Big ticket philanthropy is a trend that is experiencing a manifold expansion in the emerging markets of Asia, and India is no exception to this trend, as both home-grown as well as Diaspora business barons and tycoons get on the act to improve lives. The rapid economic transformation underway in these developing economies has spawned significant wealth creation and the emergence of a vibrant philanthropy sector. In this piece, we of the NRI Achievers team bring to you the tale of one such creative philanthropist who is applying his ingenuity and capital to make a difference to infrastructure-poor Indians in the rapidly changing Indian society …
This is the story of Manoj Bhargava, CEO of “5-hour ENERGY®.” Aged 60, he today lives at Farmington Hills in Michigan State, USA. His net worth is in the region of US$ 4 Billion, which makes him one of the wealthiest Indians in America. His activities as a successful serial entrepreneur are the main source of his wealth. In September 2012, Bhargava joined ‘The Giving Pledge,’ offering 99% of his wealth to charity, with an emphasis on a common sense approach to philanthropy. Instead of simply giving money, Bhargava believes that personal involvement is necessary. His philanthropic focus is on medical research and poverty alleviation in India.
Born in Lucknow in 1953, Bhargava relocated to USA in 1967 when his father decided to pursue a PhD at Wharton. The family, which was quite well off in India, had a tough time in the US and Bhargava started doing odd jobs and businesses during his teens, working at a variety of jobs – construction labourer, cleaning contractor, accounting clerk, printing press operator and business manager. He excelled in mathematics and joined Princeton after finishing school, only to quit after his freshman year when he decided to follow his ‘own way’ of education. 1974 he chose to move back to India, spending most of his next 12 years as a monk in monasteries of Hanslok Ashram, where he spent most of his 20s. It was more like a commune, he says, but without the drugs. He did his share of chores, helped run a printing press and worked construction jobs for the ashram. According to him, he spent those 12 years trying to master one technique – the stilling of the mind, often through meditation. Bhargava would return to the US periodically during his ashram years, working odd jobs before returning to India. For a few months he even drove a yellow cab in NYC!
Returning to the United States permanently in the early 1990s, he took over his family’s plastics company, Prime PVC Inc., which he grew to US$ 20 million in sales and then sold out in 2007. During this time, he launched a business career while still in his thirties and has since built several successful companies, most notably ‘Living Essentials’, maker of dietary supplement “5-hour ENERGY®,” which in eight years shot to US$ 1 billion in retail sales. Bhargava’s stake in Living Essentials today is valued at over US$ 3 billion. His other myriad businesses include Senterra Water (desalination and water purification), ETC Capital and Oakland Energy & Water Ventures (investment companies), Stage 2 Innovations (additives for fuel efficiency), Micro Dose Life Sciences (medical devices), and US Rail (railroad and freight terminal operations).
Bhargava’s charity ventures include the Knowledge Medical Charitable Trust and the Rural India Supporting Trust. These charities have funded medical research in the United States and over 400 charities in India. Bhargava has already committed US$ 1 billion to both these personal foundations of his. Much of Bhargava’s giving supports hospitals for the poor and education for disadvantaged women in rural areas. In the past five years, the Rural India Trust has contributed INR 300 Crore (approx US$ 48.1 million). In November 2014, Bhargava committed another INR 500 Crore (approx US$ 80.2 million) to develop villages in Uttarakhand, India.
Bhargava has built a stationary bike to power millions of homes worldwide that have little or zero electricity. His plan is to distribute 10,000 of these free electric-battery-equipped bikes in India, which he says will keep lights and basic appliances going for an entire day with approximately just one hour of pedalling. “The first 50 bikes will be tested in 15 or 20 small villages in Uttarakhand before a major roll-out in the first quarter of 2016. He says they’ll be made in India but doesn’t give details,” reported Wendy Koch in the National Geographic recently.
And that is not the only thing that he wants to do. The low-profile billionaire has a hi-tech lab in Michigan where he lives. Among the projects it’s working on are a device that functions as an auxiliary heart by squeezing blood from the legs into the torso and a device that will convert 1,000 gallons an hour, of any kind of water, into potable water. Bhargava’s got a grander plan to solve the crisis of pollution and fossil fuels. His answer is to use geothermal energy – the heat from deep beneath the earth’s surface. But the way he proposes to do so is different from the ways geothermal energy is currently tapped in places like Iceland or Indonesia or Russia. “Rather than using steam – mixed with chemicals – to bring the heat to the surface, he would instead pull it up with a grapheme cord. He notes grapheme, stronger than steel, is an incredible conductor of heat,” writes Koch of national Geographic. “You don’t need to burn anything … once you bring [the heat] up, you don’t change any of the infrastructure,” explaining that utilities could simply distribute it instead of coal, oil, or natural gas.