A while back, I provided a rundown of some top Indian American philanthropists, highlighting givers like billionaire couple Vinod and Neeru Khosla, as well as Rao and Satya Remala. Some Indian immigrants have amassed significant wealth in the United States in recent generations, and they’re tapping those funds for causes in the United States, India and elsewhere. In 2015, the discretionary income of Americans of Indian origin was approximately $67.4 billion, according to Bridgespan Group. And in a rapidly diversifying American ethnic landscape, which by 2050 will be majority non-white, Indian-Americans will have a role to play.
Many of these donors found success in Silicon Valley and in STEM fields, with some getting their start at the prominent Indian Institutes of Technology (ITT) before moving stateside. Sandeep Aggarwal, for example, received two degrees in India and went on to earn his M.B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis. He worked at Microsoft, Citigroup and Oppenheimer & Co. before launching two businesses.
More recently, Aggarwal has turned to philanthropy. His Sandeep Aggarwal Foundation aims to build an inclusive India, focusing on issues like empowering women, children’s rights and promoting entrepreneurship. “I spent a majority of my adult life in San Francisco and came to India nine years back to start my first company, which was very similar to Alibaba or Amazon,” Aggarwal told me from New Delhi in a recent interview.
In our conversation, I found out more about what spurred Aggarwal’s philanthropy, while also learning about what drives some of his peers to give.
A meteoric rise, a bump in the road, and a new start
Known as the “father of marketplaces” in India, Aggarwal launched ShopClues with his wife Radhika in 2011, an e-commerce marketplace that was once worth over $1 billion. In 2014, he followed that up with Droom, India’s first marketplace for automobiles, which today does over $1.5 billion in business.
A few years back, however, Aggarwal was in a different spot, stemming from an alleged insider trading scheme. In 2015, Aggarwal was charged in connection with what prosecutors said were tips he provided to a college friend. Aggarwal denied wrongdoing and his lawyers argued that there was no evidence that he knew about the trades before they happened. The charges were ultimately dropped.
In the midst of the case, Aggarwal returned to his native India. And as business was booming, he also turned to philanthropy, initially engaging in corporate giving. “We started collaborating with an organization empowering women who were married, did not work, and wanted to contribute for the economic upliftment [sic] of their family,” he said. Through ShopClues, Aggarwal connected with an environmental organization and recycled thousands of unused boxes, repurposing them into shopping bags and the like.
Two years ago, Aggarwal set out to deepen and personalize his giving. He launched the Sandeep Aggarwal Foundation, which has several key focus areas with an eye toward India—protecting planet Earth, helping underprivileged people nationwide, empowering women, addressing child rights and promoting entrepreneurship.
Early work has included supporting an all-girls school for underprivileged youth. The foundation has supported Smile Foundation, an NGO focused on youth education and health, and Umeed Foundation, which provides services for children and young adults with developmental difficulties.
And as the COVID pandemic reached a fever pitch in India in early 2021, the foundation tapped its network to provide oxygen concentrators and other vital medical supplies. A month ago, Indian hospitals were in dire need of oxygen cylinders, and many sick patients had to rely on family members to secure oxygen for them. An NPR article notes that India spends just above 1% of its GDP on public health, compared to nearly 18% in the United States. As we previously reported, individual donors and foundations have started to step in to provide vital aid in India.
Right now, Aggarwal said, the virus has passed through most of the major cities in the country, but is now moving beyond Mumbai and Banaglore, much like the crisis in the U.S. moved from New York to places like South Dakota. So now, his sights are set on getting rural towns the vital aid they need.
Building a network of trusted partners
As Aggarwal builds out his philanthropy and identifies giving areas, homecoming has been a key theme. When he returned to India, he connected with another Indian businessman who also spent a long time in the U.S. and was also coming back home. The man was involved with a women’s organization and had just donated a large plot of land to grow the charity. Aggarwal was invited to give a speech. “He wanted me to teach them how to use e-commerce to sell all the items they make. And when I met them, I realized there was so much more we could do… For every $100, they were only keeping $20 for their cause,” Aggarwal said.
Driven to act, Aggarwal set up a website and online store for the charity, which drew support from United Nations literacy programs. And in the midst of one of India’s great festivals, he made sure to showcase their bags so that these women could take advantage of the high demand. But beyond the business component of the work, Aggarwal got to know these women, hearing stories of domestic abuse. Confronting that problem is now a key part of the foundation’s grantmaking.
How Aggarwal got into environmental philanthropy
Aggarwal and his wife met in the Midwest during graduate school, where he fell in love with the region’s natural spaces. “There was the Mississippi. There was Missouri. When I went to Chicago, I was mesmerized seeing lakes bigger than oceans,” he said. These were his first experiences in the states.
Aggarwal spoke of India’s deep network of rivers, positioned as the country is at the foothills of the Himalayas. However, he said, every century, the country loses one major river because of land degradation and desertification. “I took my wife and kids to Goa, which is very similar to, say, Miami, and I was shocked [that] from my childhood memory, there was a beautiful pristine beach; it was now a place where you could not even stay for 15 minutes,” he said.
To tackle India’s pollution problem, the foundation partnered with Indian agencies to write research papers and conduct a public environmental awareness campaign. New Delhi alone has been ranked as a top polluted city for the last decade. But according to Aggarwal, the founder of an automobile marketplace company, the blame cannot be placed on cars. He spoke of research finding that India is actually 67th in terms of per capita automobile availability and that only 4% of Indian households have a car.
“India does not have a problem of excess number of cars… It is really about our roads. It’s about the traffic habits…. when the roads are congested, when there’s a traffic jam, that creates six times or 10 times more pollution,” Aggarwal said.
News18 in India recently reported the low pollution levels during lockdown, citing a study that traffic jams and congestion are the “the leading source of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants which contribute to air pollution.” On the other hand, others note that vehicular exhaust, along with emissions from industry, contribute more than 50% of New Delhi’s air pollution on most days through the year.
The first generation
Aggarwal and his peers are part of what he calls the first generation of Indian tech entrepreneurs. He says that he and his cohort are particularly interested in entrepreneurship in their giving, seeing it as a way for everyday citizens to improve their lives by charting out a path as they did. Aggarwal looks back to the United States and the entrepreneurs he says are making a difference through disruption and innovation. A second major theme among his peers, he says, is education.
“I have noticed one thing—maybe just as an Indian who spent some of my life in the U.S. I know in America, charity is part of a way of life. Wherever you get an opportunity, people get together quite quickly. There are a lot of venues and a lot of ways… You have your opportunity to contribute whatever small or big thing you can,” he said.
Overall, Aggarwal believes that Indians also have a deep desire to engage in philanthropy. However, he said the avenues to do so aren’t as robust in India, and that there’s less transparency and trust. “Unlike the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, India is a low-trust market,” he said.
There are a few things, he said, that can turn the tide. One part of that would be leveraging technology to make sure foundations and charities are more transparent. He also believes technology will make it easier for people throughout the Indian diaspora to mobilize quickly to address national disasters.
He notes the ease with which he was able to contribute aid money to the Philippines while living in the Bay Area. “I never doubted what will be the utilization of this capital, right? So in my view, if we can solve those two problems, I think the Indian diaspora, independent of their geography… [will become] more active in charitable activities and in making a difference in our society.”