The first thing that strikes you when you meet Meera Gandhi is her joie de vivre. Despite her credentials as a prominent philanthropist and humanitarian who mingles on a daily basis with the who’s who of global society – from Delhi to London and New York – Meera has an endearing, cheery and approachable persona that immediately puts you at ease. One can imagine a woman like this wearing a designer gown and raising a toast with the likes of the Blairs and the Clintons, and just as easily picture her with underprivileged kids in slums around Delhi or Mumbai, putting a smile on their faces with her many grassroots projects for them.
Instead of using her privileges and connections to live a life of leisure, Meera Gandhi has done quite the opposite, using her resources and network to raise awareness and funds for others in need. Indeed, one could say that Meera has made it trendy to be charitable.
Daughter of an Indian Navy officer and an Irishwoman, Meera was brought up in Mumbai and was greatly influenced by Mother Teresa whom she met her in her teens. Selfless even then, she often tutored the children of domestic helpers while she was in school herself. After graduating in economics from Delhi University, she went on to do her MBA from Boston University School of Management, where she met the man she would later marry and have three children with.
An executive education program from Harvard Business School equipped her with the tools required to launch ambitious projects, and what drew Meera in those days was the need to give back to society and those less fortunate than her. “We are to the universe only as much as we give back to it,” says Meera, who launched The Giving Back Foundation in 2010.
The Foundation has partnered with or given funding to over 75 charities in five continents, ranging from the Robert Kennedy Foundation in the US, to Women Helping Women in Hong Kong and St Michael’s in India. All these charities were featured in a book, Giving Back (2011), which also included Marc Anthony’s Maestro Cares and the Loomba Foundation for widows. Hundred percent of the proceeds from book sales were donated to the charities featured.
“I believe in the art of giving. When we provide happiness to another, in any small or big way, happiness comes back to us in the satisfaction that we have contributed to making someone’s life better,” says Meera, who was also the host of B4U network’s The Meera Gandhi Show, where she interviewed healers, spiritual gurus, politicians, diplomats, actors and lawyers on inspiring stories of their successes, failures and what it means to give back (episodes are available on YouTube as well as on themeeragandhishow.com). A new book has been released with key moments from the show.
The journey of giving can’t be always about money and material items, Meera further clarifies: “There are those in need of things other than money. For example, it doesn’t take much time to listen and offer emotional support to someone in need.”
Meera’s foundation focuses on the development of women and children through education. Apart from its own projects, it also helps other organisations, especially charities with strong female leadership programs and workshops. Among these are the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Centre, for which the foundation provides annual awards and honorariums to teenage students. “We also provide annual grants to South Asian college students for their studies at Baruch College in New York City,” says Meera, who co-chairs six to seven major benefits in New York every year.
Her foundation also released a film, Giving Back, featuring vignettes of Meera’s supporters, illustrating how their philanthropic endeavours are indeed changing the world. Included are former UK first lady Cherie Blair, human rights’ activist Kerry Kennedy, actor Patricia Velásquez, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, business magnate Steven Rockefeller, theatre producer Francine Lefrak, singer and Paralympic athlete Ronan Tynan, fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez and red-carpet interviews with pop icon Bono and others.
Meera’s foundation has, of late, also launched its own merchandise, the Giving candle and the unisex Giving fragrance, which has notes of cinnamon, turmeric, jasmine (which reminds Meera of a champa tree outside her bedroom), a hint of lavender for her Irish mother, and marjoram for its calming powers. The perfume’s essence has been stabilised to make it gentle enough even for a baby’s skin. The proceeds from all product sales go to charity.
An interesting facet of Meera’s life is her home, which once belonged to former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “I moved into 55 East 74th street in Manhattan around January 2000. Eleanor Roosevelt has inspired me with her spirit and her unconditional instinct to give back to society. My home is unique,” Meera says with a beaming smile, describing the curved staircase in the entry hall, the chef’s kitchen that opens to a media room with 10-foot-long skylights, the marble fireplace and the architectural nuances of every room.
“All the people around me motivate me to take up new initiatives towards giving back, and Eleanor is one of those special people who encourage me and keep me motivated,” says Meera, adding, “To love others we must love ourselves. I take action towards self-care in my everyday life and choices, from what I eat to whom I surround myself with. My foundation is also an act of self-love and a way of doing something for myself – as the joy of giving is incomparable. It’s an on-going process.”
Photography by Jaime Pavon
First Published: IST