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No one deserves such reverence as one’s mother, says the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. So Shiv Nadar listened closely to his own mother 20 years ago, shortly after his software company, HCL Group, established a partnership with Hewlett-Packard and he found himself in possession of a large sum of money. In Nadar’s telling, he wanted to “give back” to the country that had helped make him a billionaire, but he wasn’t sure the timing was right. “It’s like standing in front of the sea,” his mother told him. “If you wait for the waves to subside before you go out to swim,” nothing will ever happen.

With that, he plunged in, ultimately building one of India’s greatest philanthropies. Nadar, whose personal wealth is estimated at some $6.5 billion, has pledged a fifth of that sum for philanthropic work, and today the Shiv Nadar Foundation is a major force in using education to transform the lives of poor but deserving students who, like Nadar himself, come from rural India. Nadar, now 69, says that he chose to focus on education because he understands its power. He grew up in Tamil Nadu, in South India, where he attended local schools and earned his bachelor’s degree from a technology college. In 1976 he helped create HCL in one of Delhi’s barsatis—the small rooms that have been compared to the garages where many of Silicon Valley’s startups were born.

It was in 1994, shortly after that conversation with his mother, that Nadar launched his philanthropic effort with the SSN Trust, named after his late father. Its $30 million endowment is used mainly to fund SSN Institutions, a 250-acre campus in Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai, which today is one of the top private engineering and business schools in India. Starting in 2009, he set up two residential VidyaGyan schools in Uttar Pradesh (in North India, near Delhi) that provide free education and leadership training. The undertaking has been characterized as much more than a handout: It is a “radical social experiment” to address the deep social imbalances within India. This year some 80,000 students applied for the 1,300 slots between grades 6 and 12, and the foundation is currently scouting a location for a third school as well as beginning to set up K-12 Shiv Nadar Schools. In 2011, Nadar extended his efforts with the establishment of the interdisciplinary Shiv Nadar University, also in Uttar Pradesh.

These days, philanthropy runs in the family. Nadar’s wife Kiran has an art museum in Delhi. Daughter Roshni, who is Nadar’s designated heir to take over HCL when he retires, is deeply involved in overseeing the VidyaGyan schools and, as a representative of the Foundation, has also been involved in a joint initiative with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation to promote the education of Dalit and Muslim girls in some of the most backward districts in Uttar Pradesh.

Shiv Nadar’s mother would be proud.

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