Philanthropy in action: The Gupta family

Philanthropy is a great way to strategically and sustainably bring about meaningful change. It comes in many forms – from the giving of money and assets to the sacrificial contribution of time, talent, and expertise in volunteering, mentoring, and even serving on boards of philanthropic organizations. But to do it successfully isn’t necessarily easy, so today we have the pleasure to hear from the Gupta family on how philanthropy has been a part of their lives. 

In this interview, we’ll be speaking with sister and brother philanthropists Reetu and Suraj Gupta. Reetu is president and co-chair of the Gupta Family Foundation, while Suraj is chief strategy officer as well as co-chair. The foundation aims to support organizations that provide focused intervention in the lives of people who have been disadvantaged, in order to help them become self-reliant. 

Together, Reetu and Suraj also co-founded Rogue Insight Capital, a venture capital and private equity firm focused on visionaries who dare to transform the world around them. Rogue’s primary mandate includes investing in female, immigrant, and minority founders, as well as companies that are making a social impact on their community.


Reetu, I'd like to start with you. Could you give us some insight into how your parents shaped your philanthropic spirit?


Reetu: Honestly, I give all the credit to my parents. When we were very young, they taught us the importance of giving back. 

One memory stands out in particular, from when I was around five years old. My mom was opening letters from children she had adopted in India. They were so sweet: these kids had written heartfelt letters to my parents to say, you know, “thank you for their help and support”. I remember thinking how beautiful it was that we were there in Canada – we were so blessed and we had so much – and my parents are helping these other children. 

When we received money as a gift from our grandparents, we were always encouraged to donate some of it. So when you grow up with that and you're constantly surrounded by it, it just really becomes ingrained. Philanthropy is one of my sole purposes here on Earth: I need to give back. 


Suraj, could you give us more background on what your parents focus areas were – and how they shaped your philanthropic spirit too?


Suraj: One thing that's amazing about our parents is that they came to Canada with absolutely nothing. They wanted to build a better life for themselves – as well as for my dad's brothers, sisters, and parents. And along the way, they always preached the importance of giving back. It wasn't that they got to a certain level and then it became important. Rather, they taught us that at any given time, if you have the ability, you have a duty to give back. 

Being in that family environment really ingrained in us that giving back isn’t something that’s optional: it’s necessary. I have a lot of similar stories to Reetu – we would find $5 and the next logical step was to donate it and help somebody. 

Our parents did a lot of different charity work, especially things for disaster relief – as well as a lot of different one-off type projects in India. For a very cheap price compared to what it would cost in Canada or the United States, those individual projects could have a really significant impact. 

The idea of being able to help people – and being able to help people at scale – is something that our parents really embodied. And it resonated with us because we grew up that way. 


Suraj, you used the word duty – I think that can sometimes be hard for individuals to take on. How would each of you encourage that in other people?


Reetu: The reason why I feel that it's a duty, as Suraj said, is that we have the ability to give back. Some people that don't have the funding to do so, and that's okay – but maybe you can volunteer your time instead. There’s always good to do in the world. 

The way I look at it is that I love learning: I love to educate myself and gain knowledge. But the more I gain, the more aware I become of the people out there who don't have access to knowledge and education. And if I have the ability to help, then I should help. I know that it can be daunting, though,  to have that urge to give back – that desire to do good – without knowing where to start though.

There’s always a way to give back, and it's actually much more simple than it seems. People ask me how I decided to give back; how I came up with the idea. But for me, it wasn't that complicated. I just knew that I wanted to give back, so I did. I'm very spiritual, and I feel that when you set that intention, you put it out into the universe. The Dalai Lama says that when you have sincere motivation, you will always be successful. So if you have that inkling that you want to give back, and you put that out into the universe, help and guidance will be given to you. 

Suraj: We hear that concept a lot, right: that it’s difficult to get started. But the wonderful thing about philanthropy is that whether you're volunteering time, donating to a cause, or rallying people to get behind something, you’re going to drive an impact no matter what you choose to start with. And that is only beneficial. 

You don't need to be so concerned about where to start. Once you start doing something, you’re going to start driving impact – and that's going to snowball in a very positive and beautiful way. 

As Reetu mentioned earlier, giving back doesn't have to be financial. For me personally, my objective in life is to add as much value to the world as I can and help as many people as possible. So what I do is check back in every few months to see if I’m fulfilling either of those objectives. 

I have an example to give here: about a year ago, I felt like I could be doing more. So I decided to start doing some research. And I stumbled upon this amazing organization – based in Ontario – that’s focused on getting at-risk youth off the streets and into school or work. 

Most organizations that do this sort of work have a very low success rate: something like 20-30%. This group had an 80-90% success rate. And I learned that they had government funding that helped, but really what they needed the most was volunteers. 

They needed people to come and talk to the students – to talk about the little steps you can take, to cover interview prep and how to get a job. These are things those kids didn't have access to. So I went in and I did a speaker session with around 50 kids and answered a bunch of questions. 

And I realized that you can find so many different ways to give back when you explore. So, research the things that are important to you, and you will find ways to give back – methods that are really fulfilling. 


Reetu, you described to me the recreation and launching of the Gupta Family Foundation in 2020. Can you tell us more about that?


Reetu: My parents launched our foundation – our family's charitable organization – in the ‘80s. And my dad had done really amazing work. When I started working full-time after my undergrad, I basically forced my parents to make me a foundation director. And I did that because I really wanted our foundation to be generational. I wanted to make sure that kids, grandkids, everybody would understand the importance of giving back. 

When Covid hit, the whole world was just thrown into disarray. I was seeing all these organizations needing help without anybody giving it due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. And it really broke my heart. I felt that at a time when help was needed the most, the people that could provide it stepped away. I talked to my family and we agreed not to do that: we would help no matter what. So I wanted to rebrand our organization to show the world that regardless of Covid, there’s always help that the world needs. 

We rebranded the foundation in 2020 and Suraj and I became co-chairs. And we did a lot of great work. We were able to send tablets to kids in rural Jamaica, so they were able continue their education with schools being closed. That was the goal: I wanted to focus our efforts on education and empowerment for children.


Suraj, you mentioned how philanthropy is a part of everything you do. Can you give us an example of how you’ve tied philanthropy to your company?


Suraj: Reetu and I are very blessed in that we’re in a family where everyone is very aligned on philanthropy. Everyone wants to give back. Working with Reetu, she always brings every conversation back to zooming out and seeing how we can make a difference. That allows us to really make sure we're doubling down on giving back. And that’s how Reetu and I launched our venture capital fund: Rogue Insight Capital. 

The fund is part of our desire to diversify the family company. We wanted to do some new things and support Canadian entrepreneurs, and we saw a big gap in the market. Companies that were diverse – female-founded, immigrant-founded, or founded by diverse ethnic minorities – weren’t raising the same funding as their more mainstream counterparts. They didn’t get the same spotlight. 

There’s a lot of systemic bias against diverse founders. And there's a mentality (that’s now changing) where people assume that socially impactful companies sacrifice profit, which is not the case. Reetu and l wanted to create a company that would do very well financially with a social and ethical obligation to give back. 

We wanted to support founders who deserve it and companies that are making the world better. That way, we could demonstrate how doing those social and ethical things can help financial performance. We figured if we could prove that this bias negatively affects profits, then we could get more people on board. 

There are many ways to tie philanthropy into your everyday business. One of those is by supporting companies with a strong mission statement that are trying to make the world better while building a profitable business.


For people just starting out and finding their way, do you think collaboration and community is critical in first steps?


Reetu: If you're looking to get into philanthropy, I think the first step is to try and understand what it is that you’re trying to achieve. And there's no right or wrong: it can be anything. Today, for example, I want to help children and I also want to help tigers in India. That's really random, and it doesn’t follow our mandate, but it's just something that my heart wants to do. 

So if there is that little inkling that you want to give back, as Suraj mentioned, do some research and see if there are organizations that fit what you would like to do. If there are, you could collaborate with them to work toward your goals. And in terms of community, yes, always ask the people in your life – because I feel like philanthropy’s something that’s not spoken about very much. 

If you reach out to your network of family and friends, or uncles or cousins, they might even have done exactly what you're doing. Suraj and I have found the people we meet have often already worked with an organization that we want to work with – and they’re able to introduce us. And we’re so surprised. But I think that people do philanthropy from their hearts, so you don't hear about it – nobody’s bragging. 

I would absolutely say community is important. And that doesn't mean you need to have a huge network, if you go to everybody you know and just put it out there. “This is what I would like to do, what do you think? Do you know anydy?" 

Suraj: I totally agree. It’s a lot easier to green light working with a new organization if there’s someone that you know and trust who has worked with them and continues to do so. It means that someone has already vetted the organization and come to the conclusion that it’s doing good work. It’s always more difficult to get there where it's just that one-way dialogue where you do need to do a lot of diligence and make a lot of phone calls. 

With any organization where we were able to get a warm introduction – or if we knew someone who had worked with them before and could speak to the impact that the team was driving – we had a great experience. For Reetu and I, we want to see the passion of the people running the organization: the people who really want to make the change and make the difference. That’s hugely helpful in being able to make a decision on new organizations to work with.


I think that leap of faith in trusting people – whether you met them in person or not – is a huge component of the work your foundation will do going forward. What does that look like?


Reetu: Great question. My dad did a lot of healthcare work in India – a lot of eye camps. He did some sanitation projects for schools. And he also did disaster relief in Gujarat when the earthquake hit many years ago. So when I took over, I wanted to focus on education and empowerment. Whatever projects we’re looking at, we try to make sure that it fits one of those two buckets. 

But as I said, I also want to save the tigers – and that doesn't really fit into either bucket. And I do think we also want to make sure that we're following sustainable development goals, which is a caveat to that. So, if the project doesn't really fall under empowerment or education, as long as it's helping the world and following those goals, we will probably green light it. 

One of the projects I’m really excited about that's in progress now is in Egypt. We’re working with the Solaris Foundation to help women who are starting businesses. I found that as you go into the world of microfinance, there are some problems. I noticed that there are a lot of women who’d do really well with microfinance, but then something would happen. Maybe they needed childcare relief or healthcare relief, and microfinance wouldn’t help them with that. And eventually, they’d be thrown back into poverty. 

That didn’t make sense to me. If we're going to help, I want to solve the problem – I don't want to just fix it temporarily. So when I approached the Solaris Foundation with this, they actually did a lot of research. And what they came up with was not just a type of microfinance, but a holistic program. 

So what we're going to be doing is helping women who already have businesses scale them, and we're going to be taking a holistic approach. So they'll also be given healthcare, childcare, and leadership to ensure that they can actually scale their business. Suraj and I are working on that right now.


Let me ask you both this question. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?


Suraj: That’s a very tough one. I’ve received a lot of really good advice over the years from a lot of amazing people. But the piece of advice that I can say is probably the most helpful is around the concept of failure. 

When you're younger and people tell you not to be afraid of failure, it can be easy to discount that. You’re typically following a straightforward path when you’re young: you go to school, you get a job, and you don't always face the same trials and tribulations that you might later on in your career. 

For me personally, it was harder at a younger age to really have that concept of learning from failure resonate. But being later in my career, having done a lot more, I can really see how beneficial it can be. 

When things do go badly, you go through something difficult. Reetu mentioned Covid – going through something like that, she couldn't sleep. And because of that experience, she came up with Project Kindness: our food donation initiative. Out of the biggest trials and tribulations often come the biggest impacts and outcomes, because these experiences force you to think about things differently.

The few deals we’ve done that have gone badly definitely taught us a lot. We know what to avoid now – what signs to look for to spot those sorts of mistakes. And luckily for us, those bad deals were smaller check sizes, so we've been able to save much larger check sizes in not repeating those situations.

Reetu: I’m going to give you two: one on the business side and then one on the spiritual side. I'm a Capricorn – super type A – even when I was in school: if I was doing a group project, I did all the work just because I am that way. I’m very annoying. I grew up in our family company, and when I started working after undergrad with our VP, he could see that. I loved to work and I was very passionate, and people started dumping their work onto me. 

Our VP didn't want to alarm me: he very gently told me that it's really important to learn how to delegate. He said, "I'm not telling you to be the big boss, throw your hands up, and not do any work – but you have to know when to delegate.” I was really young and it stuck with me. I suddenly realized there were certain things I could have delegated so that I could work on more important things. So for me that was really life changing. In a family business especially, you tend to just do everything – and sometimes that's not the best way.

On the spiritual side, Suraj and I have a guru that we follow. A piece of advice from him that really stuck with me is to live life with happiness, not for happiness. What he means by that is, you know, a lot of people think “I’m going to be happy when I get that job” or “I’m going to be happy when I get that car” or “when I'm able to get funding for this project”. But when you think that way and the moment in question comes, you realize you're still unhappy. Whereas our guru talks about how that happiness needs to come from within. 

For me, it was really life changing to understand that happiness doesn’t come from the things around you. Whether they’re material possessions, jobs, or concepts, it doesn't matter. Your happiness should come from within. And what I’ve found is that when you have happiness within, you attract other positive energy and inevitably go down a path that will keep you happy.