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Tej Kohli talks about ‘Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook’

Tej Kohli wrote ‘Rebuilding You’ as a guide for prospective philanthropists who are thinking about giving away wealth to help rebuild people and communities.

Tej Kohli
Tej Kohli is a real estate investor and technologist backing ventures in AI, robotics, biotech and esports. He is best known for the Tej Kohli Foundation and the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation. - Photo courtesy Tej Kohli
Tej Kohli is a real estate investor and technologist backing ventures in AI, robotics, biotech and esports. He is best known for the Tej Kohli Foundation and the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation. - Photo courtesy Tej Kohli

This is a Sponsored Article written by the Tej Kohli Foundation

Cultivating sourdough, embracing an at-home personal fitness regime and day trading stocks are just some of the new pastimes that were adopted in huge numbers during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. But Tej Kohli did something different. He wrote a book.   

Tej Kohli has had a varied career since building and selling a conglomerate of companies specialising in online payments during the dot com boom. During the decades since he has been growing the liquidity earned from those sales by investing in real estate, deep tech, esports and cryptocurrency. He launched his Kohli Ventures investment vehicle in 2010.

Perhaps more relevant to the publication of his new tome is that since 2006 Tej Kohli has been on a journey that has seen him become a philanthropist on a global scale.  Amongst the grassroots projects that Kohli has funded are an eye hospital in India that has cured 43,255 people of blindness; a project to provide 3D printed bionic arms to disabled young people in the United Kingdom, a $2 million research project at Harvard Medical School as well as a research program that is seeking a cure for blindness that would be affordable and scalable within the world’s poor communities where 90% of blind people live.

In 2021 Tej Kohli embarked upon his most ambitious project to date with the launch of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation, a registered charity that is funded entirely by Kohli.  The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation conducts outreach activities and microsurgical outreach camps that are on track to screen over one million of the world’s poorest people and to cure 300,000 to 500,000 of cataract blindness by 2026 in partnership with ‘God of Sight’ Dr Sanduk Ruit.

Tej Kohli wrote and published ‘Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook’ in 2020 as a guide for entrepreneurs who wanted to start spending their wealth on good causes.  Now the book has been made available to access for free in a new serialisation on SubStack.

Synopsis Of Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook

‘Rebuilding You’ is a collection of lessons that Tej Kohli has learned since his first forays into philanthropy in 2005. Tej Kohli says that giving away wealth as a philanthropist is far more difficult than creating that wealth in the first place.  In Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook he sets out to share the wisdom that he has gained during his own journey so that would-be philanthropists can avoid common mistakes and maximize their own impact.

Tej Kohli says that you don’t need to have the wealth of Warren Buffet or Michael Milken to be able to make a difference as a philanthropist and that anyone with wealth can use it to help others. But many of the formulas upon which would-be philanthropists have built their wealth simply will not work as they start to give that wealth away. 

Across ten narrative chapters Tej Kohli addresses questions such as: Why after working so hard to become a success would you pursue a brand-new career based on giving your wealth away to others? Do you need an eponymous charitable Foundation? Should you back a cause célèbre or support a little-known cause or an unmet need? And should you focus on helping your own local community, or distant and developing nations?

Kohli asserts that the world is awash with unmet health needs and that even the largest of NGOs cannot extend their footprint into every community that needs help.  He says that it is the duty of philanthropists to attempt to bridge this gap, often by using technology. 

Kohli examines the challenges of technology transfer and the dichotomy of how it is the third world that is most urgently in need of new solutions – but the first world where those solutions are most often born. Kohli concludes with his ‘Top 10 Tips For Philanthropists’.

Here Tej Kohli answers questions about the book:

Is Rebuilding You An Autobiography?

The book isn’t intended to be my life story, although it does draw heavily from the examples of my own experiences.  It is more of a narrative framework designed to lead readers to consider some of the things that they really need to think about if they are considering allocating some of their wealth into helping others. 

My hope and expectation is that readers can digest the implicit lessons from my own experiences and combine them with their own expertise to synthesise new ideas about how they will give their wealth away for maximum impact.  I’d like to think that after reading Rebuilding You a prospective philanthropist might avoid some of the common pitfalls.

You Say That Giving Away Wealth Is Harder Than Making It.  Why?

Accumulating wealth is easy to measure – it’s a simple number – but it’s very difficult to measure the impact of spending wealth on good causes; and inevitably that means exercising some prudence and caution.  In my case there was a gap of five years between my first forays into “charity” and finding my true calling, which is to reduce and eradicate poverty-induced blindness.  And then it was another five years before I scaled up my efforts in a way that achieved some really big numbers in terms of the number of people helped.

But as I explain in one of my chapters, chapter five I think, the acceleration of technologies and the unprecedented velocity of the exchange of information mean that someone setting out to support good causes today does not have this luxury of taking so much time to learn.  Things move faster and the possibilities of making mistakes and missteps are very large indeed, especially when dealing with impoverished communities that are in great need.  So if you’re starting out today, you really do need to think a little differently about things.

There are some who say that philanthropy is a manifestation of inequality and is therefore a bad thing.  What is your view?

I don’t have the luxury of being an idealist.  Thanks to my amazing partnership with Dr Sanduk Ruit, every day my Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is screening and curing hundreds of people who need treatment to cure blindness.  That is what matters.  I don’t believe in too much conceptual naval gazing – I prefer to just get things done.  

I do believe that doing good in innate is all humans.  But those good intentions are not enough.  How is it that humans can be starving in a world of surplus food?  How can any human be living with blindness that is entirely curable?  Yet that is the reality for millions of people.  And no Government or NGO will solve this huge problem any time soon.

I believe that unlike the employees of Governments and NGOs, most philanthropists are uniquely equipped by virtue of their commercial success to innovate and to tackle problems differently.  So I think it far better to encourage philanthropists than to try to tear them down for flawed and often short-sighted ideological reasons.

You write about Bill Gates and Michael Milken being your role models.  Why?

The way that Bill and Melinda Gates defined very focused objectives and then targeted their resources very intensively and relentlessly into those objectives until they started to see results has been a big source of learning for me and is in part why curing poverty-induced blindness has become my calling.

Michael Milken I identify with because like me his journey was far from smooth and like me it included some major setbacks that he had to work hard to draw a line under and rebuild himself from.  Yet he became ‘The Man Who Changed Medicine’ and I believe he is still one of the biggest funders of research into prostate cancer.

You dedicate an entire chapter to considering whether it is better to support a well-known cause or a little-known unmet need.  Which is better?

My advice here I think becomes clear very quickly.  I do not believe in conventional forms of charity.  I don’t like pledging money into a ‘black box’ organisation with overheads that breaks the direct link between every dollar donated and each dollar spent.  Regardless of the cause, I would much rather spend money directly at the grassroots level where I can see the immediate impact of every single dollar spent.

I also advocate for supporting the lesser-known causes, since by definition, they are much more in need of support and are able to create much more impact for each dollar.  Sadly, the world has many of these lesser-known causes, so it’s important for would-be philanthropists to seek out learning experiences that reveal what and where they are.

You style yourself as a ‘technologist’ and in chapter five of your book you clearly get excited about the role of technology in philanthropy?

Yes, and I will say it again here.  The world is only just scratching the surface of what technologies could do for human progress.  And philanthropists have far more latitude to take risks and to prove these new concepts long before Governments or NGOs are able to make any decisions.  That’s why right now we have drones delivering medical supplies to remote hospitals in Africa.  I firmly believe conversations about developing technologies for humanitarian purposes cannot be left to NGOs and charities and governments.

Another key chapter in your book is about whether philanthropists should target their giving into the developed world or the developing world.  What is your advice?

In the developed world the health problems that we are left with are invariably the ones which it would be relatively expensive to solve. By contrast, poverty means that many developing countries are held back by seemingly intractable unaddressed medical problems that cost comparatively tiny sums to control in the ‘first world’.

In the UK for example, the National Health Service (NHS) considers it cost-effective to spend up to £20,000 for every single year of healthy life that can be added for a patient. By contrast, the maximum cost deemed as acceptable to prevent a child’s death through the distribution of specialist anti mosquito nets in Africa was $3700 in 2019.  That’s the same amount that the NHS would spend to add two months of life to an elderly patient.

On the surface the answer might therefore seem simple: send more money into the developing world.  But closing these treatment gaps and resolving these global health inequalities is unfortunately rarely as simple as turning on the money taps.  Interventions can alleviate problems and transform lives today.  But innovations can end those problems.  The dichotomy is that most of those innovations come out of the developed world.

For me the question to ask is whether to fund innovations that might vastly reduce a problem ‘for the masses’ in the future, or to fund interventions that can change individual lives right now – but without getting to the source of the problem.  And there is no easy answer to that question.

What do you hope will happen as a result of you publishing this book?

I don’t expect that the book or the Substack serialisation are going to attract huge audiences, but my hope is that others out there who have done well and who are considering using their wealth to help others might read it as part of their research.  The secret of success is the ability to make good decisions, which comes from experience.  And sometimes the best experience comes from having made bad decisions in the past.

I’d like to think that by reading the book others can leapfrog some common mistakes and accelerate their learning experiences so that they can have a greater impact, more quickly.

‘Rebuilding You: The Philanthropy Handbook’ by Tej Kohli is offered as a free serialisation on Substack at https://tejkohli.substack.com/. To find out more about Tej Kohli visit www.tejkohli.com or visit the #TejTalks blog at www.tejkohli.co.uk.  Tej Kohli is on Twitter as @MrTejKohli.

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