My role as Director is to assist more than administer: Kamal Sanghvi

It is with visible emotion that incoming Director Kamal Sanghvi vividly recalls that one moment in his Rotary journey of 28 years, that “completely transformed me and changed my thinking and view of life.”

RIDE Kamal Sanghvi and Sonal.
RIDE Kamal Sanghvi and Sonal.

We are seated in the Rotary News Trust office in Chennai on a hot and humid morning and he opts for a glass of buttermilk. But so absorbed is he in tracing his Rotary journey and describing the passion and energy it has infused in him that he barely touches it.

That defining moment came in the biting cold of a winter in 1991 in his home town of Dhanbad where the mercury plunges. As his father was a Rotarian, it was natural for him to follow him and join the same club, RC Dhanbad, Bihar, which he did on July 1, 1991. The club organised many eye camps “which those days were conducted in a school. At one such camp, there were some 400 people inside and over 100 waiting outside, where I was seated. As my family was well-known in the town, everybody came up and spoke to me,” he reminisces.

Governorship gives you hundreds of friends and also the ability to convince people to do something good.

Watching him was a woman in her mid-70s; “her clothes were in tatters, she had no footwear and accompanied by her husband, she was sitting on the floor shivering. As everyone was greeting me she must have thought I was probably a person with some power and she told me: ‘Saab, please get my eye operated. So I said sure, called the doctor and requested him to attend to her. He said that she was over 75 and her eyes were beyond repair.”

Sanghvi explained this to her but she kept insisting that she should be admitted and operated upon. “They had walked 10 miles to reach the camp. I told her we can’t help you so why do you want to get admitted. Her response shook me to the core and changed my entire philosophy of life, because in my privileged life, I had never seen anything like that. She said if you admit me, we will be here for five days, and get food for five whole days.”

Kamal and Sonal Sanghvi on their wedding day.
Kamal and Sonal Sanghvi on their wedding day.

But much more attractive than that was that “when we return we’ll get a blanket each. We have two grandchildren, and as our roof is leaking it gets so cold in the night that we cannot sleep. With these blankets (each cost barely ₹60) all of us will be able to sleep.”

Kamal Sanghvi being inducted into RC Dhanbad in 1991.
Kamal Sanghvi being inducted into RC Dhanbad in 1991.

This experience really blew the young Rotarian’s mind — that somebody was willing to get her eye operated, knowing there was no cure, “just for five days’ guaranteed food and two blankets. That day I resolved that with my privileged background and my family willing to totally support me in such humanitarian work, for which Rotary was providing me such a fantastic opportunity, I will do whatever I can to help such people,” says Sanghvi, adding, “that experience made me a true Rotarian from an RINP (Rotarian in name only).”

Incidentally his family, which owns the Virji Bank in Dhanbad, also runs a family charitable Trust to help the disadvantaged.


Sanghvi was born “with a golden spoon, and into a very wealthy Gujarati Jain family. Ours was a stable, traditional family, my grandfather had very traditional values and was a Gandhivadi to the core. But my father was the opposite and lived life king size, loved travelling, the passion for which I have inherited.” He was educated in a high-profile public school in Darjeeling, then studied in Mumbai and finally graduated in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Manipal and set up a factory. But he had to short circuit that venture and return home as his dad suffered a heart attack.”

Women are far more efficient, focused, committed to their work and multifaceted as well. Once given a job, women deliver in time.

After returning home, he assisted his dad in the family business and also joined his Rotary club. Asked if it was awkward to be in the same club as his dad, Sanghvi says, “Not at all; ours was a unique club and had seven father-son members! Then Sonal also joined the same club.”

Interestingly, both of them had known each other as children as “Sonal’s mama (uncle) and my dad were thick pals.” But they were far from being childhood sweethearts; “ours was an arranged marriage because we never looked at each other that way till the family thought of it. The joke in my family till today is that I told Sonal that if it doesn’t work out we’ll say that till now you always called me Kamalbhai! But it did work out beautifully,” he beams!


Returning to Rotary, in 1998, within seven years, he became club president and “for the first few years, Rotary for me was just my club. I didn’t attend a single district event till 2000. I was enjoying so much of service, so many projects, mainly eye camps, being done by my club.”

From then to the district governor’s post was not difficult at all, he says. His perception that a much larger Rotary world existed beyond his club changed when Sandeep Narang, a close friend of his, became governor in 2002–03. “I was his district secretary; we were considered the “Angrez” of our district…in those days in Bihar, not too many people spoke fluent English. We were both boarding school products and we led a flamboyant lifestyle. He advised me to go for the DG’s post and I gave in my name,” smiles Sanghvi.

RIDE Kamal Sanghvi with Sonal and RIDE Bharat Pandya at the Chennai Institute.
RIDE Kamal Sanghvi with Sonal and RIDE Bharat Pandya at the Chennai Institute.

When he went home and told his father about it, “my dad sat me down and said ‘get ready to lose’, and made me promise him that if you lose, you will not leave Rotary. Also, if you lose don’t get disheartened. Two, are you ready for this post because till now you have not folded your hands before anybody. Our business was such that others came to me for favours and not vice versa. He said in this position you will have to meet people and ask for their consent. Third, if you do become governor, you will never consider it a position of power. Promise me all these things. And I said: ‘done Dad.’”

He became Governor at first shot! Asked about the highlights of his year (2005–06) as a DG, he says: “It was a fantastic experience. Governorship gives you hundreds of friends and also the ability to convince people to do something good. And the unique thing of being a DG is that even people in top positions, positions of power, listen to you, when you ask them to do something.”


His biggest achievement as governor was setting up about 20 vocational training centres for women called Saheli centres in District 3250, that comprised Bihar and Jharkhand. The second achievement was creating a record in TRF giving. Till then his district had never crossed the $100,000 mark; “during my year as DG, we collected $240,000, and we were the second highest in per capita giving in India. And that made everyone in Rotary in our zones sit up and take notice, that Bihar could be the second highest in per capita giving! That turned around everything and gave me inroads into the Rotary echelons.”

So how did he do it? “Oh, it was very simple. Bihar was the richest riyasat in earlier years, with so much of natural wealth. And while discussing it with my dad, he said: ‘Kamal, it is very simple. If I could afford to pay for your education in the best of schools and colleges, there are also thousands of people in Bihar whose children are studying in boarding schools. Each one of them is a potential major donor.’ So the issue was not wealth but the fact that Bihar did not have a history of giving.”

Sonal Sanghvi with their two sons; Khwab (right) and Raavishu.
Sonal Sanghvi with their two sons; Khwab (right) and Raavishu.

Armed with his dad’s advice to find potential donors, Sanghvi made a point during his DG visits to knock from door to door to raise money for TRF. The response was so good that at the end of his year “I thought it was an underachievement. Had I set my goal above $155,555, I could have raised more than $240,000.”

Known for his work in reaching shelter kits to disaster zones, I ask Sanghvi to spell out how he got involved. He says that once he was seated in the office of PRID Shekhar Mehta, “who along with PRIP Kalyan Banerjee and PRID Sushil Gupta has always handheld and guided me, when the Kosi River floods struck Bihar.” They were desperately trying to reach ShelterBox and finally when the list came “I told Shekhar (Mehta) that this is not going to work in our district to help the flood-ravaged people. We have to create our own shelter kits.”


And thus came into the picture the ubiquitous steel trunk “one of which almost every house in Bihar has, where they store grains and other essentials. We acquired such trunks, filled them up with all essential items and rushed them to the flood victims.” The Rotary India Humanity Foundation was thus set up, and it has given about 10,000 shelter kits to the victims of natural disasters in Bihar, Nepal, Odisha and Kerala. “At any given time we have at least 300 such shelter boxes ready to meet emergency requirements when a disaster strikes. We can ship them within 48 hours.”

Sanghvi adds this is going to be one of his priorities during his directorship; “I want to expand on this project.”

Then there is of course his passion for literacy; so how far away does he think we are from PRIP Banerjee’s dream of making India totally literate?

Kamal Sanghvi and Sonal rowing a canoe in Koh Samui, Thailand.
Kamal Sanghvi and Sonal rowing a canoe in Koh Samui, Thailand.

“Not very far; Kalyanda (Banerjee) gave Shekhar (Mehta) and I the thought some seven years ago at a meeting that let’s make India totally literate. Mehta and I sat through that night… from 8 pm to 5 am, and formulated a basic goal, which then came to ₹100 crore! And we didn’t even have a bank account, forget having any money! And thus RILM was set up; I am its deed writer, with Mehta being the founder and I the co-founder, of course under the patronage of Banerjee. I think we can do it by 2025.”

Looking back he says that the two of them have worked very hard and extensively for this cause. “Everyday there were pains but they were joyous pains. From the beginning we’ve focused on training, both at the macro and micro-levels; clubs and leadership levels. So clearly literacy, along with WinS, for which I am the director in charge internationally, will be my two major priorities. I strongly believe that without literacy the effectiveness of whatever else we do will be very limited. Of course Polio remains the first priority.”


Sanghvi also believes that Rotarians should be doing far bigger projects than giving pencils and notebooks to schools. When he addresses clubs he asks them if each of its 25-odd members is worth at least ₹4 crore. “They say yes; so I say you are a ₹100 crore-company with 25 CEOs or GMs and you are still distributing pencils and notebooks. You should be building those schools. I don’t say don’t do the small things; they are important too and every bit makes a difference. Today every club in our region can do fantastic work; it is only a question of guiding and motivating them to do it. That’s where my role comes as a director… to give the correct guidance.”

To mark Rotary’s Centennial and its arrival in Kolkata 100 years ago (RC Calcutta), “we are pushing our districts to do projects worth ₹100 crore each to celebrate the event,” says Sanghvi. The centennial celebrations will be spearheaded by Sanghvi (Convenor) and Mehta (Chair). “We are going to give the districts a bouquet of projects, assist them to get global grants and find foreign partners.

I look at my job as director more to assist than to administer… assist to meet and fufil RI’s aims and goals.”

Pictures: Courtesy Kamal Sanghvi

At a glance

Religious: I follow religion as a lifestyle. I consider humanity my religion.

Reading: I read all sorts of books. Earlier I was a voracious reader but becoming a director leaves me with much less time. But I do read mythology books such as the Ramayan and Mahabharat. I love the writing of Devdutt Pattanaik… he brings out the ethos of Ramayan and Mahabharat in modern thinking. He is a fantastic writer.

Music: I love listening to both Hindi and Western music; I also love jazz, and classical Western, depending on where I am.

Fitness: I do yoga for an hour every morning; that relaxes and de-stresses me and keeps me fit. Because of my excessive travel and the food I eat, I tend to put on weight. When at home I also go for an hour’s walk in addition to yoga, but when I am travelling I only do yoga in my room.


Food: I love food; I am a connoisseur of food; the quantity is very little but I like trying out different kinds of cuisine, and visit different restaurants. I love street food and try to sample the street food of any city I visit, to better understand its ethos and culture.

Cooking: Only Maggi noodles, nothing more than that!

Travel: I love travel; mainly Europe for its history, culture and variety and the US for its adventure sports, and the way those facilities are organised so efficiently there. I do paragliding, mountaineering, snowmobile, etc. But Europe is beautiful, and like India; every 100 miles, it is so different.

More women in Rotary: 101 per cent; I believe that women are far more efficient than men; they are more focused, committed to their work and multifaceted as well. While managing a house, a woman is handling every department. Once given a job, women deliver in time. Any healthy and progressive organisation needs to involve women. And I don’t think women need to be given equal opportunities; I find such statements condescending. Just open the doors, let them in and treat them as equals, and they will deliver. My club has had four women presidents.

Learnings from Rotary: It has taught me gratitude and compassion and that the deprived need your help. If you are strong and rich, you need to help the weak and poor. And to be grateful for what you have, when there is so much of strife and deprivation in the world. I believe a person gets a leadership role in Rotary for a cause. Why did I become a director? I am sure there are hundreds of Rotarians more capable and more qualified than me for this post. So surely, I was made a director for a purpose. There is no organisation in the world which gives you so much of love, friendship, goodwill and trust. When somebody tells you he is a Rotarian, he immediately inspires trust in you. I have been hosted by people in the US where somebody comes and picks me up from the airport! Who does that in the US? And I am welcomed into their home just because I am a Rotarian!

Proud moment in Rotary: Inking the Aman ki Asha pact under which through the Healing Little Hearts project 200 Pakistani children were operated.

Gift from Rotary: The fantastic opportunity to bring smiles on the faces of people.

Vision for Rotary: I’ve been saying let’s aim for the Nobel Prize. Once polio is eliminated there will be hundreds of claimants. I feel Rotary definitely deserves that Prize for what it has done, what it is doing and what it will continue to do. Most people who bag the Nobel get it for doing something significant but then go into oblivion. But Rotary is here to stay, so Rotary definitely deserves it. My dream for Rotary is a world at peace, which I define not as absence of war but where every human being has the right to education, food and water, basic health and proper living. Only that will bring everlasting peace.

A “bundle of energy” called Sonal

Ask RIDE Kamal Sanghvi about his wife Sonal, and his entire face lights up. “She is fantastic and my rock support. Both my sons studied in boarding schools and were out for long years and both my parents were ailing for 10 years; my father had cancer and a severe cardiac problem… he passed away last year. My mother has multiple ailments. But Sonal totally managed the home front; I’d say she has an uncanny ability to tolerate and deal with my absence,” he says.


Their elder son Khwab is a biotechnologist who is doing research in brain cancer in Germany; the younger one Raavishu (god of love) has completed his computer engineering and is joining Swiss Bank.

Sanghvi adds that not only does Sonal manage the home front and the children’s needs, she also manages their construction business, “apart from running her own NGO which trains women to make paper products… she hates polythene bags and other products. Both a Rotarian and a past Inner Wheel club president, she has trained so many women and helped them get decent livelihood. She is a bundle of energy and extremely loving.”

So she doesn’t grumble when Rotary activities take away so much of his time? Sanghvi laughs: “Of course she grumbles; they all do… but she knows my passion for Rotary and allows me to pursue it.”

Role models

Kalyanda (PRIP Kalyan Banerjee) for his ability to listen, and human values. He has an uncanny way of calming you down when you rush to him, agitated about anything.

Kamal Sanghvi with PRIP Kalyan Banerjee.
Kamal Sanghvi with PRIP Kalyan Banerjee.

Sushil Gupta: For his ability to identify leaders and create a path for them.

My father: For teaching me to be level-headed, and be always prepared to accept defeat for you cannot win every time.

Late PDG Santosh Agarwal, who trained me extensively in my formative years into the various nuances of Rotary, to create large goals and how to think like a Rotarian.

Shekhar Mehta, who is my elder brother… he is mad and has driven me mad too! He is totally paagal, in a positive way. He has really crazy ideas, and has taught me to set your standards high and never back down. Rather, uplift yourself to meet them. And we have done it. The RILM is a juggernaut that has achieved so much in seven years… the unthinkable.

Manoj Desai: For his depth and detailing, and his unflinching trust in me.

Working with another Director is a boon

When asked how delicate or tricky it might be to share the position of a director (hitherto only one in our zones except for 2011–13) with a fellow director, incoming Director Kamal Sanghvi beams and says he sees “having to work with another director a great boon for me. I do not consider this as a position of power and I do feel that just one director cannot do justice in handling such a big region. It is no longer possible physically or mentally. If someone can do it, fine. But I feel that to administer such a huge country, two directors can do a much more effective job than one.”

He adds, “Two minds taking decisions is always better than one doing so. If one person’s decision goes wrong sometime; the other can correct it. So if two people take decisions, it’s always better. It’s also a balancing act. Each of us has our own strengths; I know Bharat’s and he knows mine! So we tell each other that you handle this and I’ll take care of the other.”

Spelling out his fellow director Bharat Pandya’s strength, Sanghvi says, “Bharat is very swift at writing letters, at which I am not that good. I prefer to pick up the phone and talk and get things done. But if you ask Bharat to write a letter, within five minutes he will shoot it out. But it takes me time. So we can balance our strengths.”

It also helps that “Bharat is a dear friend; and we’ve worked together. In Literacy, he was the chief trainer and I am the Co-founder and Co-chair of RILM. We’ve worked extensively together.”

Sanghvi also sees this as an opportunity “to show the rest of the world that if you ask others to work together as a team, it’s your responsibility to show that you can work with your fellow director on a common goal.”

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