Robin Raina: The Enterprising Philanthropist
"I want to make charity cool," says this remarkably successful CEO of ebix, inc. who is now also a prolific philanthropist making a difference in the life of countless poor children in India and elsewhere. And yes, in the process, his Robin Raina Foundation is certainly making charity cool while delivering Atlanta some of its most memorable concerts such as this year's Asha Bhonsle performance at the Fabulous Fox Theater.
BY REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN
Robin Raina, describes himself as "restless." Watching him take off his jacket, roll up his shirtsleeves and pace the floor while talking on a cordless phone, all within a minute of entering his office, you get the picture. After all, as Chairman, President and CEO of Ebix Inc., Raina believes in pushing the envelope, both in business and charity.
At the helm of this leading international developer and supplier of software and e-commerce solutions to the insurance sector, Raina is credited with developing a benchmark strategy that simplifies and speeds up insurance processes. "I thought about how insurance should be conducted globally. I introduced the concepts of market-making in insurance, and of ‘anytime-anywhere' technology." A publicly traded company, Ebix was ranked in the Fortune 2005 list of America's 100 Fastest-Growing Business Companies. With offices spread across the world, 39-year-old Raina often works into the wee hours of the morning, interfacing with colleagues in India, Australia and New Zealand from his Alpharetta home.
An Indian at heart, Raina claims to "think globally." His journey from his birthplace, Srinagar, to his penthouse office in Atlanta, is a fascinating one. A Kashmiri Hindu, Raina moved to Patiala with his family at the age of five. The youngest of four children, he attended Our Lady of Fatima Convent School in Patiala. Raina's dream to become a doctor was crushed when Operation Blue Star disrupted medical examinations in Punjab. At the end of an industrial engineering program, Raina intentionally swerved off the beaten path by declining admission to the prestigious IIM, Kolkota. "I decided to stay in the field and learn through experience." Within a year of joining PCL (Pertech Computers) as a management trainee, Raina was promoted to Area Manager in 1990. "When PCL entered into a joint venture with Dell I lead the effort to sell Dell in India, making it the number one foreign brand in the country."
In 1993, after joining Mindware, Raina left for Singapore to establish software operations for the company. Switching gears a few years later, he migrated to Altos, the company's hardware wing in the U.S. "Altos had just lost a big contract and they wanted me to go after another huge order. I had no clue on big manufacturing but I like challenges. And I appreciated the fact that I was seen as a troubleshooter." Raina arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1998. Skeptical co-workers notwithstanding, he secured a 125 million dollar contract with Motorola. "Being an Indian I had to put in 20 per cent more to achieve the same results in corporate America."
Breaking away from hardware engineering, Raina joined Ebix Inc. (originally named Delphi Information Systems) as vice-president. "By the time I took over Delphi as CEO in 2000, the company had 100 million dollars in accumulated losses." The first Indian on Delphi's payroll, Raina renamed the company Ebix to distance itself from a troubled past, and steered it to success.
So, what else is remarkable about this high-achieving Indian who has ascended to the top in corporate America? A passion for philanthropy ? Raina set up the Robin Raina Foundation (RRF) over three years ago. Since then, he has brought legends like Manna Dey, Asha Bhonsle, Ghulam Ali and Talat Aziz to Atlanta for concerts, to raise funds for RRF. Through various arms of the foundation and alliances with Indian projects such as Prayas, Raina channels aid to underprivileged, and physically and mentally challenged children. He often takes center stage at RRF concerts to enthuse the audience about his mission.
The cynics amongst us can't help but wonder if his charitable actions are simply a quest for personal promotion. "It is a selfish act. I give because it makes me happy and that is it." Raina seems to be at a stage in his life where, after having received numerous kudos in the insurance industry, he doesn't hanker for the limelight through RRF.���
The benefactor who has personally committed $1,000,000 in addition to innumerable man-hours to a cause, discusses issues close to his heart with Khabar.
As a busy CEO, President and Chairman of the Board at Ebix Inc., where do you find the time to manage a charitable foundation?
It is a matter of priorities. I am at a stage in my life where charity has become important to me. I will not neglect one for the other. In fact, business and charity feed each other.
What inspired the idea for a foundation?
About two years ago when I was passing by the slums in Delhi I realized that I had never paid attention to them even though they had always been there. I was so lost in my own myopic world. I had to do something to help.
Why not donate at an individual level, why a large-scale institution?
My friends and colleagues pointed out that I have always been good at institutionalizing, setting up business, and making them work on their own. They said, "Create a system, a self-sustaining economic model. Be an inspiration to people."
Why did you set up the foundation in your name instead of using an acronym?
I am pretty well known in the industry. Putting my name there sets an example for colleagues and encourages them to contribute. If I had an Indian name as an acronym, I would not have been able to rope in the support from the business community. My name's association was therefore essential.
Is there a particular reason you reach out to children?
As a father of two, yes, I do feel strongly for children. Children should enjoy life and not have to scour for basic necessities. I am not saying we should not support senior citizen causes. However, it is difficult to change fortunes for the elders. Yes, you could give them a home but you will not be able to change their future much. With children, if you help them at an early age they will grow up to be independent. In our model we don't like to give cash to anybody. That is where people get greedy and cheat. We try to pay directly for services ? for education, clothes etc. When you educate a child it changes everything.
In a recent interview to an Indian newspaper, you have been quoted as saying, "I want to make charity cool." How do you plan to achieve that?
One of the reasons the younger generation doesn't do too much charity is that it is not perceived as cool. They think it is only for the older generation. And that is one of the reasons why I am trying to involve as many "celebrities" as possible. I am bringing in figures who are associated with the cool factor, whether it is Shahrukh Khan or John Abraham, and getting them to keep saying something nice about charity. When a celebrity is on stage people listen. In the coming days, I am planning to produce movies in Bollywood. I have been discussing scripts for the past two years for commercial films with a message. Part of the proceeds will go to charity. We are also launching a new project with Kapil Dev where we will provide housing for street children in New Delhi.
You were also quoted as saying that Indian NGOs are honest but incompetent. How so?
I have visited NGOs that are sincere but they do not do a good job of handling children. When you set up a home for street children you should have a positive vibe in that room. An orphanage should not have the atmosphere of a hospital. Another thing I consistently see is that they cut corners in the wrong places. For example, they will compromise on cleanliness. When NGOs act larger than life and think they are doing society a favor, they defeat the purpose of giving. Many NGOs are very political where high profile industrialists vie for positions on the board. I also see religious segregation at these institutions. I see poverty beyond politics and religion.
Is that why you transcended barriers to donate money to Imran Khan's cancer hospital in Pakistan?
Yes, a few months ago I made a trip to Lahore, Islamabad and Kashmir. I donated Rs. 1.5 million to Imran Khan's Shaukat Khaanum Cancer Hospital, wherein a special ward is being set up in RRF's name to provide cancer treatment to three underprivileged children at any time. This is RRF's initial contribution and we intend to provide more assistance towards the treatment of cancer at Imran's hospital in coming days.
Even the secular-minded amongst us will ask why Pakistan, when there is so much to be done in India?
Couple of reasons. First, I will support the poor wherever they might be. Second, Pakistan has more incidences of cancer amongst the poor than any country and Imran's hospital genuinely attempts to help the underprivileged. I am a big believer in peace and bringing the two countries together at a mental level. The idea is to lead by example and create a wave of goodwill on both sides. Incidentally, the media in both countries covered this very well. But most importantly, helping treat a 7-year-old child suffering from cancer, whatever his or her nationality, is quite fulfilling.
What do you say to people who claim they don't have time for charity?
I don't say anything, but I think to myself that they are not yet at a stage in life where they are ready to share. They don't understand that it is all about personal priorities; it is about making time. You have to sacrifice a little to be able to give some. I sacrifice my holidays; I take working vacations. I've changed my needs. Back in India I realized I had become consumed by my need for power and achievement. My priorities have changed since then.
There are paintings up for auction on the RRF website, did you commission those?
Yes, I envision paintings to the minutest details and commission them. I get involved with architecture and design as well. In India, our office building and all its floors are based on the Rajasthan theme. From the security guards dressed in traditional achkans and pagris, to the log benches in the cafeteria, the idea was to reinvent the culture of India within India.
Is there any philanthropist you admire?
I admire Bill Gates. He has willed only a small proportion of his assets to his kids. When you are as busy as he is and yet willing to step out with your money for causes in Africa, India etc., it is remarkable. Bill Gates certainly does not need the attention and therefore his concern is genuine. Within the Indian context, I admire Baba Amte and Medha Patkar to some extent.
Raina eschews politics and religion, especially when the two intertwine. His charity is simply a meditation on happiness. "That is the ultimate goal, to feel their pain and ease their suffering."
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