She is a journalist, a columnist, an author, an activist at heart, and now a strategic philanthropist. She was a stay-at-home mother earlier so that she could raise her kids, and now Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam and co-founder of EkStep, is here to help working moms figure out how to follow her successful model.
Rohini entered philanthropy two decades ago when she began providing financial support for young girls. Today, her philanthropy is at work across Indian society, through the Akshara Foundation, which makes education accessible in government-run primary schools; Arghyam, which supports organizations in groundwater and sanitation; and other initiatives in governance, independent media, and the arts.
Is a high-powered philanthropist the best person to advise other working moms on how to advance their careers? Rohini achieved amazing career successes while balancing a busy family life by the time she reached her early 50s.
She raised her two children, Nihar and Janhavi, when husband Nandan Nilekani was busy with Infosys. Nandan Nilekani is the co-founder of Infosys and has held many top management positions. He was the chairman of UIDAI and co-founded NASSCOM.
But was it easy for her to take a back seat when kids were growing up and when Infosys was sort of becoming the success story?
"It was hard, but again, that was a conscious decision. Nobody was stopping me but I used to feel very strongly that at least for the first few years when the children were very small, especially given how busy Nandan was, I wanted to be a stay at home mother," Rohini told CNBC-TV18 in an interview.
But the stay-at-home mother made the most of her time by writing documentary scripts on a freelance basis.
"Now I feel I did the right thing. Not all women can do that and they may not want to, but I wanted to be at home."
In 1998, Rohini released her first novel, Stillborn. The medical thriller was published by Penguin Books and was well received. She is also a prolific author of children’s books. Written under the pen name ‘Noni,’ and published by Pratham Books, these include the popular Sringeri Series.
In 2004, Rohini co-founded and funded Pratham Books, a non-profit publisher of children’s books. The organisation seeks to democratize the joy of reading and put ‘a book in every child’s hand.’
In doing the balancing act between motherhood and career, Rohini faced several challenges but she always kept herself motivated.
"I think it is very hard to balance that well. However, the downside of staying at home is sometimes you are like what on earth am I doing here, why am I not out there working, but then you remind yourself that you made that choice, nobody forced you to make it."
It was around 2004 when Rohini, following the success of Infosys, came into serious wealth that allowed her to do philanthropy, rather than traditional charity.
"I was very proud that it came from Infosys wealth. It was all transparent, legal everyone knew where it came from. So, that made me proud".
She is seeking to address the extreme inequality between the ‘have-everythings’ and the ‘have-nothings' through her philanthropies. She believes that wealth comes with huge responsibility and is best deployed in the larger public interest.
"At some point, it turned from being just giving to being philanthropy which is a very popular word nowadays, so people started saying Rohini, writer and philanthropist."
First Published: IST