My dream is to focus on building Brand Rotary, so that we pull people to Rotary rather than push Rotary to people. Let’s build our brand in such a fashion that people should be enthused to join us… wait in a queue and say will you take me into Rotary,” said RI Director Nominee A S Venkatesh in a felicitation event held in Chennai representing several districts.
Referring to RIPN Shekhar Mehta’s dream, spelt out earlier in the event, that Indian Rotary should have three lakh members, he said this could happen when membership responsibility did not remain with the club president or officers but was broad-based and tackled in a scientific manner. “This is where most of the problems come. They will get only their friends and those Rotarians will leave when their tenure ends.”
And once new members join, “there should be a proper orientation course for them just as it happens in the corporate world. If that happens we will have a stronger base.”
Revealing a startling bit of statistic, he said he had analysed membership data over the last five years for Zone 5 and found that “over the last seven years, we have lost as many members as we have now. This means that had nobody left Rotary in the last seven years, our membership in Zone 5 would have been double.”
Interpolating this data to the rest of our districts, if no Rotarian had left in the last seven years, Rotary’s membership in India would have been over three lakh. But worse than losing members was that “we are also generating bad brand ambassadors in society. Those who leave are going to talk about the not so good side of Rotary; so let’s avoid bad brand ambassadors,” Venkatesh added.
Let’s build our brand in such a fashion that people should be enthused to join us.
— A S Venkatesh, RI Director Nominee
Urging all Rotarians to work in a manner that will make Rotary “the NGO of choice either for membership or donations”, he said: “If I can pay the school fees of five and another person is doing the same, when both of us join Rotary, we shouldn’t continue to do the same, which could have been done from outside as well. We should be building a school. That should be the power of Rotary, where one plus one shouldn’t be two but 11.”
Stressing the need to “leverage the power of collective charity”, he said, “Let’s focus on building a larger scale of activity in such a way that we have a brand which is recognised and sought after. All of us do that in our businesses, building both our brands and markets. Let’s do it for Rotary too.”
While his focus would be on doing all this during his two-year in office as director, he clarified that he regarded his position as neither one of authority or responsibility. “It’s a position of opportunity to make a difference. Nobody is going to question if I don’t do anything; I’ll still be a past director in 2023. It’s not what people expect from me but what I expect from myself. I have an opportunity to make a difference. This is neither the beginning nor the end, it’s a journey. I request all of you to please travel with me in this journey, let us enjoy it together and reach the destination we have set out for.”
Felicitating Venkatesh, RIPN Shekhar Mehta said, “India has chosen one of the most qualified persons for the job of an RI Director; Venky is a smart guy, intelligent, very well read; you can’t have a better combination than IIM and IIT. He has a spouse in Vinita who is also from IIMA. He is a sharp, intelligent, thinking man and I always believe on a board of directors you don’t need people who work very hard. You need people who think very hard.”
In any endeavour, it was thinking that was very important, and “I have watched from close quarters Venky doing just this, and I’ve benefitted from it. Everybody gives me the credit for TEACH, yes a lot of it is due to me, but one person I would share that credit with tremendously is this man.”
He disclosed that when he started working on literacy, he badly “needed a sounding board; somebody who wouldn’t say ‘Yes’ to me, had his own opinion and would be smart and I found that person in Venky. There wasn’t a day when we were not on telephone calls. Anything I wanted to discuss, he had the right answer for it.”
Mehta added that Vinita, “who has her own corporate identity, will play a very crucial role in this journey, and will give you very meaningful inputs which will be of great help in interacting with other Board members.”
He considered himself “very fortunate” to get Venkatesh serving him on the RI Board in 2021–22, as “we have worked closely together for six years, and have a certain wavelength.” Rotary in India, he reiterated, is “the Kohinoor in the Rotary crown; be it membership, TRF contribution or projects, our work and contribution have been outstanding.”
Mehta added that no other country does projects like Rotarians in our zones do, and estimated that Indian Rotarians use barely 12 per cent of TRF funds for their projects. He told the new RIDN: “We are at the best of times and on a springboard, poised to take off, and you will play a major role as you will be there for two years, while I will be there only for one year, and you can change and mould the way Rotary functions in India.”
Those who leave are going to talk about the not so good side of Rotary; so let’s avoid bad brand ambassadors.
In a video message PRIP Rajendra Saboo described Venkatesh as an “outstanding Rotarian”, and expressed confidence that in the RI Board, “using his knowledge, experience and wisdom, he will bring glory to himself, India and Rotary”.
PRIP K R Ravindran said Venkatesh had all the qualities required of an RI director. “He has sound subject knowledge, impeccable honesty and integrity, unwavering commitment, unmitigated passion for the job, tons of enthusiasm and energy and an agile mind and intellect to do the job well.”
But above all that, he added, “he has Vinita… who in her own right is an extremely successful executive, extraordinarily talented, widely travelled, and holding an office in the shipping industry.”
Venkatesh had “all the ingredients and potential to be a great leader; I have no doubt he will be a winner on the RI Board.” Urging him to focus on the organisation first, second, and last, he said “This is easier said than done. We come from an area where there are lots of pulls and pressures. He will be called to make many sacrifices, will have to employ a disciplined will and tread the middle path and make decisions which won’t exactly take him to the top of the popularity charts.”
The RIDN had the capability to do all this, “but he will lead best if he forgets himself and focuses only on the group and the organisation. Leading is not new to Venky, who has held many leadership roles within and outside Rotary.”
Ravindran added that Venkatesh would be joining a very special RI Board… a Board where there will be as many as eight women! But that board also would have “a very good charioteer in Shekhar Mehta.”
Felicitating Venkatesh, TRF Trustee Gulam Vahanvaty recalled that as the training leader of Venkatesh’s batch of DGEs at the IA, “I built a great rapport with Venky and Vinita, also because they were from IIMA and I am from IIM Kolkata. He has tremendous drive and energy, and I will have the privilege of working both with Mehta (RI President) and Venkatesh in 2022-23, which will be my last year as Trustee.”
Congratulating Venkatesh, PRID C Basker said that during the last 10 years “Indian Rotary has completely transformed; whether it is membership or TRF contributions, or doing large projects, our performance is being applauded.”
There were some issues bothering Rotary in India but these will be addressed he said. He urged the newly nominated RIDN to ensure that he reversed the focus that had shifted from Rotary clubs to the district. Most DGs were focusing on the district and prioritising district goals. But it was the Rotary club which was the member of RI, and the clubs had been formed to address concerns of the community. “I worked with two sets of DGs and kept telling them to focus on the clubs and not the districts, as the districts have been formed to support the clubs and their priority should be to make the clubs vibrant. Under your leadership, I am confident that the clubs will get maximum focus, and with your experience and knowledge your term will be a glorious one.”
Addressing the meeting, PRID P T Prabhakar said, “Success is all about winning over others and making them happy. If the number of people in this hall, which includes so many present and past RI officers from all over India, is an index of your popularity, then it is evident that you have brought a lot of cheer to so many.”
Congratulating Venkatesh, he added, “You have the potential to take Rotary in India to its greatest ever future.”
Varsha and Varuna, Venkatesh and Vinita’s daughters, who couldn’t attend the event, talked about their parents’ passion for Rotary over the years in a video message. They had watched from a young age their father’s passion for Rotary as a member of RC Chennai Mambalam. Said one of them: “The best part of his growth in Rotary was his frequent trips to Chicago because we could accompany him there. Through all of this, our mother has been by his side providing strength, support and her insightful perspective. We have no doubts you will achieve great heights, Appa! We can’t wait to see the difference you will make.”
Felicitating the RIDN, RID 3232 DG G Chandramohan said, “I have been observing him for a long time and his elevation to this position proves that to be successful you shouldn’t do what 99 per cent of people do. Venky has his unique style of doing things, and 127 presidents of our district (3232) wish you great success.”
DGE S Muthupalaniappan said Venkatesh was not only “friendly and approachable, he can also talk on any Rotary topic with great clarity and authority. He knows the knack of managing people, and is an accomplished stage actor too. He is passionate about empowerment of the girl child.”
Chairman of the event PDG ISAK Nazar congratulated Venkatesh for his nomination as RIDN and said he made both the district (3232) and India proud. DGN J Sridhar delivered a vote of thanks.
The power of the spouse
At the felicitation event, most of the speakers spoke about Vinita’s accomplishments as a corporate honcho in her own right. Also a graduate from IIM, Ahmedabad, where she met her husband, she was bound to be an excellent asset to Venkatesh, who would do well to listen to her views and counsel, advised all the senior leaders.
PRID Basker recalled that at a recent event, PRID Manoj Desai had shared the secret behind Shekhar Mehta getting the RI President’s nomination at first shot: taking Rashi with him for the interview to Evanston.
For the first time this year, the candidates for the RI Director’s position were invited by the nominating committee for an interview. “I asked Venkatesh, did you go with Vinita for that interview, and he said ‘Yes’. He followed Shekhar’s lead. So at any crucial time, ensure that your partner is there to get success.”
Those who shaped him
Responding to the felicitations offered to him at the first event organised in Chennai, RI Director Nominee
A S Venkatesh said that unlike RIPN Shekhar Mehta, he couldn’t quote Gulzar or Ghalib, and drew upon Thiruvalluvar to quote a couplet: “There is no salvation for someone who forgets those who have helped him.”
Spelling out the support different people had given him over the years “to reach where I am,” he thanked his club president (“Umesh, my boss”) and other members from RC Chennai Mambalam who had tolerated him through his dwindling attendance over the years. It used to be “100 per cent” in the earlier years but started falling post his stint as DG.
He next thanked “various governors from the district, who had faith and trust in me to give me opportunities. You may have the skills but somebody has to give you the opportunity.”
The first man to do so was PDG Benjamin Cherian “who first trusted me with a major responsibility two years after my club presidentship by asking me to be the PETS and conference chair.”
Beyond the district-level it was PRIP K R Ravindran, who as RI Director, chose him as a Rotary coordinator. Initially “really scared to work with him, as he is known to be a no-nonsense man, now I don’t fear him that much,” smiled Venkatesh. He did set tough targets and asked tough questions “but he had faith in me and guided me through the year. Now of course Vanathy and he are like family members to us.”
He had learnt from Ravindran that a corporate style of governance can be effectively applied to Rotary, as well as how to disagree with a person without hating him or developing any enmity.
His first exposure to a senior leader beyond the district was Trustee Vahanvaty who was his training leader in San Diego; “both Vinita and I had a wonderful and stress-free time with Haseena (his late wife) and him. He is a perfect gentleman, and will score 110 on 100.”
From PRID P T Prabhakar he had learnt a lot. “He has a never-
say-die attitude; if he sets his eye on some goals, he will reach them come what may.” From PRID C Basker, “who should be called the boss as he is a born leader”, he learnt to always remain calm in the face of problems and challenges and solve them confidently.
With Mehta he had worked for some eight years when the telephone conversations took place always after midnight. The first few times he held them on the speaker lest “Vinita thought otherwise, and finally she’d say ‘it must be Shekhar, please talk from the other room and let me sleep.”
From him “I learnt that however a gifted person one might be, it requires hard work to take you to that last mile. He is extremely gifted, talented and knowledgeable but the hard work he puts in distinguishes him from others. To my knowledge he works 18 hours a day.”