I knew stock market billionaire and social investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala for two decades as a friend, adviser, supporter and trustee of Agastya International Foundation in its mission to spark and spread curiosity and creativity among underserved and underprivileged children in India. Less well known than Rakesh’s widely recognised prowess in investing was his desire to make a positive social difference to India. He saw this as essential to India’s economic success, and was willing to invest a great deal of time and money in her social and educational development.

My first meeting with Rakesh happened in the early 2000s with investment banker Pankaj Talwar, in Rakesh’s office opposite the Bombay Stock Exchange. I described to Rakesh my motivation to quit my job as a banker in London, and return to India with a vision to spark curiosity and nurture creativity among India’s children and teachers. He listened patiently, gaining the measure of me, and quoting more than once from the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma, “a book about a lawyer forced to confront the spiritual crisis of his out-of-balance life, and the subsequent wisdom that he gains on a life-changing odyssey that enables him to create a life of passion, purpose and peace.”

In our second meeting, Rakesh said he was intrigued with my idea of the Mobile Science Van for children and would sponsor one van. I was thrilled. Later, he said he would sponsor three mobile science vans and “that was that”. Reading my mind, he said that he could visualise hundreds of science vans crisscrossing India, a giant-sized project that only the government could fund. Not to be discouraged, I showed him a map for a dream creative campus in Andhra Pradesh in a village two hours by road from Bangalore. With an exasperated air he said, “Every time we meet, you come up with something new!” 

Then, one evening, Pankaj and I were walking out of the Hotel Marine Plaza in Mumbai’s Marine Drive, when we saw a silver Mercedes pull up, from which emerged Rakesh. Surprised to see me, he asked me what I was doing in Mumbai and why I had not called him. I said that if I called him, he would think I was after his money! With a laugh and a wave, he invited me to his Nariman Point office the following day. 

“What’s new?” he asked. I replied that I was returning from a visit to The Exploratorium in San Francisco and would like to create one for rural kids on the upcoming Agastya campus. He listened intently and nodded as I described the uniqueness and benefits of the project that would offer village kids and teachers an opportunity to engage with large, interactive, hands-on learning models and exhibits to stoke their curiosity and creativity. Staring all the while at several whizzing stock-market ticker screens on his desk, he turned around and asked me to come back to him with a plan. A few weeks later, he agreed to fund the first stage of what was to become the Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre, Agastya’s first significant creative-learning investment on campus.

A year or two passed until one day, as I was escorting London-based investment banker Alok Oberoi on a tour of the still nascent 172-acre Agastya campus, we stopped at a vista, facing a picturesque lake, to observe the construction of the Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre. Alok’s phone rang. It was Rakesh. Rakesh asked Alok where he was and seemed surprised when Alok replied he was standing outside the upcoming and rather magnificent looking Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre. The same evening, Rakesh said to me on the phone that he didn’t believe Agastya could achieve its vision through piecemeal funding. “Why don’t you come up with a long-term plan, which I might be willing to fund?” These were indeed super-glad tidings for a struggling social entrepreneur! Over several months, working with ex-BCG consultant Manish Gupta from Rakesh’s office, my colleagues Mahavir, Bala and I came up with a ten-year plan to raise INR 90 crores to impact six million underprivileged children.

I vividly recall what would become a watershed meeting with Rakesh. He mentioned that he could think of few, if any, individuals in India who would give INR 9 crores a year (roughly USD 2 million then) to a charitable education foundation that they did not own or control. Somewhat deflated, I offered to sell my house in Bangalore and give him the money I raised to manage, and suggested I would write a check every year to Agastya from the returns that he would generate. “Please don’t insult me,” he said. “Why would I ask you to come to my office only to have you sell your house?” and added: “It is not easy to make money” (Paisa banana utna aasaan nahin hai). As I continued making the case for the plan, he stopped me and, to my unbelieving delight, said he would give Agastya INR 50 crore (USD 12 million then) over ten years. He explained his reasoning. “I believe in your vision, which means I must go in whole hog to make sure you achieve it. Use my money as you see fit, leverage it to attract other funders to scale Agastya.” He asked me if I was happy. I said yes! And we shook hands. Six million underprivileged kids would benefit from his decision. It was as simple and profound as that.

Shortly afterwards, on a visit to the barren and imposing Agastya campus, we escorted Rakesh, Titan CEO Bhaskar Bhat, Manish Gupta of RARE Enterprises, and others up a hill to see an Agastya hands-on science session in action. Rakesh spotted a small village lad with unkempt hair, in an untucked shirt with snot running down his nose, and remarked, “I can see in his eyes that you have lit his curiosity!”

Rakesh once told me that the reason for his success was that his father had encouraged him to be curious as a child, and that Agastya, being curiosity-driven, was one of the best social investments he had ever made. Fittingly, we had honoured his father’s memory with a bust at the Jhunjhunwala Discovery Centre, which he agreed to unveil. Alas.

But more on the man’s legacy. A measure of Rakesh’s x-ray vision, and capacity to take big bets, was his willingness to invest in Agastya’s idealistic vision in the early 2000s when hardly anyone showed interest. Indeed, as a social entrepreneur with an ambitious, if quixotic, vision, I felt that Rakesh had almost got into my brain and seen the future as I saw it. He had this vicarious ability to see what others saw (or didn’t see) and the smarts to decide if he wanted to be a part of their vision. As with his business investments, ‘the crusade and the crusader’ were two indispensable conditions that needed to meet his approval before he made his social investments.

In October 2019, Rakesh, his wife Rekha and their sons, Aryavir and Aryaman, participated in the first Agastya Innovation Fair in Mumbai. Rakesh spent several hours in the oppressive heat, quizzing the Agastya instructors and watching his sons and other students from Mumbai’s municipal schools engage with the innovative models and projects on display. He looked at me through the throng of exuberant young visitors and with his fingers gave an “O” sign of approval.

As a board member of Agastya, Rakesh always spoke about “our vision for Agastya.” He lived and breathed it as much as anyone else in Agastya did, but never interfered in Agastya’s work. “I don’t want to tell you what to do, and I trust you and your team to deliver,” he told me. Rakesh brought foresight, insights, focus and optimism, and constantly encouraged us to strive to do better. “Be ambitious and be patient,” he would tell me. At an interaction meeting with social investors and NGOs arranged by Edelgive Foundation in Mumbai, I remarked that Rakesh’s early investment in Agastya “was unprecedented in scale for that time.” He replied “and what Agastya has achieved is unprecedented.”

Desh Deshpande told me recently that of the few million NGOs in the US and India, there were about 30 that were doing great work at scale and Agastya was among them. Rakesh’s investment in Agastya – and that of the other individuals and institutions that followed him – were instrumental in enabling Agastya to unlock the creative potential of 17 million children and 300,000 teachers nationwide, and have inspired educators, scientists and innovators from across the globe. The once-barren Agastya campus has become a biodiverse ecological preserve and a world-class centre for creative experiential learning. That was the stupendous scale and intensity of the impact that Rakesh, and the many partners who joined forces with Agastya after him, had!

I met Rakesh on July 28, 2022, and was impressed as usual by his clear thinking, vision, and remarkable ability to connect the dots. He quizzed me about my recent fundraising visit to the US. When I told him about the name Indians were making globally in mathematics, he charmingly showed me on his cellphone a marvellously appropriate video song from the movie Purab aur Paschim (“Jab Zero Diya Mere Bharat Ne…”). I thought, “This man is a patriot to the hilt!” Alas, his life was to end so prematurely.

Emerging from Covid, we articulated an ambitious Agastya 2.0 vision to impact 100 million children and 1 million teachers. Inspired by Rakesh’s turbocharged life, his unwavering support, and the support of Agastya’s partners, the Agastya team is determined to make our distinctive and creative dream for India’s children and teachers come true.

To quote an African proverb, “It is better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.” In his short and remarkably impactful life, Rakesh lived and roared like a lion. Agastya and I will greatly miss his presence, friendship and counsel.

Ramji Raghavan is founder-chairperson, Agastya International Foundation.