Giving back: Eight innovative philanthropists around the world

2. The Bill Gates of India

Vincent Kessler/REUTERS
Wipro Chairman Azim Premji attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, January 26, 2011.

Azim Premji, India

Rows of students ages 6 to 14 sit cross-legged on a dusty cement floor inside a one-room government school in a rural village in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. It's well over 90 degrees F. and there's no electricity. A teacher stands in front of the class with a stub of chalk. She scrawls Hindi words on a broken blackboard while the students struggle to recite them.

Like millions of public school teachers across India, she only receives about nine months of training and has virtually no support from the government. According to a wide range of experts, India's poor education infrastructure and lack of teacher training are major reasons many of the 100 million students in public schools across the subcontinent can't read, write, or do basic arithmetic five years into their education. Though India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, a third of its population is still illiterate.

That's what Azim Premji, an Indian business tycoon and philanthropist, hopes to change. More than a decade ago, Mr. Premji started a nonprofit organization to improve primary education throughout the country. Since then, he has donated $2 billion of his own money to the Azim Premji Foundation. Premji, the third-wealthiest man in India and chairman of Wipro, one of India's leading IT companies, says that to improve the future of the country, it's critical that the majority of the population is educated.

"Ultimately, how he [Premji] approaches philanthropy could prove to be just as important as how much he gives," said Bill Gates in a 2011 Time magazine article. He added: "He is setting a remarkable example for those who have benefited so enormously from India's economic expansion and are looking for ways to give back."

For Premji, any change in Indian education starts with empowering those at the head of the class. "We realized that to improve the education for students, we first had to reach the teachers," says Falguni Sarangi, the district leader for the foundation in Sirohi, a rural district in Rajasthan. "The teachers have virtually no provisions."

The program in Rajasthan started with 40 teachers and now has nearly 1,000. Many of the teachers meet on Sundays, their day off, to talk about challenges they're facing in the classroom and discuss lesson plans. With only 2.8 percent of India's gross domestic product going to education, Premji's foundation gives teachers support they wouldn't otherwise have. "These schools give teachers the opportunity to actually see how to implement lesson plans and teach in a more fruitful way," says Mr. Sarangi.

In addition to the foundation, Premji started a university in 2010 that focuses on the creation of talent, development of knowledge, and research in the education sector.

"The university is an outlet for young people to become teachers and leaders in education," says S. Giridhar, the chief operating officer and registrar of Azim Premji University. "We are creating the change agents who will help develop the future of education in India."

Krunal Desai is pursuing a master's in education. "There are very few centers for higher education like Azim Premji's," he says. "The university is creating resources for people to go back and work in the field of education in their own localities and region. Mr. Premji's vision is a model for other wealthy people in our country to do more philanthropic work."

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