In November 2017, Indian billionaire couple Nandan and Rohini Nilekani signed the Giving Pledge. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, his wife Melinda, and legendary investor Warren Buffet created the global philanthropic initiative in 2010. Their aim was to create an impetus for the world’s wealthiest (billionaires only) to commit to giving away a majority of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes.

In the 10 years since the movement was launched, 211 billionaires and billionaire couples, like the Nilekanis, have signed have signed Giving Pledge The Giving Pledge list Read more the pledge. Wipro founder Azim Premji and Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw are the only other Indian signees. India had 117 billionaires 117 billionaires Forbes Forbes 2020 billionaires list Read more at last count, according to the obsessively billionaire-tracking Forbes.

When the Nilekanis signed the pledge, committing to give away half their wealth, they were together worth a reported $1.7 billion. Most of it was in the form of shares in the company Nandan co-founded in 1981, led as CEO between 2002 and 2007, and has been chairing the board of since 2017— Infosys.

During the decade between leaving Infosys as its CEO and coming back as its chairman, Nilekani had an intensely eventful career. He launched and rapidly scaled India’s unique ID programme, Aadhaar, till it was too big to undo or restrict. Over 1.26 billion Indians have Aadhaar today, making it easily the world’s largest such government-linked identity programme.

Then, in 2014, Nilekani ran for Parliament after joining the Congress party. It was a disaster. He lost badly.

Forswearing active politics, Nilekani then moved from the foreground of India’s policy and technology battles to the background. Using Aadhaar’s digitally addressable scale, he started coalescing the creation of “platforms” that sought to replicate its success in different sectors.

Working behind the scenes in non-executive roles like advisor, mentor or member in both private and public organisations, Nilekani guided the creation of massively ambitious technology platforms. Platforms that aimed to solve the unforgiving economics of providing affordable financial services, education and healthcare in a massive developing country. By making it lucrative for entrepreneurs to do so.

An electronic Know Your Customer solution built on top of Aadhaar, eKYC, enabled Reliance Jio, a late entrant into Indian telecom, to scale rapidly and become its number one player.

Unified Payments Interface (UPI), an open protocol that enables anyone with a bank account to transfer money to anyone else instantly, freely and without needing to know the recipient’s account details, is today on its way to nearly two billion transactions a month.


Rohin Dharmakumar

Rohin is co-founder and CEO at The Ken. He holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and an engineering degree in Computer Sciences from the R.V.C.E., Bangalore.

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