Born in Canberra, Australia, Dinesh Dhamija was educated at Kings School, Canterbury, and Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. He is also an alumnus of IMD in Lausanne and Harvard Business School. In 1980, he and his wife Tani, a flight attendant at the time, started selling travel tickets at a kiosk in a London tube station. This began Dhamija’s long career in the travel industry, which culminated with launching eBookers.com in 1996, which sold just a few years later for £247 million. Since then, Dhamija has set his sights on philanthropy and politics, recently winning election as a Member of the European Parliament for the Liberal Democrats.
“I was essentially the first person to bring the Internet to Europe for the travel business,” Dhamija told me in our conversation. Dhamija took eBookers public on NASDAQ and the London Stock Exchange in 1999. By 2005, eBookers operated in 11 European countries and employed over 2,000 people.
Not long ago, I dug into some of the top Indian-American philanthropists. In recent decades, the population of Indian-origin people in the United States has soared, and as a group, Indian immigrants have amassed significant wealth. Across the pond in England, similar demographic shifts are occurring, with some 832,000 Indian-born people in the U.K., according to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory.
Giving Back Home
Givers throughout the Indian diaspora are interested in their home country of India, and Dhamija is no exception. He regularly visits India and founded and endowed two charities there—Chikitsa and Shiksha. The healthcare focused Chikitsa gives 120,000 people free medicine each year through 15 clinics in Delhi. And Shiksha gives street children free access to education each year so that they can avoid child labor.
“I just didn’t have the time or money to devote initially. When we started our business, it was all hands on deck, 24/7. But once I sold, I had time and money on my hands and could turn around and give back,” Dhamija explains.
Dhamija’s brother-in-law and nephew are based in India, and run the day-to-day operations of the foundations. In its work, Chikitsa relies on retired Armed Forces doctors and others to help provide treatment and services for Delhi residents. Dhamija’s brother in law was once chief of the Indian Army, and so Dhamija is able to tap that network to find qualified medical professionals. Chikitsa also purchases medicine from drug companies at a discounted rate and provides them for free.
Meanwhile, Shiksha—a Sanskrit word, which means “instruction” or “learning”—works with kids in kindergarten through sixth form, and operates three schools for 1,100 kids. In this setting, Dhamija isn’t just concerned with education but also wants to provide other wraparound services. “One thing is to make sure these children get a good meal at lunch. A lot of the time they’re hungry. They also deal with lack of water and sanitation, especially girls, who have to go outside, which isn’t safe,” Dhamija says.
When I asked Dhamija about the biggest challenges facing India today, he was quick to reel off the daunting numbers: “There are 1.35 billion people in India and I’d say about 500 million desperately need help.” He says that clean running water and electricity are especially critical. And while Dhamija believes that his charities are already having impact, he believes that continuing to scale up is important in his giving and for others who want to make an impact in India.
“I give 120,000 people free medicine through 15 clinics in India. I could double that quite easily. I give 1,100 street children free education being doing that for about 16 years. I could double that as well,” he says.
On the European Stage
Dhamija became a member of the European Parliament in July and is at the helm of the India Desk. Running on the Liberal Democratic ticket, he’s been outspokenly anti-Brexit, calling Brexit a “national embarrassment.”
On the philanthropic front, he became a trustee of Scope, a cerebral palsy charity. He also joined the Winston Memorial Trust, which supports UK citizens from all parts of society to travel the world in search of innovative solutions for today’s most pressing problems.” “It’s a four to eight week trip. You really learn a lot by going to different countries in different fields,” Dhamija tells me.
He’s also on the board of Lepra, a UK-based international charity working to beat leprosy, and in Silicon Valley, was president of the Indus Entrepreneur’s Organization (TiE), which was founded in the early 1990s by pioneering Indian American entrepreneurs. Tech funders I’ve profiled in the past like Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks, have served as TiE mentors.
Dhamija also recently made a gift supporting kids in Romania, where he’s done business. Dinesh and Tani Dhamija have two sons around forty, who down the line Dhamija hopes will carry on the family’s philanthropic legacy. For now, he still is keen on finding more solid organizations to support. “My biggest focus is getting good new people to invest in and carry on the work. Most people like to earn money. But we need people who have money to step up,” he tells me.