Women at Work: ‘Private Sector Needs to Accelerate Social Change’
The Wall Street Journal
In 2001, after a catastrophic earthquake struck the western coast of India, Lata Krishnan, a U.S.-based investor, was inspired to set up a non-profit to help the downtrodden back home. Since, she has served on the board of several philanthropic ventures and non-profits, including one that helps safeguard refugee women.
Ms. Krishan was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala and holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. The 52-year-old, a mother to two, is at present the chief financial officer of U.S.-based private-equity fund, Shah Capital Partners.
In an interview with India Real Time, Ms. Krishnan spoke about her nomadic life, what pushed her into philanthropy and why she believes the private sector can spur the much-needed social change in India.
WSJ: You had a fairly nomadic life — from India to Kenya, then to London before finally settling down in California. What has helped you remain focused?
Lata Krishnan: I believe my parents and family have taught me the importance of being focused irrespective of our physical location. I have been fortunate to be a part of a family that has a strong value system and encourages risk taking and exploring outside one’s comfort zone. To me, being focused is about working hard, establishing good relationships, adapting to new places and taking in the richness that each community provides, without compromising on one’s core values.
WSJ: What got you into philanthropy?
Ms. Krishnan: The Silicon Valley has been an extraordinary teacher in many ways. I have seen both corporations and individuals deeply engaged in giving back to the community. This comes from a strong belief that while we strive to build companies and businesses, philanthropy is a commitment and responsibility we bear.
WSJ: Why do you think the role of private sector is to address larger issues such as poverty, hunger and social justice?
Ms. Krishnan: I believe the private sector can enhance the pace of change in the social sector by leaps and bounds. The government plays a critical role in addressing the issues in any society. However, it cannot achieve everything by itself. While the government may play its part by prioritizing the sectors that require intervention, private sector needs to accelerate the process by supplementing societal changes with its business acumen, expertise and accountability.
WSJ: Tell us more about the work you do at The American India Foundation, the nonprofit you founded in 2001.
Ms. Krishnan: At AIF, our prerogative is to work with the most marginalized communities by finding and filling the gaps that others have not addresses so far.
On a recent visit to one of AIF’s program locations for instance, I travelled to Saraikela – one of the lesser known of villages in Jharkhand. I have seen how tribal rural families are still facing high numbers of new born deaths while on the other hand medical tourism is flourishing in a village, just a few kilometers away.
When it comes to development efforts, many organizations work only on number-focused results that can be highlighted. As a function of this, a lot of efforts are focused on the strata of society that is not completely marginalized. If these marginalized communities are to be elevated, a lot of hard work, perseverance and years would have to be invested before we see the change happen. Sadly, many donors are interested typically in showcasing the benefit they have brought upon. Hence, the divide between progressive communities and the ones that continue to be ignored is deepening.
WSJ: Do you think India has done enough to address this gap?
Ms. Krishnan: While we, as a country, are far from being inclusive in terms of development, we have definitely embarked on our journey towards that goal. It is a good beginning, but flawless execution will make all the difference. India has progressed significantly in the last 4 to 5 years, but development will remain patchy till such time that good governance practices are followed by the social sector and each and every penny raised is accounted for.
WSJ: Is the new Companies Bill– which mandates private companies spend at least 2% of their profit on developmental activities – the right step forward?
Ms. Krishnan: While I’m not really sure that corporates can be made socially conscious through pressure, I recognize that the intent of the bill is to make businesses champion the cause of society’s development. As a parent often does, the government is right in setting the guidelines, but eventually we hope that companies learn to own social needs and work on their own accord to benefit communities.
It is a step in the right direction by making companies realize that they cannot be divorced from the society they operate in.
WSJ: Switching gears — What advice would you give to young women?
Ms. Krishnan: My message to young women is to be bold in their careers, take chances to be different and strive for fulfillment. Every individual’s definition of success is different and it’s important to stay true to your convictions. Women have to work harder to maintain a work-life balance by managing fulltime careers, as well as play an important role at home. I believe we can have our cake and eat it too. There are many examples of women in India and the U.S. who have achieved this by setting priorities every day.