World Hindu Economic Forum, 2016

“I am a devout Hindu and proud of it” asserted Ravi Tilak, Co-founder & CEO of AlMex, USA, from the dais of World Hindu Economic Forum, 2016, in Los Angeles. It was difficult to not see the semblance with another proclamation made by another Tilak a century ago “Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it”. One declared his right over his nation, the other declared his right over his identity. And as if this wasn’t enough to give me goosebumps, the next speaker – a republican Senator Ed Royce, followed Mr. Tilak on stage and greeted the 450+ delegates seated there with “Namaste everybody, Jai Hind!

“World Hindu Economic Forum” – when I first heard of this name, I was intrigued. In the very land of Hindus, wearing the Hindu identity on the sleeve is looked down upon as something crass and almost undesirable, especially in the elite intellectual circles. So when one hears about a business forum being called World Hindu Economic Forum, ears and eyebrows will surely be raised. Would the tall business leaders, professionals, intellectuals who’d rather call themselves “spiritual not religious” really agree to be a part of such a forum? The curiosity to find this out coupled with a chance to hear the vivacious and versatile Tulsi Gabbard made me hop on to the 16-hour flight from Hong Kong to LA, at the very last minute.

WHEF: The Why and What?

“सुखस्य मूलं धर्मः, धर्मस्य मूलं अर्थः” (Sukhasya mulam Dharma; Dharmasya mulam artha) – The root of happiness is ethics, the root of ethical behavior lies in the availability of resources – says ArthaShastra, Guru Kautilya’s fantabulous treatise on statecraft. For dharma to sustain, for righteousness to prevail, material wealth and prosperity is essential. A society devoid of wealth will always be more concerned about feeding itself by hook or crook. This sutra is the founding principle of World Hindu Economic forum, as conceptualized by Swami Vigyanandji. Yes, you read right, a saffron clad sanyasi is indeed the brain behind a business conference. For those who understand Dharma though, this shouldn’t be very surprising. We are a civilization that reveres Lakshmi as much as we revere Saraswati and Shakti.

Today, Hindus make 16% of the world population but merely 5% of the economy. Once upon a time we accounted for over 30% of the world economy. Reasons of our decline are many, but our past does show that we surely have it in us to become prosperous again. We are and have been an enterprising community. Even today, wherever Hindus have gone they have carved a name for themselves in business and technology. What we need is developing a support network for the community beyond geographical boundaries, including but not limited to India. A network that will help build and boost enterprise, give Hindu community a recognition in the political system of whichever country they reside in, and stress on the Hindu way of “arthorparjan” (wealth generation) which says “Sat Hasta Samahara, Sahastra Hasta Sankira” (Create wealth with 100 hands and share it with 1000 hands).

Thus with a vision of “Making Society prosperous” and mission of “Generating and sharing wealth”, Swami Vigyananandji laid the foundation of World Hindu Economic Forum. WHEF is a platform that brings together various elements within Hindu society such as industrialists, entrepreneurs, traders, bankers, technocrats, investors, professionals, economists, academicians and thinkers and facilitates collaboration to provide access to global market and business opportunities for its members.

The first WHEF took place in Hong Kong in 2012. Since then it has become an annual affair. Till date it has been organized in Bangkok (2013), London (2014), New Delhi (2015). This year, the venue of the conference was Los Angeles, from November 18th to November 20th.  My first time attending the conference!

WHEF, 2016: Overview and my biggest takeaway

Over 450 delegates from 25 countries made their way to LA for the event which had a lineup of excellent speakers, engaging information sessions and multiple business networking opportunities. Speakers included entrepreneurs like Mr. Desh Deshpande, Nadavur Vardhan, Sajjan Bhajanka, Srikant Bollant, Ravi Tilak, investors such as Ravi Mantha and Mohandas Pai, academicians like Prof R Vaidyanathan (IIM-Bangalore), Prof. Guna Magesan (University of Advance Research), Prof S P Kothari (MIT) as well as politicians like Tulsi Gabbard and Rep Ed Royce. A typical conference day started with a panel discussion on topics revolving around business opportunities in different regions, opportunities for Angel investors, Venture Capital and Private Equity, Women entrepreneurs, Hindu Banking and so on, afternoons had breakout sessions for those interested in exploring opportunities in specific sectors and discussing specific business ideas with mentors and investors while evenings saw keynote addresses by the distinguished Speakers.

In one of the sessions, Prof. Vaidyanathan narrated an anecdote of how initially, even otherwise well-meaning people supportive of the idea, were wary of using the word “Hindu” for the forum. Why “Hindu” they objected, fearing that many entrepreneurs would be repulsed and keep away from the overtly religious connotation. But Swamiji was firm. His aim was to remove the stigma associated with the word “Hindu”. It is extremely satisfying to see that change happen, slowly but surely. Nobody looks down upon YMCA, YWCA (Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association). There are forums associated with Jews and Muslims. Why then, do Hindu’s fear being identified as one? Hindu dharma represents a culture, a civilization, amongst the oldest in the world, of people who have welcomed and assimilated others from across the world. The idea is not to exclude anyone nor is it any fanatical superiority complex, but about coming together and offering to the world the best our community has to offer and gain the standing we should in a global context. Therefore, it was heartening to meet the 450+ delegates in LA who weren’t shy of their identity. They were proud Hindus and weren’t afraid to say so. How much does this translate into real business collaboration remains to be seen but that we have begun to come together and speak for ourselves, support each other and make ourselves heard, as community, as a culture, was one of the most significant takeaways for me, from this WHEF forum

Highlights and notes from keynote addresses

All sessions and talks were very informative and inspiring and probably need a page of their own. Here, I will share an overview of a select few:

Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu American in the US Congress, spoke about Karma Yoga and the central message of the Bhagavad Gita. She said that understanding Karma Yoga has taught her to view success differently from an average businessperson. Success is not just about getting rich; wealth, titles and social status are superficial. A misguided view of success by those in power can have dangerous consequences. She urged leaders in every sector to be motivated by the desire to be of service to others – to live to serve and not to be served. A CEO should be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the team, and a similar attitude is required of those in Government, health care, law enforcement, military etc. She stressed that it would not be possible to have a peaceful and prosperous society if people were greedy and envious. She lauded the delegates of WHEF 2016 @ Los Angeles as examples of the great contributions and leadership that Hindu Americans had provided in the United States and around the world. She went on to place a bid for a future World Hindu Economic Forum to be hosted in the state of Hawaii. (This one I am definitely participating in, whenever it happends!)

Rep Ed Royce, another Congressman and Chairman of United States House of Foreign Affairs, spoke about the importance of strengthening ties between India and the US, the two great democracies of the world, about working together to realize the full potential of the relations by converting ideals to practical opportunities. He recounted his first meeting with Narendra Modi when Gujarat was devastated by the earthquake in Kutch. He lauded the central role played by Modi in the dynamic growth of Gujarat. He also complimented the contributions of the Hindu Americans in business, technology, politics, academics, etc. and underlined that US does hold them in high regard, as was evident when it released the Diwali stamp this year.

Dr Desh Deshpande spoke on how his Hindu upbringing and worldview helped him bridge the seeming gap between material success and spiritual goals. Sharing the example of Akshay Patra, he explained on how small innovations could go a long way in helping social causes. Dr Deshpande stressed that Hinduism is not static as it has the ability to reinvent itself and stay relevant for all times. He pointed out that not having a central institution like the Vatican had helped Hindus to innovate and be creative which has encouraged the entrepreneur culture. He exhorted young Hindus to feel proud of their Hindu values, to inculcate them in their lives and to positively impact the lives of all around us in order to build a harmonious society.

In another session, Mohandas Pai discussed opportunities for high tech entrepreneurship in Bharat, given its size, demographics, economy as well as the move towards digitization.  Prof. Vaidyanathan spoke about integrating the Hindu economy worldwide. He highlighted the issues of falling reproductive rates in the west along with the impending threat of Islamic immigration and the opportunities for Hindus to emerge as the Dharmic soft power, establishing businesses based on sustainability and social consciousness.

Kalpak Maniar explained his venture of Hindu co-operative bank in Rajkot, and how it functions charging zero interest for small loan disbursements, Ravi Mantha enumerated the opportunities and challenges of a venture capital investor in India and how social entrepreneurs can be rewarded not just with a “feel good” factor, but in material terms as well, giving an example of his most successful investment in Bollant Industries (more on this below).

Sunday morning saw a panel discussion on Women Entrepreneurship: Technology and Engines of Growth. This session was chaired by Dr. Toni Dasgupta, CEO of Veda Financial. The participants were Dr. D Sangeetha (Nielsen), Vandana Gupta (Ingenious Information Technology) and Dr. Kim Kamdar (Domain Associates). Though this session was called “Women Entrepreneurship”, it was not “women centric” – not just directed towards the women in the audience. The speakers did not just delve into the challenges faced by women, but instead gave a broader perspective of the US business landscape, in line with Swami Vigyananandaji’s firm belief that women are as capable, if not more, as men in every aspect of life, and looking at them just from gender perspective is doing a big disservice to them. This was indeed a refreshing change from what one might have expected.

The two most touching sessions – at least for me – were those by Srikant Bolla and Anila Jyothi Reddy.  Truly larger than life personalities who deserved every single clap of the standing ovation they received.

Srikant Bolla is the 24-year-old CEO of Bollant industries. Bollant Industries is amongst the fastest growing SME in India today, manufacturing ecofriendly packaging products. But what makes it standout is the fact that 70% of its workforce is divyang, or differently abled. Srikant himself is visually challenged. As a kid he was bright, and always aspired to do big. He wished to enter IITs and do engineering, but call it a travesty of our educational system or lack of preparedness, he was not allowed to appear for entrance. MIT, on the other hand invited him to study there. After completing his studies at MIT, Srikant could have very well stayed on and worked in the US. After all, India had nothing to offer him. But he chose to come back because he thought India needed him more than the US. He had decided to work with the other differently abled persons so that they would not be denied opportunities of growth

Anila Jyothi Reddy was born into a farm labourer’s family in Telangana, who was sent off to live in an orphanage at the age of 11, as her father couldn’t afford feeding a family of 6. Though a bright student who managed to work and simultaneously finish 10th standard with good marks, she was married off to another farm labourer at the age of 16. By 18, she was a mother to two girls. But she dreamed big. She was determined to give a good life to her daughters. So she moved to a neighboring town and completed her Masters, all the while working and taking care of her daughters. She also sold sarees in the trains. Eventually, her determination took her to USA, where she currently runs a $15 million IT company – Key Software Solutions. But that is not it. She returns to India every single year and works for the cause of orphan children. Hearing Anila Jyothi Reddy speak about her life was heart moving. She concluded her talk with her mantra of three Ns. 1. No compromise – Aim high and put in your best to achieve that aim, do not compromise with your dreams nor hard work. 2. No condition is permanent – Everything can be changed with the right attitude and effort. 3. Nothing is impossible! What grit, what gumption.

Who said miracle don’t happen? Well one has it in his or herself to make miracles happen. Krishna talks about the 5 tools for success, Karta (doer), karan (insruments of action), chestha (effort or actions), adhisthan (the system/ foundation) and lastly daivat (divine blessing). But as Anila Jyothi Reddy’s and Srikant Bollant’s stories show, when the other 4 are in order, and the intention is pure, blessings are bound to come.

3 days well spent! More power to Swamiji and those working towards the goal of WHEF! Now on to Kenya in 2017! Hope many of those who have read through may take a chance and attend one of these events.

ॐ शान्ति |

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One comment

  1. Very well written excerpt – a big thanks to you for the efforts you’ve put in to do it. Hindu religion & culture has lot to offer to the world. Such events and efforts bring great value to the society and help building self esteem in fellow Hindus. Wish if I can participate in coming events in future 🙂

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