Rohini Nilekani, Ravi Venkatesan and Friends: Reimagining Abundance
We are at an unprecedented crossroads in human history. How we will respond? We believe that acts of courageous kindness we’re seeing today will far outlive the Coronavirus, and if enough of us keep that flame alive in our consciousness, it could usher a new era for our future. Awakin Talks is a series of webinars to explore a wide array of compassionate responses to our world today.
Coronavirus has uprooted the fabric of our lives. The global pandemic has unveiled gaping holes in our economic and social systems, unleashed humanity’s capacity for goodwill, and propelled us into an uncertain future. How do we embrace not-knowing, recognize fear without giving into it, and respond with a heart of compassion? What would Gandhi do? How do we align with the laws of love and nonviolence in such times?
0:02:24 NM: Thank you, thank you Brinda. It just kinda puts… At least it puts me in a very different space every time I hear that song, thank you. As all of you know, today, we are in conversation with Rohini Nilekani and Ravi Venkatesan at the intersection of leadership and Gandhian values. Some of the themes that we hope to address: What does it mean to design for a connection? How does all these [0:03:00] ____ apply in today’s context for all that net worth, whether it’s power or whether it’s wealth or whether it’s talents. What is a responsible way for us to hold those gifts? How do we be good trustees? And how can we really start to re-imagine abundance? That’s another theme that we also hope to explore.
0:03:24 NM: So there’s a lot there that we’re hoping to cover. But before we get into our first speaker, let me just give you a overview of the flow, brief flow of our call today. We’ll start with opening remarks by Rohini, followed by Ravi, and then we’ll do some Q&A with some of my questions, but really actually more of your questions. We’ll see how much we can cover here, but we’ll cover a bunch of it in other online spaces as well. But to submit your question, simply use the form that’s on the live stream page, or you can email ask A-S-K @ servicespace.org. And we’ll go with that. And in between Rohini and Ravi, we will also have some interludes and really inspiring everyday heroes who have moved us in tremendous ways and live into the values that we’re gonna be covering today. So that’s the rough flow.
0:04:24 NM: I wanna start with Rohini and invite her to speak. Most of us would know her as the woman who has signed, one of the five Indians that has signed a Buffett-Gates pledge, giving away more than half of her wealth, among the many institutions she supports. The big one is, of course, something she founded Arghyam, the foundation that supports sustainable water and sanitation. But prior to that… You can learn all about that online. Most of you already probably do. But prior to that, she has actually always been a writer, and a journalist for decades, author of a thriller. Rohini, I don’t know, I looked it up on Amazon and the Amazon description even said, “Racy thriller, nail biting, racy, un-put down-able” were some of the words they used to… So she’s written a thriller, a non-fiction book called Uncommon Ground.
0:05:23 NM: And in fact, if you dig a little deeper, even children’s books under a pen name. So prior to that, even there’s actually a whole connection, very deep connection with Gandhi. She has… And this was really a surprise for me. I didn’t know this until I got to know her more recently, but her paternal grandfather Babasaheb Soman, who was a satyagrahi who worked with Gandhiji very directly in Champaran, and actually built the first ashram or that Gandhiji had built in Champaran.
0:06:05 NM: And aside a little tidbit, when his son, when Babasaheb’s son wanted to actually join the Navy, he consulted Gandhi, and Gandhi said, “Yeah, you should do it.” And that meant that he actually had to give up his formal designated post as a member of Congress, just so his son could go be in the Navy. And here is Gandhi saying, “Yes.” So it’s a very, Gandhi, in all his skillful-ness was much more than just the things that we reduce him to. So, Rohini has lived into all that, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more person that has inspired her, and that’s her paternal grandmother Devi, who she just wrote about as well. She was a remarkable woman, but one of the things about her is that she spent the last few years in Alandi, which is the resting place of Dnyaneshwar. And so in Rohini, I think, there’s both of the external impact work of her fraternal grandfather and his deep devotion and his call for inner transformation that Adhyabhai stood for. So Rohini, it’s a real joy and an honor to have you amoungst us. And I would invite you to share some initial reflections.
0:07:26 Rohini Nilekani: Namaste everyone. Thank you so much Nipun Bhai, thank you to the whole team, thank you to all of you who are listening. And it’s great to be with you, Ravi, on this panel. I think both Ravi and I are a bit nervous because, certainly by no stretch of the imagination can I be called a Gandhian in anyway, in any way at all. But as Nipun Bhai has told some of my speaking points, now I’ll have to make new ones, but I think this is a very good time to ask what would Gandhiji do? So thank you for that, allowing us into that reflection, because today as I read the papers, and it’s eight and a half weeks into this Corona crisis, and it just feels like, while all of us have recognized our interdependence so well, in my country, it also feels like we have let millions of people down. And post-partition, we have never seen so many refugees on the road, looking to go home. And there is a huge debt that we all carry right now to make sure they reach home safely, just like in Gandhi’s last year of life, what he was so concerned with. So it is really a great time to ask, “What would Gandhiji do?” Not that I have the answers, but the question is very important.
0:08:58 RN: I think first of all, he would be very amused that all of us are here seeking intimacy through the web, because he was very good at creating intimacy across vast physical distances. He didn’t even need social media to create intimacy, but I’m sure he would still have used the benefit of social media as we have it now, just as he learnt, because social media and phones are everywhere, he would have found a better way for us to connect with the positive side of ourselves, just as he did by picking up a fistful of salt and asking everybody, everywhere to do the same. So converting a personal action into a moral crusade, a very simple, personal physical action, into a moral crusade that connects millions of nodes is what he was very good at, and we have to innovate like that, keeping Gandhiji in mind.
0:10:03 RN: So, as Nipunji said, honestly all my grandparents who are my deep inspiration, but especially my paternal grandparents, Athya who was very feisty and fiercely independent, who came from extreme wealth, living in the royal palaces of Gwalior and came into a very humble home and learnt to just forget about wealth and devote herself to actual austerity towards the end of her life, even when her children became wealthy again. So, that was one journey. And then Babasaheb who just immediately was among the very first people who left from Belgaum to answer Gandhiji’s clarion call in 1917 in Jampar, and to ask to unleash India’s volunteer energy. And they were on the first train out there, and Babasaheb stayed there many months with Kasthurbhaji, and those stories have come down into the family intact. My aunt was born when Babasaheb was in Champaran, so she was called Champa, and she lived till 99 and told us hundreds of stories about my grandparents. So, I am extraordinarily blessed by that.
0:11:27 RN: Nipun also said to relate a personal anecdote, and I think the main thing that I would like to say is that, in the mid-90s, we came into unprecedented, unimagined wealth as Infosys shareholders who are able to sell some shares. And honestly, it put me into my deepest personal crisis of my life, because until then, I was busy, I was a middle class well read, western sort of ideas person, who also was a bit on the political left. And we in India used to think that wealth is bad. If you have wealth, you’ve done something wrong. And suddenly I find myself on the other side of this so-called fence, and then it throws me into this crisis about what on earth am I going to do now? And it has taken me years and years, and I don’t think that journey is even yet complete, to understand the responsibility of wealth. And here’s where Gandhiji comes back again like an umbrella in one’s life to say, well, it’s pretty simple really, think of yourself as a trustee of that wealth, and that then begins to give some relief, then you begin to see it as an opportunity, not a burden. And I know this sounds crazy like poor little rich girl complaining, that’s not how I mean it.
0:12:55 RN: But the kind of extreme wealth that today’s capitalist structures allow, it’s not just gradual wealth, you suddenly can become very wealthy, and you’re seeing how in California, New York and Russia and various parts of the world, overnight you become multi-billionaires. And that really skews the idea of how societies must be. And so, I had to think a lot about that, both personally, how I would use the wealth from my personal life, what I would tell my children, and also what would I do with this. It’s enough wealth for many generations. And so, once I made that flip, not like Gandhi would, I didn’t turn to frugality, we live very comfortably, but then getting very interested in the journey of how do you give forward? How do you share? How do you hold that for the idea of a better society?
0:13:56 RN: And so, my philanthropy, as they call it, started in earnest in the last 30 years. I feel sometimes like I’m still in kindergarten because it’s a very hard journey, but I started building portfolios, working with amazing civil society organizations in this country, for which we are so blessed, in justice issues, environment issues, gender issues, especially to do with young men and boys, because I think we need to focus on these one billion young men and young males in the world who are very confused about who they should be, how they should be, and they need a lot of support. I work on other issues of independent media, etcetera. I won’t go into any of those details. But as you do that, you begin to think of also the economy, because the economy is such an important part of society. And I’ve had a ring fence, thanks to my husband, with the corporate sector.
0:14:57 RN: And then you begin to ask what Gandhiji often asked. If you are going to be in harmony with the earth, and today, we are seeing two crises simultaneously, the pandemic and climate change. My country has seen a devastating cyclone on the East side, Orissa, West Bengal and Bangladesh have been hit by one of the worst cyclones in the last hundred years, and we don’t even know the devastation that is going to cause over the next several years. So with these twin crises, we have absolutely no choice but to restructure the economy and to come from a place of genuine openness to the structures of our global economy. And I think the pandemic has helped many of us, people like us, people who are so privileged, because we are in lockdown, we are doing our own cleaning and swabbing and taking out the waste, and really understanding the dignity of labor, as Gandhiji would have had it, and I think that has allowed us to dwell on the simple pleasures of life and re-assign value to things that we didn’t before.
0:16:16 RN: And if you expand that idea, I’ve been thinking that if we can learn to switch from the mindset of frugality, which makes us all afraid, which makes us hoard, which makes us not want to share just in case, to a mindset of abundance. Because in some sense, and by no means am I forgetting those who are less privileged, excuse me if it feels like that, but I’m talking about the elite who often have to bear more of the responsibility for their own moral behavior.
0:16:52 RN: We have all had a chance to experience abundance because we have seen abundance of fresh air, we have seen our roadside gardens blooming. We have experienced purity, we have experienced diversity of the natural world. And if we began to think of that abundance, then what kind of world could we shape? If we realize there is abundance of people, abundance of energy, and if you made that abundance effective, we can talk about that later, then how would the economy look? Would it be closer? Instead of doing exponential consumption of the earth’s resources, could we start aligning ourselves better to nature’s linear production ability? That’s the question I think Ghandiji would have loved to dwell on, and I leave it there for the rest of the conversation. Thank you so much for this opportunity. Namaste.
0:17:49 NM: Oh, it’s amazing, beautiful, thank you. Thank you, Rohini, those are wonderful remarks. We’ll get more into some Q&A, and dialogue, maybe, even between Ravi and Rohini. But before that, I wanna invite Ravi to share. Most of you would have read his bio, so you already know the co-chairman and chairman of all these companies from Infosys to Bank of Baroda, to… I mean, the list really, it does go on, Ravi. It’s pretty remarkable. But he’s also an author of a book published by Harvard, and he is currently working on another book. He’s also started a project called GAME, whose aim is to support mass flourishing, ultimately, using entrepreneurship as a lever. But what I really wanna tell is, Ravi the person, and he’s just this incredibly big hearted person.
0:18:45 NM: When I first… When I last met him, rather, it was in Delhi, in December, we were all having… They were actually launching GAME, and we were in this leadership meeting, I was speaking with them, and at the end, I had invited somebody for whom it would mean the world to meet Ravi Venkatesan, and I was like, “What?” I had just thought of it because they both had the same name, “Ravi, Ravi. Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” But it turned out that this fellow, 30 years ago, when he was graduating from IIM Ahmedabad, he was very confused, he didn’t know what to do, and so he wrote to a whole bunch of CEOs that he respected, whose values he respected, just like random shot in the dark, in case somebody responds. And he says, “Here’s my issue, I don’t know where to go in life. What should I do?”
0:19:32 NM: And he said that only one of those people responded, his name was Ravi Venkatesan. And in that meeting, he saw him for the first time, and he says “Ravi, I’m here to say thank you for responding, for caring for this one unknown person.” And so, to me, Ravi, that’s actually a fuller description of who you are. Being a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation is great, of course, but it’s that you walk the talk. And the last time when we were on a call, he actually turned his camera around, and he says, “Whenever I need inspiration, I go to this desk.” It was a desk that Gandhiji had used, and incidentally, he is married to the great-granddaughter of Gandhi, and so there’s also deep connections there. So Ravi, it’s a real joy and an honour to have you amongst us. Thank you, and we would love to hear your reflections.
0:20:27 Ravi Venkatesan: Thank you, Nipun bhai, for that generous introduction, and also for inviting me to this conversation. And hello, everyone. Hi, Rohini. Like Rohini, I feel a bit awkward being here, even though I feel excited and privileged as well. And the awkwardness stems exactly as Rohini said, from the fact that, when I think of Gandhiji and his clarity of thought, his commitment to his principles and mission, it’s just orders of magnitude greater than my own. And so I’m saying it feels a little odd to speculate what he might have done, but nevertheless, here’s an opportunity to talk about my work. I also realized through this pandemic, the number of ordinary unsung heroes who’ve gone out there, put themselves out to help in ways, big and small, their neighbour, their fellow human being. So, when I look at that, their work, their sacrifice, my own work feels ordinary. But you asked me, invited me to share a bit about it and see it might be interesting to others, so here I am.
0:21:39 RV: So, as Nipun, you said, till about 2018, I’ve lived a pretty intense, moderately successful corporate life. And I had successfully for years been putting off one thing that had repeatedly come to my mind, which is to go on a meditation retreat. So, my friends like Anu Aga and all repeatedly said, “Ravi, you really should try doing this.” And I would say, “Yeah, yeah, next year.” But in December ’17, I finally went for my first Vipassana retreat. And like the proverbial life-changing experience it was. Somewhere on the sixth or seventh day, I had this intense feeling of suffocation, and it stayed with me, it wasn’t a momentary thing. And I realized that I was suffocating on the material stuff at home, the activities I had filled my life with, all my professional commitments, and I had just the clearest sense that I need to unburden, unload my platter, creating space for new things.
0:22:51 RV: So, when I came back, the early part of ’18, I very quickly went about shedding all my commitments, and hoping that something interesting would come along. And lo and behold, I didn’t have to wait long. And it appeared in my life in the form of a gentleman, gentleman by the name of Ned Phelps, who teaches at Columbia, and who happens to have won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2006. And I was incredibly drawn to his work. His work is on mass flourishing, which is a word you used, and on the dynamism of nations. And he has such an unconventional take. So Ned began exploring, why do some nations just suddenly begin to diverge and get on a path to incredible prosperity? Why did this happen in Britain in the 18th century? Why did that mantle of prosperity then moved to America? Why is America now apparently losing it? How’s it on the rise, this dynamism on the rise in China? What causes this?
0:23:54 RV: And he reaches such a breathtakingly different conclusion from all other economists. And there’s hard evidence here, this is not speculation, he’s a Nobel winner after all, so if there aren’t equations, it doesn’t really count. So, he talks about the central importance of values in the society. And he goes back to the enlightenment, and how during the enlightenment, values began to change in Western Europe. And suddenly things like individualism, self-determination became more important. Remember that’s the time Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” So, the sense that you actually have choices, the importance of creativity and imagination, of risk-taking and exploration, all these things began to become mainstream in that part of Europe. And as a result, you see this amazing flowering of human endeavour, you see the renaissance, which is in many ways directly attributable. You see the great explorers begin to start their voyages, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Cook and Cortés and all these guys, they start exploring the world. And the industrial revolution happens, and it starts in Britain of all places. So the question is, what causes this industrial revolution and prosperity?
0:25:17 RV: And he says, “Look, what happens is, suddenly, ordinary people of no great educational qualification, no great means, economic means, just ordinary people, in fact not even of great perceived ability, are suddenly empowered to start thinking, tinkering, inventing, starting things. And first, it’s a few, and then it becomes many, hundreds of thousands, millions, and that tinkering results in this explosion of creativity.” So he goes back and says, “Look at all the greatest inventions, right from the steam engine to the locomotive to the automated loom, Edison and electricity, and Isaac Singer, all this stuff, and disproportionately, they’re not inventions by the elite, they’re not people who are Oxford, Cambridge educated. They’re illiterate, they’re tinkerers, they’re iron-smiths.” And so I said, “Wow, this has huge relevance for India.” India is struggling to find economic dynamism. We have a giant problem of employment, even before COVID, and now, of course, it’s much worse. So this idea seemed to have tremendous relevance for us. And so we started this thing which you alluded to, called GAME, which is, “Can we really ignite an entrepreneurial movement across our country?” Millions upon millions of new enterprises, at least half of which we want to be women-owned, and they in turn create lots of prosperity, lots of jobs, up and down the country.
0:26:52 RV: So that’s what we’re about, and we’re quite early in that journey. But the way I wanted people who are listening in to think about is, think about if you want a good crop, a good garden, you need seed, you need good soil, and you need climate. And seed is that person, that entrepreneur, that inventor, and you need to have, obviously, lots of good seed. And this is where some of the work that my co-founder and colleague Mekin Maheshwari is doing, and again, Mekin, I think he was part of one of your programs. Sorry, Nipun, it was one of your programs. He’s running one of the most extraordinary experiments across 1,000 plus schools in… By government schools in Delhi with the Delhi government. And about 800,000 kids going through a mandatory entrepreneurship program every morning. And it’s less than a year, but the stunning transformation in their ambition. For most young kids in India, their ambition is to land a government job because it’s secure. These kids want to actually go now and do something. They want to invent, they want to build.
0:27:58 RV: So I met this young guy called Monu who came to our, you may have met him, that boy with the white uniform who came to our convention. And Monu’s from the poorest of poor families, he cannot afford to go even to a free government school because they still have to wear the uniform, and his family doesn’t have money to buy that. And so he goes home and starts repairing electric rickshaws, and his greatest wish that day was a toolbox, which we got him. And then at night, he stays up doing his homework. So it’s completely changed his life, his sense of what he can achieve with it. And it’s possible to produce this change we’re seeing at scale in a short period of time. But just the seed is only one part, seed has to fall also on good soil, and have, most of all, good climate. And so what we’re trying to do in GAME is, in a number of places where we’re working, in Bangalore, in Shillong, in the Eastern Himalayas, in Punjab, trying to see, can we work with the government, can we work with businesses in those areas and create more fertile conditions in the form of better infrastructure, connections to marketers, but most of all, how do we change the value system?
0:29:11 RV: If you have a prevailing value system where the caste system is still strong, and that means somebody of a lower caste has no potential, it’s pretty hard to make progress, right? Same thing with risk-taking. You need to have, at least in that pocket, that local set up, an environment where risk-taking is okay, failure is okay. And so we’re trying to see, can we create very, very micro conditions where these are true? And in that case, can you get this whole flywheel of entrepreneurship going? It’s still super early days, just a year old, but we’re on this path to see if how we create an entrepreneurial movement, first in India, which is big enough, but then take it to other parts of the world, which also need the same thing. But I want to end by saying, for me, entrepreneurship is actually just a Trojan horse for something much more important, and that is societal leadership. The challenge in the world today is not the pro-daunting problems, nor the…
0:30:24 NM: You’re breaking up just a little bit there, Ravi.
0:30:36 NM: Fortunately, he was about to end. So we will add the conclusion to what he might have been saying. Rohini, can you hear me? Yeah. Okay. So, while Ravi gets back, we will ask him for his conclusion, but I think what he was trying to say is that this entrepreneurship is really a Trojan horse for actually rebalancing and re-catalyzing so many values-driven systems in society. Rohini, were you gonna mention something, Rohini?
0:31:15 RN: No. Were you asking me a question? Sorry?
0:31:16 NM: No, no, no. I was on, I just saw you unmuted. Ravi, you’re back, you’re back. [chuckle]] I tried to conclude for you, but I… Wait, you have to unmute yourself. I tried to conclude for you, but I’m sure it wasn’t quite as good as yours.
0:31:33 RV: Well, as you would imagine, the lightning strikes, the power goes off, the internet goes down, so extremely sorry about that for everyone. Well, what I was saying is, entrepreneurship is a Trojan horse for leadership. The things that you need to be a successful entrepreneur, the qualities are exactly the same as what you need to be a leader in the world. Which is what? The sense of self-determination, ambition, resourcefulness, tenacity, the ability to sell your ideas to others who become followers. And so, what we’re hoping is we can create the largest army of people who not really create successful small enterprises that grow and flourish, but who also begin to tackle problems in the communities in which they live, and thereby change their life and their communities and society. So that’s what we’re about.
0:32:23 RV: And when I think back about what Gandhi might have, how he might have reacted to all this, I think he would have liked it. Deep in his heart he believed in the equality of every human being, right? That there is a God in everyone and each of us is capable of greatness. And so, I think Ned Phelps’ ideas translated into practice is something he would have very much endorsed. And the idea that you don’t have centralized large corporations that are exploiting people, but rather you have this decentralized innovation and prosperity, is another idea that I think would have, he would have agreed very much with. And so, I think today, if he were alive and listening in, he might say, “Yeah, this is good. Keep going.”
0:33:13 NM: Beautiful, beautiful. And I think Trojan horse is really a, are probably the way to go. We have lots of comments coming in from people who have very insightful things to share. If you’d like to add a comment, we clearly won’t be able to get to all of them here on this call, but we’ll try to do something meaningful, we’ll try to digest it and get responses later. You can submit, comment on the form, or you can also email A-S-K, email@example.com. So thank you, Ravi, for those thoughtful reflections. I particularly loved the farming metaphor as well, because it brings in the ecosystem. I don’t think it’s just a linear, which is sort of what Rohini was also alluding to, that… I mean, Gandhi’s whole movement, I don’t think it was linear. It had so many unexpectedly amazing happenings that have… I mean, in a way the pandemic is one of those black swan events, so there’s a lot to unpack there. We’ll try to get to some of that. Ravi, did you have an immediate comment there?
0:34:23 RV: My immediate reaction was the word, at this moment and time in history, we need new paradigms, paradigm shifts, the same thinking ain’t gonna get us very far. And so Rohini talked about a paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance, that’s one dimension. I think we need this kind of very, very lateral shifts.
0:34:44 NM: Revolutionary, yeah, yeah, beautiful. Before we go to the Q&A, we have an inspiring interlude by one of our beloved volunteers, Shalini Srinivasan. She’s a passionate mom and an educator currently living in Auroville, and somebody who I would describe as someone who loves to laugh. And also with an amazing Zoom background that she has on right now, which she says is actually broken cement on her terrace. So Shalini, welcome, we’d love to hear just a couple of reflections around from your own personal life. How are you engaging with some of these ideas, and particularly this idea of living into abundance?
0:35:34 Shalini Srinivasan: Thank you Nipun bhai for that glorious introduction, and thank you Rohini and Ravi for your shares. I particularly connected with how can we shape this new world being in harmony with the earth. And when Ravi talked about the importance of values, I deeply connected to both. And yeah, today I’ll just be sharing a few local experiments that touched my heart here in Auroville, and yeah, how multiple forms of capital are emerging in this community at this time. I’ll just start screen share.
0:36:16 NM: Oh, you are going professional on us with some slides.
0:36:29 SS: Is that visible?
0:36:31 NM: Yes, along with your Gmail, but we promise not to read your mail.
0:36:38 SS: Just a moment.
0:36:41 NM: No, but it’s okay, we can’t really see, go for it.
0:36:47 SS: Yeah, so today, yeah, it’s a little share about honoring the subtle and invisible capitals that are around us in abundance. And one of them that we most commonly equate, wealth to money, and I think it just breeds a lot of scarcity in our hearts and minds. And especially in these times, when business units are being shut down and the salaries of employees have been cut down by half or more, and there’s general insecurity around it. And I heard that one of the local social enterprises here decided to do something unexpected. So they paid the full salary of all the village women who were coming to work with them, and on top of it, they also offered them an increment that they had promised to them. And I felt that how beautifully they were just caring so deeply for all their employees like one would care for in a family. And another form of capital that is abundant here in Auroville is nature. And one of the stewards of a farm here started thinking, “How can I create abundance for all in the long term, and what can I do particularly to bring this about?”
0:38:18 SS: So he just made himself completely available to anyone, just in service, giving his time, freely sharing seeds and saplings, sharing natural farming methods with anyone who’s just interested. And so many of us got inspired to start a small little garden around wherever we are living, or on the terrace if we don’t have access to land, and kids and elders and everyone were working with their hands together, and some even started harvesting from their garden to add to their plate of salad.
0:38:54 SS: Another capital that was abundant during this time was time. And we all had time on our hands. Since we are a community of volunteers, we can’t just sit at home. And so many just offered their time in service, just aligning themselves to their inner capacity. Some were very happy to go to all the spaces that were open, the essential services, and start cleaning, sanitizing and making social distancing possible. And some decided to just deliver groceries to the elderly. And a few more took up the hard task of sitting and segregating the whole community waste that was piled up during this time because they just had the time to offer. So, this spirit of volunteerism was super inspiring to see at this time.
0:39:48 SS: Yeah, the other form of capital that emerged this time was social, because though we are all living in close proximity, it’s like a village where we see each other, it so happens that we just get busy with our lives and this absence of all the helpers and staff gave us a beautiful opportunity to come together and clean the gardens, sweep the pathways, just engage with each other more often and create such a beautiful and deeper relationship with our immediate neighbours. So, one day I just went to drop groceries for my immediate neighbour. She’s about 84 years old and an American lady. And I knocked on her door, and she said, “Come in. This is your home. You can come in any time. You don’t have to knock.” That kind of deep relationship was possible in such a short span of time for me, which wasn’t possible before.
0:40:53 SS: A bunch of long-term residents here were… Their cup of gratitude was overflowing when they looked at all the frontline staff serving tirelessly in the health clinic, the ambulance service, the water service, the electricity, just to keep whatever it takes to keep us going in this time. And they just wanted to express by baking a cake. One of them was good at baking, the other was good at coordinating with everyone. So they just tapped into this community capital and invited everyone from kids to elders to write thank-you notes from the deepest part of their heart. Many made beautiful paintings along with that, and they delivered this to wherever the person was working, and they just surprised them. I can imagine the kind of feeling the recipient would be feeling, and this is really like doing small things with great love.
0:41:50 SS: I think one form of capital that has really been the base and the guiding force for the past 52 years here is the spiritual capital. And yeah, it’s like this banyan tree here, it’s at the center of it. And many of us use this time to come together in silence wherever we were, ought to pray for the world like many of you would have done. And a few committed people came online to just chant the Gita and reflect on it. Yeah so when I look at life with so many forms of capital enriching it, I just feel that abundance, and I feel very grateful, too.
0:42:43 NM: Beautiful. Thank you, Shalini. Thank you for bringing us to ground zero there. And there are indeed so many forms of capital. I think we oftentimes funnel everything through the traditional forms. And in fact, Rohini, I wanna start with that. There’s a bunch of comments. I will just summarize them as saying, “You guys are both amazing. That Rohini is so down-to-earth. And, Ravi, thank you for sharing how… ” This is other people mentioning this that, “Thank you for sharing how empty it can be to be successful.” That it’s something that’s resonant with a lot of people. I’ll start with a question, Rohini, for you piggybacking off of Shalini’s shares. You speak a lot about Samaaj, Sarkar and Bazaar, which is the public sector, the private sector and the voluntary sector, something we also speak a lot about, and how they’re completely imbalanced. And so how do we start to work with, say, the market sector in a way that rebalances a lot of the inequities that are eroding the voluntary sector like the Samaaj in some sense? Any broad level reflections there? And then I’ll go to Ravi with the next question.
0:44:03 RN: Yes, thank you. Very quickly, yes, a lot of my work has been about how do we retain a dynamic balance between Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkar. But I come from the principle that… Actually, you know, in the West, they call the civil sector the third sector. Whereas I really think it should be the first sector, because Samaaj, society is the foundation, and markets and the state were developed to serve the public common larger interest. What has happened is, it’s become very convoluted. Instead of being citizens first, we are sometimes subjects of the state first. Instead of being citizens, and moral, individuals first, we have become consumers of the market. And that becomes a huge threat to us as people and as communities. So the Samaaj sector must taken it upon itself, and you can invoke Gandhi in a million ways for that, to keep itself as the base and the foundation, and keep the markets and the state accountable for the larger public good.
0:45:11 RN: So that is how my work has been, and that’s how we have to recreate this better balance. Very quickly I would say also, just like I said, first sector, I think when we talk about society, we have to think of people as the first mile. Many times we say last mile, and then how you design for the last mile, whether it is serving them consumer goods or state services, there’s a very different mindset. Whereas if you said first mile, you have to begin from there, as Gandhiji would have said. So I try to flip that in my work in a little bit. And so I would say about the Bazaar, though certainly Ravi could speak more to this, just like he talked of mass flourishing, we have to distribute the ability to solve. So our teams have come up with this thing that we call societal platform thinking, which holds this value that we need to create more agency everywhere. Value must not accumulate at one end of the spectrum. Distributing the ability to solve, instead of pushing one or two solutions in a pipeline, will enable that abundance that we just spoke about, Shalini so beautifully spoke about, can be made more effective everywhere, and distribute value also everywhere, along with individual energy and potential. I’ll leave it there for now.
0:46:32 NM: Yeah, beautiful. And I think, related to that, Ravi, question for you, someone asked as well is around, how do you bridge… Because Gandhi also had this thought, and he talked about Gram Swaraj, this distributed mass entrepreneurship in some sense. So how do you bridge that kind of empowerment at the mass entrepreneurship level in a way that rebalances the three sectors that Rohini was talking about?
0:47:06 RV: Yeah, so I think the… I’ve been at this now just a few years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, the problems today in society are very, very complex. They’re called wicked problems for a reason. And wicked problems, to Rohini’s point, require collaboration between all three sectors. They cannot be solved by any one alone, private sector alone, let alone government with its limited state capacity. You have to bring them together.
0:47:34 RV: And you have to come together around the individual who you’re trying to see flourish. So in our case, putting the entrepreneur at the center, or the would-be entrepreneur at the center is really important. So you don’t… There’s a real temptation in all well-intentioned work to become paternalistic, which is, you do things to the poor young entrepreneur, okay? And very often we find ourselves sliding into that trap. So the trick here is to not tell the entrepreneur, “Look, here are the best opportunities.” There’s a real temptation to go into an agrarian society and say, “Look, you should do something related to farming or food or some things.” As an illustration of this is, you should leave it to the imagination of the young person as to what they do, and simply be encouraging of their ideas, their journey and so forth. Similarly, you don’t tell them what problems to solve. You encourage them to find some problem that irritates the heck out of them. Maybe the toilet’s not working, and instead of waiting for somebody else to come fix it, why don’t you as a young person catch two friends and go fix it?
0:49:02 RV: So I think the whole approach in our work, which we are trying to make sure it remains central, is find individuals, encourage them to dream, think, solve problems, and find small ways to make it possible for them to do this, okay? Oh, sure, we can connect you to a customer. Sure, we can make an introduction to a bank or an NBFC, but that’s it. But the real core, the heavy lifting has to be done by you. If you do it this way and you’re inverting the pyramid, right? So the person at the top of the pyramid is the individual, wherever they may be, in a city, in a village or whatever, and you’re trying to make sure that you’re being supportive of their ambitions, their dreams. I’m fairly convinced based on the work we’ve seen, this is the right path. As I told you, the work in Delhi schools for me has been just sensational, because here are kids from the most ordinary backgrounds, very, very challenged backgrounds, and within six months, the shift in their aspirations and self-confidence and their ability to solve problems for themselves is just stunning. So this capacity is there, it’s just latent and suppressed. And if you get out of the way and be slightly supportive, you get this wonderful blossoming of human ideas, creativity and enterprise. Does that answer the question?
0:50:34 NM: Yeah, it does in a way, but I think the challenge is, how do you get out of the way? How do you actually make sure that you’re not paternalistic? And I think that’s a personal challenge, but also systemic. There are many systems that force us into keeping the pyramid intact. And so in some sense, I wanna ricochet it back to Rohini. There’s a bunch of questions around power. Both of you are accomplished in many different ways. How do we actually turn that power on? And Rohini, one of the questions we’d asked you, prior to the call was, what was an act of kindness that you’ll never forget? And you shared this really beautiful story which actually was very counterintuitive, and maybe you can share that. But it seems to me, and knowing you also, it seems to me that really inverting that power pyramid is very critical, in your view, of bringing about change. But maybe you can lead with that story, and also talk about what it takes to actually invert some of these pyramids that Ravi was talking about.
0:51:45 RN: So, okay, since you asked me, very quickly about the story; my son had a terrible accident when he was just 10 years old, and we had to rush him to intensive care. And the pediatrician who was there, Dr. Mira, and it was a desperate situation, and she looked at me and said, “I will give the most professional care to your son, but because you are a VIP, I cannot do more.” And that was an odd thing for a doctor to say the minute you’ve met her when you’re half dead with worry. [chuckle] And I looked at her and said, “Yeah, but that’s all I expect, and thank you.” But when I reflected on it, I thought it was an act of kindness. It doesn’t appear like kindness immediately, but for her to hold to her professional values, and to make me also feel equal to everything else in that situation, where I was feeling perhaps special in two different ways, somehow seemed to me that she brought everything instinctively to a moral plane, which I realized much later. But coming from that, the question of power is a very, very tricky question that Gandhiji also dealt with a lot. Many people accused him of also having a lot of power which he used on other people, and so it’s a constant struggle.
0:53:00 RN: So in my work, I’ll tell you how, because yes, we have… Wealth comes with a lot of power, okay? Success comes with a lot of power. And this do-gooder ability that some of us have [chuckle] also comes with a lot of power. So you have to unpack that power and make sure it doesn’t accumulate, especially accumulation brings out a lot of toxicity. So how do you distribute it? And so the societal platform thinking, the primary value of that is, you create open shared public digital goods so that you don’t hoard that power and you distribute it. I’ll give two very quick examples. At Pratham Books, we wanted to… When we co-founded it in 2004, we said, “We want a book in every child’s hand. Why do children not have books, joyful stories to read?” And we said, “But there are writers, storytellers, this is a country of storytellers. Why should only a few publishers monopolize the ability to tell stories?” So we found storytellers, writers, illustrators, translators everywhere, put it all on a Creative Commons platform, so it was market, it was state, and it was society.
0:54:05 RN: There are millions and millions and millions of children who have read those books completely free today. I urge you to go look at that. Also EkStep that we are working with unlocked the potential of 13 million teachers in India to co-create and share content. So you can do that, you can distribute value. And in fact, that’s how you achieve the kind of scale that you need. Gandhiji said small is beautiful, but he understood that you need scale, and you can do scale through small, like Ravi is saying, and that’s how you distribute and share power so it doesn’t accumulate like we’re seeing in some of today’s, especially tech companies. We’ve never seen that kind of accumulation of power, never even in the oil industry or the other natural resources industries. So now is the time to unlock and distribute capital of all forms.
0:55:00 NM: Beautiful. Ravi, I’m sure you have comments here, but I’m just gonna read one question which I think relates to this, and I think will add to maybe a framing that you may wanna use also. I think the question is, “Is it possible to achieve distribution of agency, wealth, and dignity beyond just talk,” which is, I’m just reading it verbatim, “by operating within the framework of that design and avoiding externalization of it in costs?” Which is really to say that, can we really create a revolutionary shift in a paradigm by staying in the same paradigm, or should we actually be thinking outside of that paradigm? Or is it a kind of, it’s not a either/or, maybe it’s a yes/and? But related to that and scale and Rohini’s comments, would love to hear your view.
0:55:53 RV: Yeah, I would encourage whoever asked that question and anyone else who’s interested, to really go back and read Ned Phelps’ new book on the Dynamism of Nations, because that’s at the heart of it. How did a set of countries, first in Western Europe, then the US and Japan, end up distributing power, dignity, and creating access to opportunity? And that was real democracy. It wasn’t just going and voting in an election. And so he explores why that was central to the prosperity we see, and how it actually played out, and how today’s policies, particularly since Ronald Reagan in the US, are actually resulting in society moving in the opposite direction. So rather than me attempt some hopeless answer, I’m gonna make a push for that book.
0:56:56 RV: But the point here is, is it possible to do this within the existing paradigm? I don’t think so. I think that is exactly what is meant by a paradigm shift, you need a whole different conception of the world. So for instance, I’ve been looking a lot at this issue of state and business, state versus business and entrepreneurship. It turns out that in India, like in many parts of the world, the state has actually become extremely predatory on business, okay? So you have all these rules, regulations that you have to comply with, and there are millions of agents who are rent-seeking and trying to collect a little bit for every possible deviation. So instead of the state empowering businesses, the state has actually become a giant set of parasites on these businesses, big and large. The large guys know how to deal with it. It becomes incredibly hard.
0:57:57 RV: If you cannot make that shift to where, as Rohini said, the state is actually serving the citizen, the state is serving businesses and helping them flourish, it’s never gonna happen. So the problem in India is, we are trying to make things easier to do business as measured by the World Bank. That means we’ve become very good at taking the World Bank exam and showing progress from number 142 to number 70, or whatever it is today. But if you haven’t changed the mindset, it ain’t gonna happen, right? So whether it’s this, whether it’s our relationship with nature, living in harmony versus exploitation, without paradigm shifts, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s why Einstein, I love what he said, that insanity is doing the same things with the same mental model and expecting a different result. It is not going to happen.
0:58:55 NM: And I suppose I have so many thoughts, I think we all do. These are all rich topics, but I think maybe to cover a bunch of different topics here in one; we are currently in a pandemic, we are in an unprecedented situation that we are facing, not just as a country, but as a planet. It’s also an opening for shifting paradigms in so many ways. So we clearly know the challenges, but perhaps if you have a perspective on those challenges, maybe you can share that. And also, what do you think are the opportunities here to seed new possibilities and new paradigms at such an inflection point in human history? So, maybe we reverse the order, we go with Ravi and then have Rohini conclude there.
0:59:47 RV: Well, that’s a great question. Look, I hear many people who want to go back to pre-COVID days. They want to go back to the way things were, which they consider normal. The point is, those were anything but normal times, okay? Those were abnormal times because we had accepted and institutionalized things like inequity or exploitation of nature, living in unsustainable ways and so on, so forth. So here’s this chance to actually re-imagine a very different way we live and operate. So I tell people, “No, we shouldn’t want to go back. We should use this opportunity that nature has given us to imagine new ways of living and functioning.” And I think this is the time for every thinking, caring person to do that, because the answer is not gonna come from some genius somewhere, from some head-of-state. The answer has to be evolved, co-created by millions of us making different, fundamentally different choices.
1:01:01 RV: So since we started out with Gandhiji, he says, “Look, be the change you wish to see in the world.” So I think that’s the point here, which is, look, we may not be able to get others to change in these respects, for instance living sustainably or treating everyone as equal, or whatever. But we can make different choices, and as we do that and others emulate that, you create a movement potentially. So I just think this is an extraordinary moment in time, and the absolutely wrong instinct is to wish to get back to… To recover. Recover implies that you want to get back as quickly as possible to the way things were. We should hope and try to actually not recover, but create an entirely new way.
1:01:53 NM: And are the rumors true? You’re working on a book on this?
1:01:57 RV: Yeah, I’m working on a book which is sort of… The working title is: How to Flourish in a Post-COVID World. And it is aimed at the individual. This is not recommendations for a society or business. As an individual, how do you see this as the greatest opportunity to rethink your life and flourish? I hope I have… Problem with this sort of book is, everything that is important and useful has been said by someone before. [laughter] So I guess the best you can do is package it for this new context that we are living in.
1:02:36 NM: Thank you. Rohini, any reflections?
1:02:40 RN: Yeah. So, thank you. This was marvelous. I would say that I think there is a chance that we will go to, not just the previous normal, but the previous, previous normal. If we push back labor and environmental protections, we’re not going back to the 20th, but the 19th century. That’s one scenario. But another scenario is we fast forward into a 21st century that we all deeply in our hearts want to be in but don’t know how to. But now we have got some glimpse of it. So I’m gonna keep my optimism very much alive.
1:03:15 RN: Gandhi said, “There cannot to be a system so good that the individuals in it need not be good.” I think that’s one of the most important things to understand as we design for this new world. If good means that we are going to be trustees and stewards, and we are going to be trustees and stewards of this planet and for the futures of our grandchildren, then we have no other choice. And it’s a joyful responsibility to really seize this COVID moment and design that good society and that good world that we all crave. I think it’s possible. And never before in my 60 years on this planet have I internalised so much Vaishnava Jana To. So PeeD paraayi jaaNe re means we all really know the elite cannot succeed anymore. It’s the end of elite succession. We are connected by pandemics, by climate change, and those threads that bind us all have become visible. Now let’s spin a marvelous new conversation with our future. Thank you.
1:04:29 NM: Wow. Beautiful, beautiful. Spoken like an elegant, eloquent journalist. I will come back to both of you for closing remarks.
1:08:47 NM: Rohini and Ravi, here we have lots of comments and lots of gratitude as well, and lots of questions. Obviously, these are very juicy topics. We’re talking about power, we’re talking about scale, we’re talking about economy, we’re talking about inverting these barriers, we’re talking about history, and normal, and normal before normal, and the future. So there’s a lot here, it’s very rich, but I wanna invite you to just share some closing reflections, and maybe connected to a Gandhian value that you feel is the most critical for us to embrace the potential that is possible right now, or that you feel is possible. So, whoever wants to go first can go first.
1:10:19 RN: So…
1:10:19 NM: Right, yeah, go ahead, Rohini.
1:10:24 RN: You want me to go first? Okay. So, I would say I have learned a lot about myself and the world in the last 3 months. And you feel very humbled to see how people have been their largest selves, and here we are sitting in our comfortable cocoon while people are putting their lives at risk, thank you to all of them. So, that humility fills me, and I hope it stays. So I would say, as we try to reshape our own selves and the world, that we should, like they said, “Occupy Wall Street or whatever”, we should occupy the heart. And then with the heart, do make the movement towards the head and the hand, as Gandhiji did, to serve people, to create a [1:11:17] ____ idea. Now is the time for personal action making ripples out into the universe. And I would just end there. How do we occupy our heart so that the head and the hand are aligned with it? Thank you. Namaste.
1:11:40 NM: Namaste. Thank you so much. Yes, Ravi?
1:11:44 RV: It’s a usually a good idea, I found, to agree with Rohini and build on her point. But I think the world is very much, I feel that the world is very much at this tipping point, and we have the opportunity to nudge it towards an amazing, much better way of living. And equally we have the risk, the danger of regressing. And regressing not just to just pre-COVID, but as Rohini said, there’s some really dark instincts in many countries to actually go even further back. And whether the world tips this way or that way doesn’t depend on others, it depends on our collective, how we act and vote. So back to… You said connected to what Gandhiji said, my all-time favorite quote is, “Be the change.” I think which way the world tips depends on the sigma of our individual choices and decisions. And I’ll just end with that famous words of Hillel the Elder, which is “If not now, when? And if not you, who?” So that about sums up, I think, the times.
1:13:02 NM: Yeah, it’s a powerful message from both of you. Thank you. Before we end here, just a few logistical things; we will, as most of you or some of you may know in ServiceSpace, we don’t see this as a campaign with a start and a stop, we see this as a movement, and we see everyone, today you might be consuming the content and tomorrow you might be contributing and you might be producing. And so, just like that, today, Ravi and Rohini were our speakers, and tomorrow they’ll be contributors in other ways. And so, we would, we’re gonna do all that we can with all the amazing comments and questions you have. We’re gonna put it up, we’re gonna mirror it back to each other, we’re gonna share the recordings, there’s gonna be a ton more, so you’ll see all of that and a lot more.