Incoming RI President Barry Rassin is answering a question on the importance of India to the Rotary world. “India is a very critical country for Rotary; it has the greatest membership growth, a strong Rotaract programme and is one of the top leaders in Foundation giving. While I do not want to talk about weaknesses, one of the opportunities India has is to get more female members into Rotary. Really, that is the only area they are lagging behind; everywhere else they are leading. And I believe they will become No 1 in Foundation giving,” says Rassin.
I exclaim this is the first time I’ve heard a senior Rotary leader say this about India, and ask why he thinks so. “Because the CSR obligation on corporates in India is such a big thing and a huge opportunity for Rotary.”
When asked if Indian Rotarians are connecting well with the corporates to get a share of this colossal kitty, he says, “I think we are in the beginning stage. It is a relatively new law and we all have to understand how it works. But the opportunity is indeed there to talk to the corporate leaders and make sure that they understand that Rotary is the best vehicle for them to use their CSR funds effectively. Once the corporate people in India realise this, then it is going to happen. It is going to take a few years; I think Indian Rotarians are doing okay in this aspect, but it could be much better.”
He is a firm believer in getting more women into Rotary and feels India needs to catch up fast. “You have only 11 per cent women; the international figure is 22 per cent! Some countries in Africa have 49 per cent women, and Taiwan has 38 per cent. We in the Caribbean have around 35–36 per cent women members.”
At that time, many of the elder members stood up and apologised for resisting women, and admitted that they could see a better result by bringing in women into the club.
So what is Rotary like in the Caribbean; does it tend to reflect the general character of the country where people are cool and chilled out? Or does it tend to be more formal and hierarchy-ridden, as in some countries?
“As you can see I am not wearing a tie”, he smiles. “And a bright yellow shirt too,” I add. He responds, “Yes, I am trying to look more relaxed and the modern generation, the younger people, want that! I am trying to get us more relevant to the younger generation. In the Bahamas and the Caribbean, we’ve come a long way in being more relevant to the younger population.”
To attract 35 per cent of women into Rotary in his region, all that was required was “to change the paradigm and the perception that Rotary is an all men’s club.” Once that was done the clubs started changing their outlook. Rassin brought in his own daughter, Michele, who runs a medical supplies company, as the first female member of his club “just to prick that balloon”. Michele went on to become the club’s first female president, and something dramatic happened! “Many of the elder members stood up and apologised for resisting women, and admitted they could see a better result by bringing women into the club.”
It takes at least four years to effect a change at Rotary International, as the CoL meets only once in three years. Most of us do not use a cell phone for that long!
Rassin’s daughter next introduced her friends to Rotary, “and those friends brought their friends… and not only women, but a much younger population, so the whole face of my club changed with improved diversity of age and gender!”
Does he think women bring any special character or attributes to Rotary?
“I don’t look at it that way. I believe our objective is to get the best qualified people into Rotary, and that includes men and women. We need to find the best people in our community in order to make it better,” says Rassin.
But surely some special female attributes help, I pursue. But the incoming President says he’d like to focus on “the equality side of it. Men and women might be different but they are equal. Women might be more family-oriented and the younger generation is also more family- oriented; that is good for us. They don’t want long meetings. They want to do service and in that service they want to include their families. The women have a better understating of that. The old guys have to understand that this is a different world!”
To the critical question of women lagging behind men when it comes to key leadership positions in the districts, particularly in India, as men tend to be reluctant in yielding leadership space to women, Rassin says this will happen eventually. During his India visit, he had mingled with women Rotarians in India and “I found some of them to be very strong women, and they will in time rise up in the organisation. Others will see it and they will move back. You can’t expect things to happen overnight, it’s an evolution and a cultural change thing too. But it has just started and will happen. We have seen female presidents of clubs, assistant governors and next year two Districts have their first female governors So the evolution is taking place.”
He adds that once a critical mass of women come into Rotary, the change will happen. It was also a cultural issue in India vis-à-vis women in leadership roles in the community, but things were evolving and changing for the better. “I met the Chief Minister (Vasundhara Raje Scindia) in Jaipur, and I found her to be a very strong and dynamic woman who knows what she wants to do, the changes she wants to make. And she really wants to partner with Rotary in order to achieve sustainable projects.”
I joined Rotary to network with the business people in my country. I didn’t really understand what Rotary did; only two years later did I discover the power of Rotary.
He admits that he does have concerns over Rotary not changing fast enough in a world that is changing at a frenetic pace. Does he think that Rotary has missed out on keeping up with the pace of rapid change in the outside world?
“There is no question about it. We don’t move fast enough to make quick changes,” he says, adding this was because “our whole system resists speedy change. We don’t resist change; we resist quick change. We have a Council on Legislation and the only way we can change with major decisions is by taking it to them. And it takes at least four years to effect a major change, as the CoL meets only once in three years. Most of us do not use a cell phone for that long! The world is changing fast and we need to do something about it.”
The President-elect says discussions are already happening at the RI Board on these issues. “President Ian (Riseley) has already started the discussion and I intend to continue it.”
The single most aspect of Rotary Rassin enjoys the most is visiting the various Rotary projects and “seeing what people are doing at the community level, meeting with the children, particularly in the toilet projects and seeing their smiles. That makes me really happy.”
Asked if, compared to the developed world, Rotarians in India have a better or bigger opportunity to do work that makes a visible impact on the community, Rassin says, “I’d say their advantage is that they can see what is required to be done because the problems are visible and Rotarians can say I can do this or that.” But this is not possible in some of the developed countries where the problems are not visible. “They do have a problem but they don’t see it because it is hidden. But where you can see the problem, it makes Rotary more visible.”
What India is doing in Wash in Schools and Literacy are transformational projects, and they fit into the focus areas of Rotary.
The incoming president is well known for asking Rotarians to do “transformational projects” or those that make a big impact on the community. On one such big project he would recommend to Indian Rotarians, he says, “What India is doing in Wash in Schools is a transformational project; you’re doing some of the best WinS projects in India. You also have a major literacy programme which is great and both of these fit into Rotary’s areas of focus. We also have maternal and child health, and each of these areas can have big projects in India and all those could be transformational.”
“I was very impressed with the blood bank at the VHS Hospital in Chennai… that Rotary is really stepping up to do so much for health care in India. But more than the money it is the partnership with the institution (VHS) to run the blood bank, the lab services, maternal and infant care, etc. That partnership is really valuable, and such partnerships will help us expand our ability and our reach to much more than we could do by ourselves.”
He was happy to note, he added, that while talking to Rotarians in India “they asked me how I could help them connect with international partners so that they can help internationally as well. So that was good to know.”
Next I ask Rassin to share with the readers how his theme — Be the Inspiration — germinated and worked out in his head. Striking a reflective note, he says, “I have lived my life realising that if in my profession or in Rotary I can motivate someone to do more than what they think they can do, then we can together accomplish so much more. When you realise that my life is to inspire other people to do better at their job, either in Rotary or wherever they happen to be, then so much can be accomplished.”
I love to play golf, but Rotary has destroyed my golf! I haven’t had much time to play. But it’s so relaxing… to be with your friends, fresh air, it clears your head.
So why did he join Rotary?
Rassin laughs as he responds with a twinkle in his eye: “I joined Rotary to network with the business people in my country. I didn’t really understand what Rotary did. All that I knew was that leaders in my country were in the club. And I was trying to get business.” And it wasn’t till two years later that he realised the power of Rotary. That he could pick up a phone and talk to a Rotarian anywhere in the world to help somebody.
One such powerful personal experience he had was the very first one as the community service chair of his club in 1982. A woman, Rosebud Bell, in the Bahamas who was diabetic and had undergone a kidney transplant, was losing her eyesight and needed to go to another country to get an eye surgery done. “My club came to me and said fix it, and I asked what’s the budget and they said we have no budget!” So he pulled out the RI directory and scanned the Miami region where he knew there were good surgeons. He called up a Rotarian who said his club had a member who knew somebody who worked at the Bascom-Palmer, one of the leading eye hospitals in Florida and connected the two. “I talked to that Rotarian and he said there’s no problem. I know another Rotarian who is an eye surgeon and the operation fees will be waived.”
Next came the question of accommodation; the same Rotarian put Rassin onto another Rotarian who organised a free room at a hotel near the hospital. “These were people I had never met, and just called on the phone.” Rassin then called a local Rotarian who was a manager of an airline and he organised free tickets for the patient and her daughter. “So we got the surgeon, we got the hospital, we got the hotel and we got the flight for her and her daughter. We sent her over, she had the surgery, returned and it didn’t cost us anything. My Rotary club gave her $200 for her food. After that I realised the power you have as a Rotarian to make a difference and help somebody.”
What does it take for Rotarians to get to the top positions in Rotary? “It’s all about dedication, being committed to the ideals of community service and doing the right things with integrity and hard work. I ran a business but I also worked very hard in Rotary. Some folks find it difficult to juggle their professional work and work in Rotary. But I felt I’ve had a good life and have to give back.” Rassin adds that at one point he was a member of many organisations but as he gradually realised that the one that really makes a difference is Rotary, he dropped out of other organisations and just focussed on Rotary.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and rotary.org
At a glance
Role model: My dad who taught me a lot of what I am today. He was a surgeon… the first surgeon in the country. Yes, I could have become a surgeon but I always knew I could never fit into his shoes so I went into medical business. What inspired me the most about him was his dedication; he was so dedicated to his patients. His patients came first no matter what else was going on. I always admired that. Of course as a child this bothered me for a little while but when I grew up I realised how important it was for the patients to know this doctor will always be there for us.
Views on India: I love the customs, traditions, and feel almost overwhelmed by the welcome I get everywhere I go in India. It’s formal and respectful, but also very warm. Everybody goes out of their way to be really gracious. Makes you really feel great to be part of an organisation where everybody is so nice.
Foodie: Oh yes, I am a foodie indeed. I love to eat everything; I love Indian food and the favourite cuisine of my granddaughter, who is 18, is Indian. I enjoy the spices… I may sweat a little bit on the top of my head, but I enjoy the food. Back at home we do eat spicy food, and we have a hot pepper.
Cooking: Not much; though I can make breakfast… good eggs and pancakes.
How he relaxes: Golf! I love to play golf, but Rotary has destroyed my golf! I haven’t had much time to play. But it’s so relaxing… to be with your friends, fresh air, it clears your head.
Fitness: I keep saying I will go to the gym, but in the job I am in, most of my exercise is walking through airports. I can’t sleep much on flights so I use the time to answer my emails… I get about 500 a day! I am lucky enough not to feel jetlagged or tired by air travel.
Hobbies: Not really… I used to collect stamps. The reality is that Rotary became my hobby many years ago!
Music: My granddaughter says I like old-fashioned music! I like songs where I can understand the words. There were days when you understood what the songs said! That’s the kind of music I like.
Reading: Mysteries; I love Dan Brown’s books. I have his latest book Origin sitting on my desk for three months. I saw it at an airport and bought it, but haven’t had the time to read it.
Religious: I am religious. I am Anglican but not a churchgoer, but I believe in god. I told some people that Rotary is my religion as it helps to make the world a better place.
Books: I am writing a book on my dad and his legacy, and another is my memoir. But the one on Rotary is yet to be written!
Views on a conflict-ridden world: Yes the conflicts around the world, refugee movement in large numbers is frustrating. The politicians have to deal with the humanitarian issues before we in Rotary can. But I am optimistic about the future.
One shortcoming in Indian Rotary: Bring in more women! To me that’s really important. Not just any women but good qualified women who can become good Rotarians.
Esther’s role in his Rotary journey: Totally supportive, but she also keeps me grounded and doesn’t let my ego get out of hand! If I make a speech, she is the only one I can rely on to tell me if I did my best or what I could do different. Because everybody says you did well. But I can count on her to tell me the truth. I am now dragging her into a role she did not sign up for but she is right there with me. People love her wherever we go. She is so good at it. At the International Assembly in January she had to make a speech. She never wanted to make it but she did and she did a fantastic job. I am so proud of her. Speaking to the spouses, she told them it is so difficult to be the spouse of somebody like me! She is brutally honest. My club has made her a lifetime honorary Rotarian to recognise her supportive role.
Look out for the RI Prez’s monthly newsletter
Incoming RI President Barry Rassin says the biggest issue Rotary faces today is “the disconnect between Rotary International and the Rotary clubs because the clubs are doing all the work. We’re setting policy and giving guidance and tools to gather the resources but if the club doesn’t know what we are doing or ignores the advice, it doesn’t help.”
So, to bring the clubs closer to RI, come July, he will be writing a letter himself every month addressed to the Rotary club presidents “so that every club feels connected as the president is talking directly to them. Rotary is known in communities because of Rotary clubs and not because of Rotary International.”