In this occasional series of interviews with the City's leading philanthropists we aim to bring guidance and inspiration to others.
British born with Kenyan-Indian roots, Sonal read Chemical Engineering at Queens’ College Cambridge, where she graduated with a First Class Degree. She is currently a Senior Commercial Manager in the City, focusing on new business development in Africa. In 2008, Sonal visited the Sekenani Primary Boarding School, within the Maasai Mara nature reserve in Kenya, with Sir Richard Branson. She developed close bonds with the local community and recognised that the schools were overcrowded, understaffed and lacking equipment. Following this, Sonal set up Educating The Children. Sonal has been recognised as part of the Financial News “Extra Mile 40”, a list of 40 people in finance who go further for good causes, and the Inspired 50, a list of people from the City who push their physical and mental boundaries for charitable causes.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
To me, philanthropy means mindfully and regularly giving your resources, whether in the form of time or money, to something you genuinely care about. I say mindfully since it is more than just physical giving or a one-off event. It is about developing your own personal philosophy, a generous mind-set, and integrating this into your daily life. This type of personal development takes a lot of time and effort over many years!
How would you describe your philanthropy and what is your goal?
I have focused on education, particularly vulnerable girls, since these are topics that are very close to my heart. I feel blessed to have had an amazing education against the odds, and it completely transformed my life. However, my philosophy is not about hand-outs. It is about giving children the tools to think, so they can help themselves. It is about empowerment.
I love the following quote from Barak Obama, which perfectly describes my philanthropy:
"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.
We are the ones we've been looking for.
We are the ones that we seek."
What was your first experience of philanthropy?
In 2008, I had built up enough air-miles to be invited by Virgin Atlantic to help build some dormitories at a local primary school in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Initially I was hesitant given the riots in the country at the time had killed hundreds of people. But on the other hand, I had got to a point with working in the city where I felt there had to be more to life. After much deliberation, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and just go for it!
Whilst out there, one of my tasks involved working on a vegetable garden with a young local girl called Peninah. She was an amazingly smart teenager, you could see that she believed in herself, and she wanted to be a tour guide. She had finished her primary education and was now working for a few pence a day; I wondered how this had happened. When I spoke to her mother I learnt that she had already been committed to be married in exchange for livestock since her family couldn’t afford to send her on to secondary school. Schools were far away and expensive. But then, without a decent education, there was no decent job and no decent income. This meant they were stuck in a vicious cycle like many other families. And so, a friend and I paid to put Peninah through secondary school, and she is now a valuable and respectable tour guide for the Masai Mara.
Do you feel you are making a difference? If so how?
Since my initial trip to the Masai Mara, I set up a charity called Educating The Children (www.ETCeducation.org) which focuses on the Masai Mara region. We started by sending UK volunteer primary teachers to teach in overcrowded classrooms where teacher pupil ratios reach 1:100. Our teachers teach the children to think, and they also train the Kenyan teachers how to do so. Over the years, we have increased our focus on secondary education, to help young girls like Peninah, and we have just opened the first girls secondary school in the region! The region had 47 primary schools but no secondary schools. We are aiming to educate over a thousand girls in the coming years. We work shoulder to shoulder with the community, in fact a large proportion of the community are on our Board.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to date?
The biggest challenge was building the school in a remote part of Africa with a full-time job in the UK! However, two years since taking on the challenge, the school is finally built and running. I think the success of the project comes down to having established trust with the community. Over the years, ETC has built long term relationships by regularly sending in teachers to help. Through this, we have really got to understand them and their needs. We always update them on what is going on, incorporate their feedback and deliver on what we say. By adopting a bottom-up approach, we have given the community a voice from the outset of the project, encouraging their interest and involvement in all stages, and sharing with them our vision of success. We have shown consistency and commitment. I think they are used to people turning up, taking over and leaving with empty promises. They have helped us to obtain land, and also kept an eye on the school as it was being built. They are also planning to do a fundraiser to raise around 2.5 million Kenyan shillings (~$30,000) to build and equip a science laboratory in the second phase of our building programme. It has been a real team effort.
Has your philanthropy had an impact on your personal or professional life?
On a personal level, it has helped me to develop compassion: learning about the culture, values and traditions of a marginalized African community has opened my mind to other ways of living, but despite some differences the Masai share the same needs as all people - education, employment opportunities and gender justice. Many of the skills I have developed also help me in a professional context, such as leading projects, influencing stakeholders. I think it is very satisfying to set yourself a goal and work hard towards achieving it. If you are able to do this as part of a team, and for the benefit of others, it can provide immense self-fulfilment. It is a form of healing from modern, city living.
Of what are you most proud?
I think the greatest reward for me was when the community awarded me with a Masai name. This is first time that they have done this for a non-Masai person - it shows that they accept us as one of their own now. They named me “Nasarian”, which means “blessing from God”. I think it’s a great name since it represents my philosophy, which is not just about handing over money, but helping from the heart.
Why is philanthropy important today?
I think that as we evolve as human beings to become more technologically advanced, knowledgeable about our world, healthy etc., philanthropy is also a natural part of this evolution. It makes us better rounded individuals. I think it is important to appreciate that the benefits are two-way – it is about self-improvement as much as it is about giving to others. This balance is important in a world which is becoming increasingly fast paced and isolated. We have access to powerful tools such as the internet, and social media which is a double edged sword – we can make a choice to use it for either constructive behaviours or destructive behaviours. Philanthropy is constructive, so let us leverage what we have for the greater good!
What advice would you give to people starting out on their own journey?
Start small but think big. Pick something you truly feel passionate about as this is what will keep you going - “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”.