Shubhendra Yadav is confident and his English fluent as he comes up to me and asks, “Sir, can I take you around my school?” Over the next half-an-hour – as the seventh grader shows me around the air-conditioned computer rooms, his maths project on two-dimensional and three-dimensional theory and later points out at the hostel where he lives in a room that has internet connection – I marvel, both at Shubhendra’s transformation and the unusual story of his school Vidyagyan.
Till about a year ago, Shubhendra was living with his family in Moradabad in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His father was a farmer and like the rest of his friends, the youngster was studying in the local Hindi-medium government school, where teachers’ attendance was worse than the students’. Shubhendra was a bright student and always amongst the topper. And when he again came on top of his fifth standard class, his life changed.
Scouts from Vidyagyan included Shubhendra on the first shortlist of fifth grade toppers from across Uttar Pradesh’s government schools. The students later wrote another written test and about 200 of them were selected for the 2011 batch of sixth graders at Vidyagyan. Shubhendra was one of them.
Today he, along with 700-odd students from across Uttar Pradesh live on Vidyagyan’s sprawling 30-acre campus in Bulandshahar, about 100 kms from Delhi. Another campus is in Sitapur, in central Uttar Pradesh. Shubhendra’s parents visit him once in six months and he himself goes home during the summer and winter vacations. Vidyagyan is as good as his home now and will be for the next five years. The school spends Rs 1.5 lakh per student every year.
I’m glad that I met Shubhendra because I’m now more cheerful. Well, you don’t look forward to getting up early on a cold and rainy Sunday morning and traveling 100 kms to visit a school on its third anniversary. After getting out of the Noida expressway, we come through narrow and sometimes pothole-ridden roads to reach Vidyagyan. It is an unlikely campus, dotted with good looking buildings, in an otherwise rural surroundings.
Now having met the youngster and observed rest of the smart, chirpy and at the same time well-behaved students (unlike most of their urban counterparts) of Vidyagyan, it is now time to meet the man, who proudly says, “This is the best school in India. I always wanted to build a school, where I would have sent my daughter.”
Shiv Nadar never went to a big school, or to an IIM or an IIT. But he had those inherent entrepreneurial qualities that characterise his community from Tamil Nadu. It sure worked because today he is one of the biggest entrepreneurs in India, heading a $6.5 billion empire.
Today I’m not meeting the usual Nadar. It is an unlikely place where I meet him. Dressed in a cream kurta-pyjama, Nadar is sitting on a chair that on any other day one of his students would have occupied. Sitting in the middle of a classroom, he starts to describe his philanthropy vision with a question, “There are five thousand engineering colleges in India. And how many IITs do we have?”
He studied that question quite a few years ago, because in 1996 he set up SSN Engineering College in Chennai, his first philanthropy initiative in education. “My aim is to develop and build leaders for India. And that is only possible through good education.”
The last three years has seen that vision shaping up. His Shiv Nadar Foundation today covers k-12 and higher education. Last year, the Foundation spent Rs 550 crore in philanthropy and till the last count Rs 1,800 crore in all. That makes them as big, or even bigger than Tata Trusts (who in 2010 spent a little over Rs 500 crore). But that investment would have included capital costs in setting up new campuses and is not strictly comparable. More importantly, their work too differs. The Trusts are involved in scores of fields including education, which is the sole focus of the Foundation.
Nadar’s billionaire peers like Sunil Mittal and Azim Premji have also chosen education as the focus of their philanthropy. But the model is different. While the Shiv Nadar Foundation builds infrastructure and mostly works independent of the government (except when it screens students for Vidyagyan), philanthropy initiatives by Mittal and Premji do partner local administration.
“The Foundation is fully supported by my family. We have pledged 20 per cent of our wealth…but I have a problem with pledges. It is one thing to pledge and another to execute it.”
To make sure that his family is doing it, Nadar has roped in his daughter Roshni Nadar Malhotra and son-in-law Shikhar Malhotra. Roshni is Executive Director and CEO of HCL Corporation, the holding company of the Group. She is also a Trustee of the Shiv Nadar Foundation.Her husband Shikhar too is a Director at HCL Corp and a Trustee of the Foundation.
Talking to media persons later in the day, Roshni brushed aside doubts on why the two campuses of Vidyagyan, and the expected third one, are all in Uttar Pradesh. “We have been in Uttar Pradesh for 35 years. We understand the local laws. Once we master one place, we will look out.” Sitting beside her is Saurav Adhikari, the Senior Advisor of the Foundation. He adds: “We have not taken any concessions from the government and we do not intend to. We have bought land on commercial rates.”
Interestingly, later in the day Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav would mention - while addressing students and a big HCL family including Vineet Nayar, Vice Chairman and CEO of HCL Technologies – “I asked Mr Nadar if he wanted any help from the government. And he said, no.”
After the third campus comes up, possibly in three years, the Vidyagyan schools would be home to almost 5,000 students from the present 1,250. The Foundation itself will increase its total spend to up to $1 billion and is also actively discussing possibilities of going beyond the space of education.
One of Shubhendra’s schoolmate told this to a fellow journalist – “I want to become a big businessman. When I have money, I will have honey.”