What Indian immigrants in the US can do to counter racist attacks

It is in the self-interest of billionaires and chief executives to fund human rights, civil liberties, social and political groups.

 |  4-minute read |   14-04-2017
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As an immigrant from India in the US, I liked that Indians in Houston donated $1,00,000 in March to Ian Grillot to help him buy a house. Grillot, 24, is the white hero who survived after being shot while chasing a gunman at a bar in Olathe, Kansas in February 2017.

The white gunman had earlier shot two 32-year-old Indian engineers after asking about their immigration status and shouting at them to “Get out of my country.” One of the engineers, Srinivas Kuchibhotla later died.

The donation got good media coverage, and news about it was widely shared. It shows that Indians, the most educated and affluent ethnic immigrants in the US, can positively influence racial and social issues through philanthropy.

Indians in the US, estimated at more than three million, are mostly in engineering, medical, management and other professions as well as business owners.

Nearly three quarters of Indian immigrants over age 25 have a college degree and their median annual household income was over $88,000, far higher than that of other Asian Americans, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Several Indian immigrants have achieved major financial success as founders and investors, mostly in technology companies and as chief executives of major US corporations.

About 90 per cent of Indians in America were born in India. Their philanthropy, as with their love of Bollywood films and cricket, is shaped largely by their upbringing in India.

Middle-class Indians, in India and the US, generously donate both money and time. As Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, India’s richest self-made woman puts it on the Giving Pledge website, “Having grown up in a middle class family in India, I was brought up by my parents to believe that wealth creation is about making a difference to society.”

Very few Indian billionaires are major philanthropists. The most notable is the Tata family whose foundations fund hospitals, research centers, arts and education using the bulk of the profits from the Tata Companies.

There are 101 Indians on Forbes list of global billionaires, with estimated net worth ranging from $1 billion to $23 billion. There are also five Indian immigrants on the Forbes 400 list of richest people in America, with estimated net worth of $2 billion to $3 billion.

Only Mazumdar-Shaw and six other Indian billionaires, in India and the US, have signed the Giving Pledge initiated by American billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The pledge is a public commitment by the world’s billionaires and their families to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. This is purely a moral act with no scrutiny of whether or not the billionaire makes the donation.

Traditionally, Indian billionaires, like many from other countries, donate small amounts seeking business and political returns and for social climbing. Funding programs to improve the lives of the less fortunate are not popular due to the belief that the poor are lazy and do not seek work.

Since the '80s, several billionaires have emerged in India due to the rapid growth of businesses based on intellectual labour. Some of them are funding major social campaigns, notably Aziz Premji who has signed the Giving Pledge.

Premji started Wipro, a $7.7-billion software company, and has a net worth estimated at more than $15 billion. He has donated more than $5 billion so far seeking to improve public education in India. He was inspired by his mother, a doctor who ran a free hospital for children with polio and cerebral palsy in Mumbai.

Mazumdar-Shaw, with an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion, is founder of Biocon, Asia’s largest producer of insulin. She focuses on improving healthcare, especially in developing countries.

In the US, Romesh Wadhwani is the only Indian on the Forbes 400 list to sign the Giving Pledge. He is a software entrepreneur and founder of Palo Alto-based private equity firm Symphony Technology Group. His net worth is estimated to be $3 billion. He has degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology and Carnegie-Mellon University. He funds programs in entrepreneurship, skills education and policy research in the US, India and elsewhere.

Between January and April 2017, there have been at least two other physical attacks on Indian immigrants in the US. It is in the self-interest of Indian billionaires and chief executives in the US to become major philanthropists, funding human rights, civil liberties, social and political groups.

Such work will enhance the Americans perception of Indians as well as influence elected officials to try to prevent racial attacks on Indians.

As Grillot told the Indians who honoured him in Houston: "I now have a very powerful message and if I can help empower people and spread hope and love, then why not?"

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Ignatius Chithelen Ignatius Chithelen

He is the author of Six Degrees of Education and runs Banyan Tree Capital in New York.

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