April 26, 2023

Time to ‘Turn Up The Volume’ at ACF

Spend just half an hour of your time with Padmini Sekhsaria – the vivacious and accomplished daughter of ACF Founder Narotam Sekhsaria, and ACF Board member – and you quickly realise that your view of the world is terribly small! With an extensive career in the development sector; a diverse background in business; a rich family heritage of philanthropy; and a global perspective – Padmini brings immense value to the table in guiding the trajectory of Ambuja Foundation. She is fast thinking and talking – so strap on your seatbelts and enjoy the ride, as we discuss her journey, all things Ambuja Foundation and her thoughts on the future of development, globally.

You’ve grown up alongside Ambuja Foundation - how has the journey been, seeing it grow under the leadership of your Father?

I was barely 10 or 11 years old when my father started the company and I’ve literally seen it grow alongside me in the formative years of my life, it’s been a pleasure and honour to see that happen. It truly was a playground and a university. You learn a lot and sometimes take it for granted – for all you’ve been exposed to you assume the world is like that. But of course now I recognise that it’s not, and my upbringing was a huge opportunity and a privilege. My biggest legacy is what I’ve learnt at the feet of my father, in both the for profit and non-profit side of things.

Tell us about your own personal journey in the development sector? What are some of the key learning’s?

My family has been into philanthropy long before ACF. In the year I was born, my father was doing philanthropy in Chirawa, our family village – a family tradition was to go there and serve in the community. We would put up a huge tent to do cataract surgeries - it is a needless blindness and because of it, many villagers used to see elders as ‘not contributing.’ The numbers that showed up were over-whelming – thousands coming to do the operations every year.

All of this is part of what I’ve seen growing up. And as kids we did everything from helping serve meals to the doctors, making sure patients were taken care of, registrations and so on. My brother was braver than I and would go into the operating theatre – electricity was often fluctuating so the operations would go on under torchlight, with surgeons operating for 12-16 hours a day just to ensure everyone was served.

I’ve been blessed to see all this as a natural part of life. My mum too, was very giving, sending us on our birthdays and throughout the year to spend quality time with, and to understand the needs of, special needs kids.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer on my 18th birthday. I was at University at the time and decided to start volunteering in a local hospital. It was here that I learnt about the ills of tobacco use. It was a surreal time - he was like an invincible super hero, now so mortal. He had been a tobacco user in the vulnerable teenage years where youth unwittingly become addicted – that’s when I started Salaam Bombay Foundation to kickstart an intervention on tobacco control.

It has been an incredible journey and digging deep into the subject, I learnt that tobacco addiction really is just a symptom of a family who has lost a sense of hope. To tackle it at the root, we had to ask ‘how do you build a sense of a better future for young people?’ And so we got into that area. The more you dig into a social issue, the more you can see the interconnectedness of things. There is a correlation between poverty, education, literacy and addiction, so when you are trying to solve one thing, you realise you have to solve something else too. Ambuja Foundation has grown like that – you go in to

solve one thing in a community and you realise you have to solve another, and another, to get to the heart of the matter.

I come from a family that values the idea that we have an obligation to give back to the community from which we have come. Local communities have supported us to success, so we owe it to them. It’s the same way to think about it at scale. We are responsible to Bombay, Maharashtra, to India in fact. I spend so much time internationally and I always advocate that - if we have an opportunity to make a change in India you can definitely change the world, after all our demography is so huge. I find that such a huge and exciting opportunity – why not be a part of that change. It is a hugely motivating idea.

What are some key areas at ACF where you would like to see change, impact or transformation?

We have so many best in class practices at Ambuja Foundation, though of course, there is always room to keep improving. One area we have started but not done enough in, is in the area of how we amplify our documentation. Whilst the way we internally document is amazing, we have not been very good at documenting and sharing our work and learnings on other platforms – government platforms, international platforms and the like. For example, why is ACF not at the World Economic Forum?

First things first, we need to ask ourselves ‘Have we been able to be the voice for development in India?’ I feel that’s where we need to go. There is a positioning that is possible for us, and it’s important for us to build that voice a little more clearly and loudly. Even within India we are well known in CSR, and corporate circles, but do we have a strong positioning in the thrust areas that we work in? Perhaps not. The opportunities are there for creating national platforms for skilling or thought leadership for water, agriculture, or rural livelihoods. Each of these areas have power as a platform at state, national and international levels. And whilst we have the potential in terms of credibility to be that voice, we need to raise the volume!

It’s about finding ways to credibly share it with the world. I of course, think what we do is incredible, but my voice is not objective – a voice like Harvard is objective and credible – and that voice of credibility has a multiplier affect which can help others see the value in the work we do, and help us get more partners to expand our work. I find that our team often doesn’t realise how amazing the work they are doing is, so they need someone else to remind them of that and how it needs to be amplified.

What are some of the key trends influencing the development sector in India & Internationally right now?

One of the things I’ve seen now in conversations around the world, is really about the aftermath of Covid19. In some sense, we have turned a corner and we are done with it, but in reality, the world is coming out of a phase where we haven’t really understood the impact of Covid on our lives.

Firstly, it’s one thing that affected each and every one of us irrespective of age, economic situation, or geography (urban or rural). But in India, we’ve simply gone back to business as usual. We’ve not stopped to ask ourselves ‘After Covid, how did I change as a human being? What did it do to me?’

You just need to look at some of the vulnerable populations, for example slum children. When schools didn’t reopen, poor children couldn’t go online and many of them simple never went back to school. They are calling them the ‘ghost children’ - the children of a generation who have disappeared, and we just don’t know what will happen to them. Young people have also had a lot of mental health issues. Pre-teen students who were isolated were going back to school with huge insecurities about who they are - manifesting itself in things like self-harm. Mental health will be central to the future. We in India do not talk about mental health, it’s a taboo subject – seeking help is taboo, and there aren’t enough trained counsellors in India to meet the need anyway. There has also been a huge impact on people in our companies – people have had mental re-sets. The way of working has shifted with hybrid versus in-person work. We haven’t stopped to ask ‘How is that affecting the world?’

People are talking a lot about this globally, but in India we don’t talk about anything – we are so busy getting on with life and we have not sat down and assessed the damage that Covid created. And this is where investments will have to be made going forward. CSR funds have retracted as companies are not spending on development due to less profits. There have also been big budget cuts by government has gone down. So where will the money for all this come from? I feel that the way forward will be via more sustainable social business models perhaps, to address some of these issues.

This is the way that we as an organisation need to think to stay at the forefront and remain relevant – ‘What is the tomorrow of development vs the today of development?’ In saying all this, we also need to appreciate what we have become in coming out of this experience. We have demonstrated success in change - standing tall in the face of the pandemic. We have come out of this stronger – and for that we should be proud.

Concluding Remarks

In giving, I have realised that there is such joy in it – you get much more than you give. In fact, we don’t do it for what it does for others – we do it selfishly for how it makes us feel. Participating in change and transforming lives is the ultimate high in life! In that way, being a part of Ambuja Foundation has been amazing and I feel that every day I’m learning – it’s like drinking out of a fire hose and the energy I get from it is enormous. I admire, and feel proud of, being part of it.

But my father said to me recently, "You know Padmini we’ve not done enough charity work – I don’t think we’ve done enough. You have to be able to give with both your hands." And so who knows what the future holds …

April 26, 2023

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