allow people in the villages to rent them for $20 per month so they can go door to door making diagnoses for $5 each? That way everyone has an incentive to achieve the mission of getting the proper diagnoses to the greatest number of people. Instead of managing the whole program on your own, the program takes on a life of its own.
Live an Entrepreneurial Life. By understanding and harnessing the forces that drive human behavior, you can create a self-sustaining philanthropic effort that reaches millions of people. It begins with an entrepreneurial attitude: take an idea and execute on that idea. If it doesn’t work, learn why and build on what you’ve learned. And be mission-oriented rather than goal-oriented. That way, if you do the best you can, you will always succeed. This is not simply an approach to philanthropy; it is an approach to life.
Philanthropists can learn important lessons from business entrepreneurs. They both spend their time solving problems. And to be successful they both must overcome physical challenges and create self-sustaining operations. And ultimately, they must allow people to take action for their own benefit.
Growing up in India I knew all I needed to change the world was one good opportunity and I prepared myself for it. When that opportunity came I was ready. I couldn’t count on luck so I created my own.
Today, I’m sharing my passion for giving back with my children. I know they’ll approach the problems they want to solve in ways I never imagined and over time, research shows, if they are committed to philanthropy when they are young, they will make philanthropy a central part of their lives for years to come.
That’s sustainable philanthropy.
And we’re not alone. Because of the work of entrepreneurial philanthropists there are more new opportunities than ever opening up all over the world for the people who are prepared to grab them.
Together, we are creating our own luck on a global scale.