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India-born Harvard alumnus' gift to alma mater
Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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November 17, 2007 03:29 IST

New Delhi-born Sanjeev K Mehra, managing director and partner in the principal investment area of Goldman, Sachs & Co, where he leads the industrial private equity investing effort and is the key benefactor of the envisaged $4 million South Asia chair at Harvard University, says it is simply a case "of giving back".

Mehra, who came to the US at age 19, told in an interview that he and his wife Karen Peterson Mehra, whose gift would endow the 'Mehra Family Professorship of South Asian Studies' in support of Harvard's major expansion of activity related to South Asia, "both met at Harvard College where we were both classmates in 1982, where I was an economics major and she was doing government studies."

After their undergraduate degrees, after a two-year stint at McKinsey and Co, Mehra went to Harvard Business School from where he received an MBA, while Karen went on to do a masters in anthropology at Columbia University.

"I have benefited in many ways from Harvard and so did she," he said, and added, "After all, we met there, and so we were trying to figure out how to contribute back and the idea came up of trying to do something that would link India and America."

"When I was at Harvard there was very little study of India and South Asia. There was a lot of study of China and Japan, but very little of South Asia, and given that one in four people in the world live in the Indian subcontinent, we felt it was important to shine the light on what was going on there. And, to do so, not in a sense of its history or mythology or religion -- there has been a lot of focus on that (at Harvard)," Mehra said.

"What we said is, we'd like this professorship to be focused on contemporary India, and it didn't have to be tied to any one area of expertise and it could be university-wide -- so giving the university the most flexibility to appoint someone that met their needs," he explained.

Mehra also said that there was no specificity that the professorship be tied to contemporary India, vis-�-vis business and economy, "but all of the contemporary India -- social issues, political issues, economic issues, all of those. Things that affect people's lives day to day in the country."

He said the discussions had gone on for some time with Harvard faculty led by the director of the South Asia Initiative Professor Sugata Bose and a number of other professors at Harvard, "but there was never enough critical mass, and finally I think enough of us got together and said this is the right time."

"And, it happened to coincide with my wife and my 25th reunion or graduation from Harvard and so we thought it was the right thing to do," he added.

Mehra said the selection of the scholar who would occupy this chair when it is established, was "entirely up to the university. They'll inform us of course, but it's their decision."

Mehra said ultimately his hope was that this chair and the South Asia Institute would "allow a lot more students and faculty to experience and learn and research about India and for Harvard to be the center of not just Indian, but South Asian studies in America, where it is viewed as the 'go to' institution -- where there will be the South Asia experts, where there would be people of importance from India who will come visit regularly and people from the university who travel on behalf of Harvard to India. Essentially, bring the two worlds a little bit closer, both in terms of understanding and impact on our society."

Mehra said it was a no-brainer that India "is already a major global player," and that his own company that has been invested in India and "has a long history there," had recently redoubled its "efforts over there."

"There is no Fortune 500 company board that doesn't think about what it's doing in India, its India strategy and so forth," he argued. "India has always been an important factor," in the globalising world, "but now, given what's going on in the last five years, it's emerged as a force in its own right."

Mehra spoke of how the exponential growth of Indian companies holding their own among the leading multinationals of the world "and the wealth creation that's taking place there, the approach that the government has, the coordination with business in terms of what they are trying to achieve. These are all new things and I believe there's no going back."

He acknowledged that he was "not so close to what goes on day to day in terms of monetary policy," to predict if the declarations of the likes of Finance Minister P Chidambaram and others are on the mark in terms of India likely to maintain sustained growth rates of 9-10 per cent annually with no fear of the economy over-heating.

But Mehra said he believed India today, was awash with "enlightened leadership, people who are technocrats, people to understand the global economy, who understand that India is inextricably linked to what's going on in the world -- that it cannot be an island, that the policies cannot be so different from the rest of the world, whether it's privatisation or inflows of capital or how Indian companies grab the incentives to go abroad, etc."

Besides serving on PIA's investment committee and heading up its operating committee, Mehra, who joined Goldman Sachs in 1986, also serves on the business practices committee of the firm.

He is also currently on the boards of Adam Aircraft Industries, Inc, ARAMARK Corporation, Burger King Corporation, KAR Holdings (Adesa), Hawker-Beechcraft Holdings, Sigma Electric and SunGard Data Systems. He also serves on the board of trustees of Trout Unlimited and Oakman School, England.

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