Philanthropist Meera Gandhi is the founder of The Giving Back Foundation which aims towards the development of women and children through education besides supporting charities with strong female leadership programs and workshops like the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Centre.
Building on the idea of positive reinforcement, the foundation made a five-year commitment to the Woodstock Film Festival under which it provides annual honorariums and awards to people involved in filmmaking for social causes.
In 2011, Gandhi started the Meera Gandhi Giving Back Award which is given each year at the Woodstock Film Festival to the director/ producer/ actor who best delivers a message of social change and has a strong compassion for philanthropy. Some notable recipients of this award include Mark Ruffalo, Tim Blake Nelson and Mira Nair.
The Foundation is also involved with charities like Happy Home and School for the Blind in Mumbai, the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice & Human Rights, the Cambodian Landmine Relief Fund, Centerpoint, Give to Colombia and The American Friends of Prince William and Prince Harry.
It has also adopted New Delhi’s St Michael’s School wherein it not only renovated the infrastructure and facilities being given to students but also provides them midday meals.
In all The Giving Back Foundation has benefitted more than 500,000 people around the world so far.
Life & More in conversation with Meera Gandhi…
Tell us something about your background. Your parents and your siblings…
My mother is Irish and my father an Indian. Having lived in such diverse areas and being brought up by parents from such variable backgrounds is one of my greatest strengths. It has helped me understand any point of view, and empathise with problems and perspectives of both the east and the west. I feel I can connect with people at a cellular level, which makes for seamless communication.
My parents always gave extensive importance to education and laying it as a base for any skill, ability or achievement. It is because of them that it was drilled into my mind; that education paves the way for all success, and it is important to get the right kind of education. Since my foundation directly works for better education, my parents were a huge part of the goal and objective of the projects we take up. My parents were always around and with us. They were super-involved in our lives at every level, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Where were you born and brought up — your school and college education
I attended The Cathedral and John Connon Schools in Mumbai, India. With my parents support, I was intent to collect as much knowledge as possible in my early years. So next, I went on to attend UWC, the Lester B Pearson United World College of the Pacific in Canada. Later, I returned to India and received a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Delhi, where I was fortunate enough to be elected the President of the College. Still not satisfied, I travelled to the US again and obtained an MBA from Boston University School of Management. In 2007, I completed my education in the perfect place, opting for the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School. Later, I went on to join the Harvard University South Asia board, recently renamed The Laxmi Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University.
My years in education just solidified what my parents had always believed, that education is truly the key to higher understanding. It helps to create a base, and exposes us to different walks of life, different people, and their understanding of things that are so different from your own.
And so, as a result of my experiences and a realisation that I must utilise my knowledge and resources to help those that cannot help themselves. It is when we are strong that we must ask ourselves, what good is our strength, our fortune, our power of knowledge, if we do not share it amongst those who can only dream of it? This thought moved me to start The Giving Back Foundation in 2010.
How did you set up The Giving Back Foundation. Why did you set this up. Tell us the whole story…
My journey started when I volunteered at Asha Dan with Mother Teresa. I started working in Asha Dan when I was very young, at the age of 16. My experience at Asha Dan was what started the fire in me to do good in the world. Working with Mother Teresa was wonderful. She was such a wholesome woman, and never liked to draw attention to herself. Her love and devotion to her mission always inspired me. It was this experience that started my charity work, as after this I was not satisfied until continued to do some kind of work to help those in need.
Since I was very young, I had involved myself in various projects, trying to do whatever I could to help those that could not completely help themselves. But these projects were always through an organisation or some middleperson, and did not satisfy me wholly, as I wanted to be in direct contact with the people. As I grew up and attained enough knowledge and education to launch my own initiative, I knew I just had to start my own project, in order to connect directly with those I wish to help, and out of this in 2009-10, The Giving Back Foundation was born. My family, my friends and all those who understand and contribute to the work of the Foundation are to credit for its success.
The foundation was set up as a catalyst to help women and girls to further accelerate the process of achieving their educational goals. The Giving Back Foundation is also a platform for dialog and debate in order to address issues of social concern. Lastly, it has a wellness arm and to take it forward a TV show on health, happiness and de-stressing was developed and aired on B4U channel. The episodes of the same can be watched at: www.themeeragandhishow.com
Did you face any problems?
Problems are a matter of perspective. Some look at problems as immovable obstacles towards a desire, but I prefer to think of it as a way to get closer to what we really wish to achieve. Problems reflect to us the places that we as individuals need to grow. A problem means an improvement that can be made in order to make the result better than planned, and the faster the problem is faced, the quicker the improved results are!
There were some hurdles we had to navigate through, as does any other organisation in its initial years of development. But, with commitment and belief in our cause, the Foundation stands tall and strong, and better for having had navigated through those hurdles.
How do you financially sustain the foundation?
The foundation is entirely self-sustained and family-funded. Now, after some time has passed, the activities we do through the organisation has also helped to fund our projects. For example, we have a product line for which 100% of the proceeds raised through the sales of the products go directly back into helping people who need it.
The foundation has produced an inspiring documentary, musical CD and coffee table book, all entitled Giving Back.Giving Back: The Film includes touching vignettes of my friends, some of them known social influencers and illustrates how their philanthropic endeavors are indeed changing the world. Included are Cherie Blair, Kerry Kennedy, Patricia Velasquez, Kristi Yamaguchi, Steven Rockefeller, Francine Le Frak, Clodagh, Ronan Tynan, Deborah Norville, Narcisso Rodriguez and red carpet interviews with Bono and others. The film, book and CD have been introduced in eight cities since 2010: New York, London, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Delhi, Dublin, Paris and Istanbul.
We have also launched the Giving Candle and the Giving Fragrance. The candle is a symbol of hope, and demonstrates the simplicity, and also the sheer power, of a spark of hope lighting up a dark place. The Giving Fragrance is a perfume I curated with notes of jasmine and lavender.
What are the future plans?
The foundation’s plans have always been simple: To continue to help whoever we can, whenever we can. We aim to follow this in the future as well. After all, we are to the universe only as much as we give back to it.