The rags-to-riches story of Mumbai-born Darshita Gillies as a tech entrepreneur with a big heart

THE SOFT-SPOKEN technology entrepreneur Darshita Gillies says she revels in “any opportunity to give our gifts more to the world”, suggesting that she wants to help make the world a better place. The Indian-origin British philanthropist loves what she does for its impact on a large section of people as her organisation uses technology to connect institutional funders and investors with social enterprises and nonprofits in a way that benefits both giver and receiver.

Gillies has, over time, made a name as an ace chartered accountant, investment banker, leadership coach, and investor. She is lately focused more on philanthropic activities and has been helping firms place funds towards causes in line with UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). The key technological platform she has floated for this purpose is Maanch, a London-based global organisation with an office in India, that connects companies worldwide with groups that need financial backing to forge ahead with their goals towards achieving sustainable development targets.

The entity—of which she is the CEO and founder—also enables its clients to evaluate the impact of “their investment and report it to their stakeholders in an efficient way.” Maanch also helps nonprofits and foundations manage their accounts. Gillies says she takes pride in what she does: in which she gets to blend finance, technology and planetary sustainability. She also invests in companies that work towards ensuring sustainable development and social causes.

Her ascendancy to her current privileged status has been stunning, to say the least. This 30-something alumnus of Saïd Business School, Oxford University, and Cambridge University, was recently on an e-seminar from her one-room home in Borivali, Mumbai, where she was born to a non-English speaking, Scheduled Caste family. She spoke on the occasion about her humble origin and early struggles. She also spoke to Open about her uncertainties and financial troubles of the time. “I studied in Mary Immaculate Girls School, Borivali, and then did my BCom at Narsee Monjee College of Commerce & Economics,” she says, where she came under the spell of fellow students with great ambitions in life. Her father wanted her to join the Indian Administrative Service, but after her Bachelor’s, she decided to join her friends to pursue a career as a chartered accountant.

When she reported the matter home, there was confusion because, to enrol at JK Shah Classes, she had to make an upfront payment of Rs 20,000, an extravagance the family could not afford. She tells Open about the simple life of theirs around then. She remembers that the family lived a happy life although they were always short of cash to buy even food. They even collected scrap newspapers, boxes, empty glasses and plastic bottles and headed to the local “raddiwala” (who collects products for recycling) to exchange them for money to buy some rice. Finally, a cousin of hers in Canada sold her valuables to raise money for her education. Hardships assailed the family one after another, Gillies recalls. Around the time her final exams were being held, the power supply to their home was snapped by the authorities for failure to pay the dues for three months. She ended up studying by candlelight hoping to pass the exams and become the pillar of support for the family that was in dire straits with two younger siblings—a sister and a brother—still in school. When the results came, she stood 47th at the national level.

All the success in later life is founded on the strength, grit and grace of living an unequal life. Success is living an authentic life with no regrets, says Darshita Gillies, founder & CEO, Maanch

“My primary motivation was to work hard and get a job. I never expected such high scores,” Gillies tells Open. About the triple whammy of obstacles in a deeply unequal society that she has overcome—wrong economic background, wrong caste, wrong gender—Gillies says with a philosophical flourish, “Life is a series of interconnected events. I choose not to be hypnotised in the notion of cutting and dicing life and labelling certain events as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. All the success in later life is founded on the strength, grit and grace of living an unequal life. Success is living an authentic life with no regrets.”

The same year, 2005, she joined Standard Chartered Bank as an analyst in Mumbai while continuing to pursue her MCom from the University of Bombay. Says Gillies, “After I qualified as a chartered accountant, I had four job offers with leading national and multinational banks. I chose Standard Chartered, India’s largest foreign bank at the time, primarily because the role was quite eclectic and got me working directly with the board of directors. I enjoyed the fast-paced, stimulating environment, and the role gave me an overview of how banking works inside out.”

She continues, “I had an amazing boss, Rajeev Uberoi, who gave me a lot of freedom to determine how to do my work. He knew I was a shy person, and he would gently nudge me to attend and speak up at important meetings and encourage the best out of me. I was among the few employees promoted three times within two years. It taught me the power of recognition and reward in developing confidence.”

It was in Mumbai that she met the man who would later become her husband and father to her now 12-year-old daughter. Initially, their families found the match unacceptable, especially hers. She says that it was a difficult choice. Rowan Gillies, then lawyer and director, Asia, at Standard Chartered Bank, is a South African of English-Scottish descent and her parents raised their eyebrows because the age difference between them was 18 years. “But over time, things changed and now both the families are happy about the union. I never wanted to walk out or elope to get married, and it helped,” says she.

The couple who got married in 2008 then began their dream-like journey, living together first in Jakarta, Johannesburg, Cape Town and then London where they are now settled. “My husband and I really share this passion for upstream innovation,” Gillies says. The family currently lives on a houseboat in Little Venice, London, and own properties in various parts of the world, including in the Azores islands in Portugal where they own a plot with fruits and vegetables, which they have transformed into a getaway of sorts. “There is no power supply to the place. My daughter Tara and I did a one-week challenge to live there for less than one dollar a day. We bought some supplies from outside and then survived on the produce from our farm where more than 40 types of fruits grow. It was an amazing experience,” she tells Open, emphasising that even if she loses all the money she has, that is where she is confident of spending the rest of her life. Asked about her net worth, she says that she hasn’t calculated it yet. “I don’t know how much,” says the woman who thinks the countries she has travelled to are too many to be listed.

The planetary crisis is not the real challenge, but how to bring seven billion people together to solve the crisis is the real challenge, says Darshita Gillies

Before she launched Maanch in April 2018, she had worked for long as a high-flying executive coach and managing partner of a firm called Ease on Edge, a role that she continues to hold since 2008. Since 2014, the couple has been running a company named Blu Dot Advisory. According to its website, it offers services to companies “from analysis to execution, [and] we enable them to harness the power of big data for integrated global growth as well as provide them with pointed expertise on systemic transformation projects.” It also offers “strategic consulting, bespoke convening, purposeful collaboration, prototyping breakthrough concepts, and incubating game-changing organisations that innovate at the scale of the whole.”

Gillies says that Maanch was an outcome of her experience in finance, strategy, leadership and passion for fintech and blockchain along with her sister’s strength in operations (she was with JP Morgan) and her brother’s technology skills. Within three years, it has secured a client base of over 700 organisations in 30 countries. At Oxford, Gillies had studied fintech and blockchain technology. “Allocation of finance in a meaningful way is the way to move forward,” says Gillies, who invested in cryptocurrency at an early stage to hit paydirt. She calls her journey as one from “the bottom 1 per cent to the top 1 per cent for the whole 100 per cent.” Maanch, meanwhile, has won multiple awards as an impact-investing platform. “We provide systems for all the ESG (environmental, social and governance) and impact needs of our clients through data, intelligence, dashboards and networks,” says Gillies.

She is glad that throughout her career, she has had the privilege of working closely within the financial services sector, with the UN, governments, religious institutions, MNCs, asset managers, nonprofits and so on. In the process, she avers, the most important lesson she has learnt is that “the planetary crisis is not the real challenge, but how to bring seven billion people together to solve the crisis is the real challenge.” It is here she sees the power of “leveraging technology in giving decision-makers real-time access to important impact data and enabling them to make decisions that balance the short and long-term needs.” Maanch is also into working towards achieving gender equality and in empowering women and girls; building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation, Gillies says, citing UN sustainable development goals.

Impact investing, meanwhile, has become all the rage among a large section of the wealthy who hope to see the planet a liveable place for future generations. Various papers have been churned out on the segments where investments of this kind need to be made to achieve the 17 SDGs formulated by the UN General Assembly in 2015 to fight poverty, protect nature, sustain growth and create the infrastructure for peace and prosperity by 2030. While suggestions are plenty, Brett Winton, director of research at ARK Invest, states that blockchain technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, energy storage and DNA sequencing are areas that are bound to be far more transformative than any other. “While the commercial impact of their productivity boosts could be profound, the five platforms also are likely to bend the curve for each of the UN SDGs, increasing the probability of many successes by 2030,” Winton writes in a paper authored this year. “Our research indicates that economic convergence will accelerate—the world will become flatter and the economic opportunity will become more evenly distributed: as digital wallets allow finance to become more inclusive, as reusable rockets allow internet access to become cheap almost anywhere on earth, as artificial intelligence and gene editing collapse the cost of food production, and as the autonomous electric mobility systems deliver step-change reductions in the cost of getting from place to place.” The paper adds, “At human scale where gene sequencing and artificial intelligence advances are likely to unlock markets measured in the 10s of billions while delivering profound progress against complex diseases like cancer, at societal scale where smart contracting platforms are likely to more firmly secure property rights for individuals, and at global scale where battery technology and 3D printing should materially decrease the natural resource required to move people and things from place to place.”

I was educated in a convent school and several of my friends are Muslim. I prayed to Jesus in the morning and Ganesh, Krishna and all other gods in the evening, says Darshita Gillies

Gillies is aware of the challenges of meeting the UN SDGs, which is why she bets big on technology and keeps herself abreast of new breakthroughs. But she contends that any business without a proper idea will fizzle out. She is enamoured of the possibilities of blockchain technology, a subject she has studied deeply.

She also finds time to live life meaningfully. She loves dancing and is learning to play the violin for Indian classical music from Jyotsna Srikanth. She also goes on to narrate a story about a violin she has named Meera. On a trip to Italy, her husband made an impromptu decision to drive her to Cremona, known for its violin-making industry. He always knew that it was her childhood dream to learn to play the violin. “Serendipitously, we met with an Argentine luthier in the market and he was about to complete making his very first violin, which is now with us. Next, was finding the right teacher. I wanted to learn the Carnatic style from a teacher who was also a performer and I researched until I found Jyotsna Ma’am [who is based in London],” Gillies says.

Besides travelling, she also finds time to read. She lists the books that have shaped her life and career. They include Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies (Katrin Kaufer and Otto Scharmer) and Inspired (Marty Cagan).

Gillies calls her pursuit of spirituality curious and experimental. “Like most Indian families, we prayed to all gods and celebrated most of the holy festivals. That said, I was educated in a convent school and several of my friends are Muslim. I prayed to Jesus in the morning and Ganesh, Krishna and all other gods in the evening,” she explains. Gillies had trained as a yoga teacher in her early 20s and later, as an ontological coach and coach trainer. She has so far trained more than 500 coaches. She says she is in love with Sufi whirling practices and can whirl for hours non-stop. She is also into tarot reading. “I have had life-shifting insights from medical journeys in Ecuador with Achuar tribes,” she adds.

Gillies says she keeps herself fit with moderate exercises and by eating one to two meals a day. Her tastes, she says, continue to be eclectic. Her choices as an investor mirror that trait.

First published in Open

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