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Difference Maker

Rohini Nilekani pours her wealth into getting books to India's poorest children

When she found herself suddenly wealthy, the Indian philanthropist founded Pratham Books, a nonprofit publisher that uses innovative ways to put low-cost books in the hands of millions of kids.

By Kavitha RaoContributor / October 12, 2012

Rohini Nilekani, a philanthropist who founded Pratham Books, which produces low-cost children’s books, sits in her home in Bangalore, India.

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Bangalore, India

"My mission is to put a book in every child's hand," says Rohini Nilekani. That's an ambitious goal anywhere, but especially in India, where there are more than 300 million children, most of whom can't afford books, or even read.

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Ms. Nilekani is founder-chairperson of Pratham Books, a nonprofit publishing house that uses innovative ways to tap India's vast market.

"The children we reach are first-generation readers," she says. "Their parents probably don't know how to read. They may never have bought a book in their lives."

Set up in 2004, Pratham Books is an offshoot of Pratham, one of India's largest nonprofit groups, which supports education across India.

"Pratham was already teaching millions of children, but there was no [high-]quality content out there. What there was was too expensive," Nilekani says. So Pratham Books was set up to bring "as many [high-]quality books as possible, as cheaply as possible, in as many languages as possible, to the unreached child," she says.

Eight years later, Pratham has published more than 10 million books with 225 titles in 11 languages. Most of the books are priced at less than 25 rupees (about 45 cents).

Nilekani's own journey is something of a fairy tale. She has gone from being a middle-class journalist (something of an "activist," she says) to being a wealthy philanthropist. In 1981, when just 20 years old, Nilekani invested 10,000 rupees (about $180) – all the money she had – into a company cofounded by her husband, Nandan Nilekani, along with six close friends. That company grew into Infosys Ltd., India's second-largest technology company, with a net profit of $1.72 billion in the last financial year.

Nilekani, who owns 1.41 percent of the stock, is now one of India's richest women. She calls herself an "accidental philanthropist" because of her accidental wealth.

"I felt very uncomfortable when I became wealthy," she says. "One of my ways of dealing with it was to give it forward right away. I believe that any society that allows the creation of legitimate wealth expects that the wealth be used for its benefit."

Early on she used her profits from Infosys to set up a charitable foundation. She soon developed a reputation for philanthropy, and in 2010 Forbes magazine chose her as one of its "48 heroes of philanthropy."

Her reputation for getting involved, rather than merely writing a check, led to her being invited to set up Pratham Books.

Pratham is attacking a huge problem. In most of rural India, children read only textbooks. Reading for pleasure remains a luxury available only to the rich. Even by Grade 5, many children still can't read.

Pratham Books also has to cope with a hugely diverse country with more than 22 languages and innumerable dialects. As Nilekani points out, in India the language changes every 100 kilometers (62 miles). The challenge of reaching children in rural areas who speak obscure dialects is formidable.

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