Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy: Manu Chandaria bags a first in Africa

Philanthropist Manu Chandaria during an interview with the Standard on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard]

The addition of billionaire industrialist Manu Chandaria’s name to an illustrious list of global philanthropy icons is inarguably the crowning moment of his long, fruitful and inspiring career.

At 93, he was one of five people and one organisation honoured with The 2022 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. His acceptance speech, on October 13, was short but powerful, packed with well-calculated words, pauses every so often, the thing of a master strumming a guitar to a tune he has perfected over seven decades.

He loves succinctness. His train of thought is effortlessly sound he often needs just a few gestures and even fewer words to pass his message. When it comes to giving to a worthy cause, however, floodgates open.

The founder of Chandaria Foundation was recognised for “advancing opportunity and addressing critical needs in Africa through investments in health-care infrastructure, secondary and higher education, poverty relief, and environmentalism”, according to the international family of Carnegie institutions.

Extraordinary works

In New York City, he shared the podium with Lyda Hill, Dolly Parton, Lynn Schusterman, Stacy Schusterman, and World Central Kitchen, all of who joined an impressive list of philanthropists who have received this biannual gong since 2001.  They were feted “for their extraordinary contributions that make the world a better place”, Carnegie said.

Even more mind-boggling is that Dr Chandaria is only the first African and third Indian to receive the award. Since its inception in 2001, the only Indian recipients before him have been Tata Family, in 2007, and Azim Premji, in 2017. It was, suffuse to say, a long time coming.

 All three are in the esteemed company of names such as The Gates Family, The Rockefeller Family, George Soros, His Highness the Aga Khan, The Cadbury Family, The Hewlett Family, and The Packard Family, Michael R. Bloomberg, and Paul G Allen.

“When we grow and get to take responsibility for our societies, we become givers instead of takers. And that is the philosophy we should make very sure our children and their children- to the fourth generation- follow,” said Dr Chandaria as he accepted the award in New York City, his countenance barely revealing any emotions.

“In life, there is so much to do and yet, when we really think about it, are we doing it? We live once and that one time, we need to be useful to society because we can,” he told the audience.

The celebrated business magnate hung his boots three years ago and does not talk business, only entertaining those who want to discuss, and pursue philanthropy.

“Businesswise, I have retired from everything. If someone asks me what is happening in Comcraft Group, Kaluworks or Mabati, I would not answer. Unless you detach completely- even with that which you have been running for these many years- you will always be thinking about it and will not be in retirement,” he recently told this reporter.

As he made a hasty exit- furious at himself for not having left earlier- he tossed a parachute at his successors and trusted they would battle currents in the business ecosystem and land safely. He then immersed himself fully in philanthropy.

Engineering student

The dream started when he was an engineering student- seven long decades ago- and he recounted it as he accepted his award.

“When I went back from this country (The United States) where I was studying at The University of Oklahoma, after a few months, I told my father, ‘Let’s set up Chandaria foundation’. He looked at me and he said, ‘Is something wrong with you?’,” he told a laughing audience.

Dr Chandaria’s father was convinced his son’s stay in the United States had blown his dreams out of proportion.

“We’re not Carnegie or Rockefeller or Ford. There is a big hole here in the family; six family members. Fill it up, then you may think about it (the philanthropy),” his father told him.

But Dr Chandaria started the foundation and five years later, his father approved the idea and surrendered a tenth of his company for the course.

For over seven decades, Dr Chandaria has juggled leading Comcraft Group, which was founded in 1915 and grew into a multinational manufacturer of steel and aluminium, and philanthropy. Even in the toughest times, his beliefs have not been affected.

“Manu should not be known just because he is wealthy. He should be, and is, known as the man who helps others,” he says. “I can only wear one pair of trousers at a time- however many I have. The minute it gets to you that life is not about material items, then you think about what you can do not to yourself but to others.”

A subscriber to the Jain faith, which he says constitutes about 20 per cent of the population of Asians in this country, he set it to himself that when he left business, there was no way back.

In Jainism, the three guiding principles are right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. Jainism also believes in non-violence and encourages living in a way that minimises the use of the world’s resources.

“In Jainism, when you cut off, you cut off. There is no connection left,” he says. This means that ready or not, when his time for exit came, those behind him had to step up and take the wheel.  

Positive impact

Dr Chandaria challenges people to create foundations and have a positive impact on society. The chancellor of United States International University (USIU) Africa, who was also the chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) and chairs the board at The Bank of India, has taught managers in his businesses to go big on philanthropy.

That, he says, is more important than an obsession with the company’s profit margins.  

A general statement from the family of Carnegie institutions said that the honoured parties “have had a significant and lasting impact on many of today’s most pressing issues through their support of medical research in cancer and pediatric care, the advancement of women in STEM fields, the reduction of racial, gender, and economic inequities”.

The family of Carnegie institutions is made up of more than 20 organizations in the United States and Europe founded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. To date, more than 65 philanthropists have been honored with the medal.

Every two years, medalists are nominated by the family of Carnegie institutions — and a selection committee representing seven of those institutions makes the final selection.

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