Urban youths find champion in Ambani
Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani voices full support for an American India Foundation effort to train 100,000 unemployed urban young people by 2010, writes Robbie Corey-Boulet.Updated: May 02, 2008, 13:22 IST
Declaring education to be "the most important challenge" facing India today, Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani voiced full support for an American India Foundation effort to train 100,000 unemployed urban young people by 2010.
His comments came during a press conference on Wednesday, prior to the AIF Spring Awards Gala in New York City. The event drew 900 guests and raised more than $2 million for the foundation.
The focus on education marked a shift for AIF, which last year used its gala to highlight a wide range of projects, including those related to public health and poverty.
This year's narrow focus showcased the extent to which business leaders like Ambani are concerned about the number of unskilled Indians entering the workforce.
Harnessing youth power
A press release circulated before the event reported that 70 per cent of the Indian workforce is under the age of 30 and that 80 per cent of young workers lack a high school education or marketable skills.
"As India gets younger, as the world gets older, it is important that we impart the right skills to millions of our people," Ambani said. Later, he added, "The government needs to re-invest in education big time."
AIF Vice Chair Pradeep Kashyap said that only with the help of education and training programs will young people "become part of this high growth in India that you read about in the media in the West."
The gala marked the seventh year since the founding of AIF, which has partnered with more than 100 NGOs and several state governments to advance various social justice and economic projects.
AIF leaders celebrated the occasion by honoring Ambani, the richest man in Asia, and Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, for the economic and philanthropic benefits they have bestowed upon India.
During the pre-dinner cocktail reception, some attendees - all of whom paid $500 for individual tickets or $5,000 for a table - jockeyed for position as they tried to meet and take a photograph with Ambani.
"The big excitement here is Mukesh Ambani, the richest man," said DP Ahuja, a retired JP Morgan senior vice president and AIF volunteer.
Ahuja said it did not matter why people came, so long as they paid for their tickets. He added that most of the money raised at the spring gala each year goes directly toward AIF projects.
Scott Bayman, who recently retired as president and CEO of GE India, said that during 14 years spent living in New Delhi he recognized an urgent need to educate the city's young workforce.
This population could potentially expedite India's growth and development, he said. However, he noted, "If it's not educated, it's not going to be an asset."
Bayman said he believed in AIF's ability to make significant strides in addressing the issue. "This group has got some horsepower behind it," he said.
During the press conference, Ambani described AIF as "very well respected in India" as a result of its emphasis on innovative public-private partnerships. Co-Chair Rajat Gupta said these partnerships set AIF apart from other charitable organizations.
"We can't be a Gates Foundation," Gupta said, referencing the massive organization of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. "What we can do is be really innovative."
Reflecting on AIF's first seven years, Gupta said the organisation could to a better job attracting a more representative cross-section of the Indian diaspora to participate in its projects.
Pradeep Kashyap, the vice chair, expressed a desire to continue recruiting more financially successful Indian-Americans as well.
"We hope that successful Indian-Americans will not feel the need to have private foundations," he said, adding that they "should feel ownership" of AIF and its accomplishments.
Looking ahead, Kashyap said he hopes AIF will enter into more partnerships with government agencies. He said state governments rather than the Centre tend to provide more viable opportunities for charitable work.
"It's easy to work closer to the ground with the different agencies of the state government," he said.
When questioned about whether the economic downturn in the United States will negatively affect contributions to AIF from Indian-Americans, Co-Chair Victor Menezes said he did not expect a significant recession-related reduction.
Still, Gupta said after the press conference that he hoped the recession would be "shallow and short."
Founded by former US President Bill Clinton in response to the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, AIF has become one of the largest charitable organisations financing development work in India.
In addition to helping India recover from the 2004 tsunami and other disasters, AIF backs projects designed to assist those who would otherwise be excluded from the country's economic prosperity.
Co-Chair Victor Menezes announced Wednesday that Sanjay Sinho, currently health unit director of the humanitarian organisation CARE, would take over as the new CEO of AIF.