Forbes Marshall’s Rati and Riah Forbes are working to improve the lives of underserved communities, and learning how to be more strategic with their personal giving
By Benu Joshi Routh | Forbes Magazine
Left-Rati Forbes, director, Forbes Marshall; head, Forbes Foundation with Riah Forbes, digital initatives, Forbes Marshall. Image: Neha Mithbawker for Forbes India
Rati Forbes had a privileged childhood. Her father was an eminent businessman and her mother a paediatrician. At the age of 13, she started volunteering regularly at one of the Trusts where her mother was involved. That marked the beginning of her giving journey. “Even though both my parents were extremely busy, my mother had set aside some time for this clinic once a week, and so did my father,” she says. Having such role models, as well as being part of the Zoroastrian religion, where the norm is to give whatever one can, shaped her thinking from early childhood.
Rati has been a director at the Pune-based Forbes Marshall group of companies—a provider of energy conservation and automation solutions for the process industry — since 1992. Till 2011, she was involved in overseeing the human resources function after which she stopped being operationally involved with the company; apart from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and the Foundation arm. Rati heads the Forbes Foundation and has initiated several programmes for underprivileged women and children from neighbouring communities across health, education, and women’s empowerment.
“At Forbes Marshall, the social initiatives work has gone on since the late 60s, when CSR was not the buzzword it is today,” says Rati. Her father-in-law, Darius Forbes—the founder of Forbes Marshall—always had a social worker in the company since the late 60s.
One day, while driving home from work, he witnessed an accident and carried the victim to the hospital. That was when he realised that in the factory area in Kasarwadi, Pune, there were no hospitals till about 10 to 15 miles away. Soon after, he set up a small OPD and a two-bed hospital on the factory premises. Today, the hospital accomodates 28 beds and provides free medical assistance to members of the local community.
Carrying the founder’s legacy forward, the Forbes Foundation was set up in 2012 to invest in organisations and social innovation projects in Maharashtra and outside its immediate geographies with a focus on tackling issues in education, building resilience in communities, and supporting good governance.
To address the high incidence of adolescent girls dropping out of school in and around the factory premises in Khed taluka near Pune, the Forbes Foundation partnered with Yojak, a local NGO. Early findings revealed that because of the area’s proximity to both Pune and Mumbai, most mothers are employed as staff or domestic help in those areas.
Even the fathers are working in other locations. These girls are either left with their grandparents or with old aunts and are not sent to school purely out of safety concerns as the girls have to walk 5 to 6 km to reach school. To tackle this problem, the team focusses on the most vulnerable girls through an internally-designed vulnerability index. Their coordinators remain in touch with families of these girls for all their emotional and other needs, which they say makes a difference in the overall wellbeing of the home, thus ensuring the girls stay in school. A scholarship has also been offered to these girls. What started with five schools and 47 girls has grown to include 15 schools with 700 girls. Four other local companies have collaborated on this initiative. Playing the role of an anchor partner, “our aspiration is that, in the next five to seven years, 80- 85 percent of girls in that area should have finished school,” says Rati.
Over the last few years, the CSR team at Forbes Marshall has implemented The Shared Value initiative to help young engineers, who are socially or economically backward, to enhance their skills and enable them to find jobs and have a sustainable career.
“We looked at the opportunities and challenges in our own business. We then zeroed down on the annual maintenance contracts (AMCs) that we offer our customers. A shortage of resources was a hindrance in timely execution of the contracts. We also found that as customer sites were at a distance and in remote locations, travel costs were large,” says Rati.
The first batch was started in November 2018, in collaboration with an NGO in Vadodara, which helped them recruit local candidates. In the first year, Forbes Marshall’s own business increased by 30 percent; with an added increase of 115 percent in 2020-21. The candidates have supported Forbes Marshall’s own service engineers, by swiftly visiting sites to attend to commissioning or product failure jobs, thus meeting the needs of the customer.
As of now, about half the candidates selected from the four completed batches have been directly engaged with Forbes Marshall. All the rest are employed too. “We are now looking at expanding the programme to other geographies in India,” says Rati.
Following in the footsteps of Rati is her daughter Riah. She started volunteering since she was 12. Every year, on her birthday, she could choose the kind of party she wanted and then also the kind of community service she was going to offer. “So, one year, we gave food at a local food bank and on another occasion, we read at a blind school. It was a nice way of getting me equally engaged in both,” she says.
With an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a master’s in public administration and international development from the Harvard Kennedy School, Riah works on digital initiatives, communication, and strategy for Forbes Marshall.
Her work experience at Google, Endless Computers (a social enterprise building low-cost technology for emerging markets), and Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm, has allowed Riah to bridge technology with social impact. Riah spends 80 percent of her time on the family’s core business. The remaining 20 she spends on the company’s social initiatives.
Currently, the mother-daughter duo is working with Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation, on a project examining the community work they have been doing and rethinking how to articulate their overall theory of change to measure the impact of what they’ve been doing so far. Rati says, “Initially, my personal philanthropy was disparate and instinctive, but I quickly realised that was not a sustainable approach.”
Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of Dasra, says, “Rati and Riah are funders who believe in going deep and leading with inclusion in their philanthropy. They strive to focus on the most marginalised and underserved communities and are also willing to support innovation by non-profits. This can serve as an inspiration for other funders, looking beyond conventional funding standards like scale.”
Talking of innovation, Rati says, “We identify and support innovative pilots within organisations that lack funding and help to spread education to children who would not be able to access quality inputs. In 2020, the Forbes Foundation provided funding to a Teach for India’s vertical called TFIx that supports entrepreneurs who are working with migrant communities in remote areas of the country.”
It also supports one or two entrepreneurs in each cohort to understand on-ground impact. For instance, they support Learning Companions founded by a TFIx entrepreneur, which works with the Bharwads, a community of cowherds living near Nagpur. Part of the organisation’s role involves considering how children from this community, who only speak the tribal language, would access mainstream Marathi medium school content
With the help of an NGO, Rati and Riah continue to work with women in several villages in the area on different empowerment programmes.
The duo wants to support underserved communities through small organisations. Dasra has performed the due diligence and helped them identify organisations that are local and understand the social, cultural, and the local nuances. “Many of these organisations are doing incredibly good work on the ground, but very little is known about them, or they have very small budgets. But they are indeed moving the needle on critical issues,” says Rati.
Justice and governance is also a part of their CSR as well as personal philanthropy. “We have good government schemes, including at the state level, but often, NGOs are not working towards catalysing them,” says Rati. “Most of the time, communities are not aware, nor do they know how to access it. We are working with a couple of NGOs and making it imperative to at least try and access a few government schemes, and we also hold them accountable to that.”
Riah’s most recent personal social initiative was during the pandemic, addressing the wellness of leaders in the social space. She realised it was an incredibly challenging time for them because of their inability to access their communities and donors with the same ease as earlier. Many organisations did not have the infrastructure to go remote, and she also noticed that many NGO founders were really burnt out. They couldn’t talk to anyone about it and were seeking a safe confidential space to think through some of their organisational challenges.
“The challenges they were having were well beyond tech. It was not a question of how to use Google Meets or Google Docs, but how to programme manage one’s team or how to partner with a bigger organisation. ” Based on this, Riah felt it was more important to work on creating a space where people could be honest and openly think through things together.
Riah comes to philanthropy from a place of humility and empathy for not just for the problem that they want to solve, but also for the people who are working on the ground. “They [NGO leaders] have much to teach us. And if we are having a conversation with them, chances are we will go away very enriched and enlightened if we just listen and ask questions.”
She finds it challenging that there’s an expectation that people who work in this space do it out of pure, selfless passion, and therefore don’t need to be compensated in the same way as anyone working in one of their businesses.
“Despite this very strong passion and commitment, the work can be hard and draining, and as donors, we should consider supporting the wellbeing of the leaders and their teams,” she adds.
As part of her thesis during her graduate programme at Harvard Kennedy School, Riah examined why there were not enough successful women or minority entrepreneurs in India. Her research revealed that most don’t have access to coaching and mentorship. She is working with a few NGO founders to understand and mitigate challenges related to this.
A programme in Khed taluka, Pune, to address the issue of violence against women and facilitate their access to rights and entitlements through legal counseling.
Riah believes they should not look for a business model or investment opportunities while giving to the vulnerable or the marginalised communities, but give them unrestricted grants.
In the last three years, the duo has put aside a sizeable chunk of their personal wealth portfolio towards impact investment.
Rati feels Riah has had exposure to the best of education that has shaped her thought and approach and has driven her to being more strategic in her philanthropy. Riah, on the other hand, believes Rati’s on-the-ground experience is invaluable. She can validate an idea quickly or propose an alternative approach. “She’s pattern-matching across decades of experience to say, yes, that makes sense, or no, I don’t think so. We are very fortunate that our values are aligned.”
Rati uses a quote by Pierre Omidyar—philanthropist and founder, chairperson of eBay—that resonates with her. He says, “Charity is inherently not self-sustaining, but there are problems in the world, such as natural disasters, that require charity. Philanthropy is much more. It comes from the Latin for “love of humanity”. Philanthropy is a desire to improve the state of humanity and the world. It requires thinking about the root causes of issues so that we can prevent tomorrow’s suffering. And if we want to make sustainable change, we have to put all the tools at our disposal to their best possible use.”
She concurs. “There’s a big difference between pure charity and philanthropy. A lot of Indians continue to do charity, but philanthropy is really thinking more deeply about issues, and understanding how we can move the needle, especially those of us in privileged circumstances.”