Indian American entrepreneur and philanthropist Dr Kiran Patel stunned the world last year when he made a commitment of $200 million to the Nova Southeastern University in Florida. This was the largest donation made by an Indian American in the United States. Dr Patel, who made a billion-dollar-plus exit from health insurance business last year — his second billion dollar exit — is showing no signs of slowing down on his philanthropic pursuit. The Drs Kiran & Pallavi Patel Family Foundation is working also in India mainly on two areas – health and education. In an interview with FE Online’s Anil Nair, Dr Patel list out the foundation’s activities in India. He says the Indian government should focus on building goods schools and hospitals to take the economy to the next level.
Q. Last year you pledged $200 million to a university in Florida. This gives the impression that you are focusing on higher education. Why didn’t you start investing in schools?
I am also building schools in Zambia, India and in the US. I am also planning to set up a university in India. I believe that the best anybody can give to an individual is education. It can break the cycle of poverty and crime and make an individual a productive citizen. I am working through public-private partnerships. In India, there are private and public schools and only affluent people can afford private schools. So, in India, we decided to start with high schools and then progressively get into higher education. Basically, we are offering the students an opportunity to get a quality education without spending their own money.
Q. Do you think this model will work in India?
Let me give you the best example – the Akshaypatra scheme. We are supplementing the midday meal programme to give a much better meal than the government was is able to provide. The government will provide a higher standard of infrastructure and we can start giving support. The largest component of education expenses is the salary. If the government can take care of it, the quality will definitely improve.
Q. Why do you spend so much on one institution rather than spending $200 million across multiple projects and institutions?
There was a major vision. Through this college, I will able to expand to Africa and India. My dream is to be able to give a US medical degree to Indian students at a fraction of the cost of studying in the US. For example, a medical degree from the US will cost them $250,000. If I can produce doctors in Zambia and India who will provide good services in their home country, then I believe I have achieved a lot.
Q. You have been involved in India for almost 20 years now. What are your major projects here?
I have been involved primarily in the health and education sectors. In Sinor taluka of Gujarat, we have eliminated malnourishment in infants. The infant mortality rate in this taluka for babies with low birth weight has gone down from 20% to 3.5%. The goal is to adopt 5 family health centres and primary health centres. My focus is regional and in a geographic footprint where I can make an impact. In a philanthropic effort, the project has to be impactful, replicable, scalable and sustainable. We first created a model, which now can be expanded in different places. So our first approach is going to be in the three neighbouring talukas, where we are going to expand our healthcare, education and nourishment efforts. With Akshaypatra, we will be feeding 50,000 students a mid-day meal every day. Then we will provide health and education in those areas. So it’s a steady approach, but the impact is amazing and from our own school we now have doctors who are coming back to our village and giving back service. That’s an amazing example of what a school in your own town can do.
Q. What has been your experience with various governments of India in the last 20 years?
I believe that challenge everybody faces is mutual mistrust. The government feels that the NGO will be misappropriating funds, and the private sector feels that the government employees will be misappropriating funds. So this mutual mistrust has to be broken. I started working in India in 1994 and I was the first one to do the public-private partnership. We have been able to establish credibility. Though there were challenges, the Gujarat government has always been proactive, willing to listen to people like me and carry out some bold experiments. And I think the outcome has been good. There were some bureaucratic hurdles, but these are checks and balances. As long as you don’t get frustrated, you can get through. We have some major plans in the next 2-3 years for scaling up our operations in Dang and in our 3-4 talukas.
Q. Has there been any effective coordination with other funding agencies?
I have solely funded all my projects. So I really do not have any funders but as I scale up, we will be able to partner with others, giving our advice to people who are interested in carrying out a similar mission.
Q. Is there any forum for good practices sharing? You have done some good work. If someone wants to start something, they should not be starting from scratch…
That is my next work for now. It is to make those things visible. For example, in 2004 or so we were the first ones to provide 100% sanitation to every single citizen of our village regardless of caste creed and religion. At that time, village representatives used to come to us to know how to get things done. We are doing this based on references, rather than any type of marketing.
WATCH: Drs Kiran and Pallavi Patel pledge $200 million to Florida university
Q. Your foundation is focused on health, education and culture. Why did you choose these areas?
If you have education and health, you can conquer the world. With either of them absent, you have a major handicap. So if you want to make somebody independent, then you need education. It’s debatable whether you need health or education first, but these two things are addressed, all other challenges can be met. So if you start from early childhood, providing good nourishment, good health and good education, you have solved almost all the problems.
Q. What is your advice to the Indian government for improving health and education infrastructure?
I think now that the government has its financial resources, the focus should be on improving the standards of infrastructure. By that, I mean good quality schools, good quality hospitals. So by managing the vast infrastructure the government has, it can get good people on its payroll. The issue is not money, the issue is ethics, morality, standards. These are all human factors. So I think it will be up to the citizen to wake up and demand that if the government is spending money then that money should come to us. And the government will have to be strict on those aspects.
Q. Last year you had a billion-dollar exit from a health insurance. You have a thriving hospitality portfolio. Do you have any plans to do business in India?
At a personal level, I will spend more time on India. I have got 2 or 3 large exits in the next 3 years. I don’t like to quote numbers, but I would like to pass the baton to the next generation and whatever time God has given me, I would like to spend it on projects in Africa India and the US.
Q. You were born in Zambia and were educated in India. What are your memories of that time?
My memories have always been good. I think the upbringing was such that we enjoyed what we had. I never felt that I am poor. And the focus was always on education. And I think the early years in Zambia and my college life in India have moulded me. I tell people that I am so fortunate that I could do something for my janmabhoomi, that is Zambia; my karmabhoomi, that is America; and my mathrubhoomi, that is India. I have a great family that agrees with my thoughts and support my vision.