June 20, 2019

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The Elders of Tata: India’s Forgotten Fathers of Conscious Capitalism


In each sector of public life, there are heroes we adore. For music, it's The Beatles and Michael Jackson. In the sports world, Michael Jordan fits the bill. So while social entrepreneurs like myself may not attempt to lip sync or slam-dunk, we have our own heroes to look up to. I myself am eternally inspired by social entrepreneurship pioneers, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and Bill Drayton having started my own social enterprise, Tea of the People, an innovative tea company on a mission to drive the tea space in a healthier, more socially conscious direction. The founders of the Grameen Bank and Ashoka Fellowship, respectively, these towering figures have established conscious business as a field of study, lifted countless people out of poverty and inspired thousands of entrepreneurs around the globe. While I largely agree with the conventional narrative of social entrepreneurship, I believe its earliest history should include Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata and his son Dorabji Tata, the founders of India’s modern economy. The forebears of Indian business titan Ratan Tata, they were among the earliest adopters of the stakeholder approach and placed a majority of the Tata Group in the control of public trusts. 

Born March 3rd 1839, in South Gujaret, India, J.N. Tata got his first taste of business at the age of 14. J.N. Tata attended Elphinstone College, graduating in 1858. The recent graduate joined his father's trading firm after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, an attempt by the Indian populace to overthrow their British rulers. It was during these turbulent times where J.N. Tata’s patriotism was crystalized. He witnessed a gap in political leadership, directly resulting in a dismal India economy and concluded only an industrial India can secure a bright future for itself. And so began the personal journey of the future godfather of India’s industrial sector, setting out to build a prosperous nation, achieving political objectives of peace and stability through business activities.

Jamsetji left his father’s trading firm at 29 and went on to own and operate two successful cotton mills, the Alexandra Mill and Empress Mill. The Indian businessman set out to build what he believed to be four important pillars of India’s industrial base; a steel company, a hydroelectric plant, a university and a world class hotel. Sadly, J.N. Tata only lived long enough to see through the opening of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. It was J.N. Tata’s son, Dorabji who successfully undertook the remaining three projects, creating Tata Steel, the Indian Institute of Science and the Tata Hydroelectric Power Supply Company between 1907 and 1911.

In the West, the legacies of our industrialists are more spotted. Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller, come to mind when we think of business titans who built America. Only later in life did the two business titans behave in a similar fashion to a social entrepreneur, giving vast sums of their wealth towards the arts and sciences. However, to analyze the motives and employer-employer relationship are two important examples underpinning the differences between the Tata’s and the Carnegie-Rockefeller duo.

From early on, J.N. Tata set out to created not only private, but public institutions for the betterment of society. Both father and son created what is believed to be the first employee wellness programs, offering a host of employee programs, which included job training programs and medical support.  Using solely his personal funds, JN Tata was also an advocate for his fellow Indian businessmen, successfully negotiating lower fees and levies charged by the Japanese Steam Navigation Company. In the instance of Carnegie, the Scottish Industrialist lacked compassion for the average worker, with no greater example than the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, the most severe skirmish in the history of American Labor Relations.

As Dr. Yunus labored tirelessly to secure capital for the poor or as Mr. Drayton has supported thousands of change-makers, the utility of their efforts are predominantly realizable upon an existing infrastructure. A Bangladeshi woman’s plight is all the more trying if no bridge has been built to help her cross into a neighboring village to sell her goods, and so is it all the more difficult for a social entrepreneur tasked with establishing water security for a Honduran village if steel for piping cannot be obtained. The Tatas understood that basic infrastructure was a must, if problems were to be solved. Those eager to call into question the Tatas selflessness, will demur they personally profited greatly from their undertaking, yet akin to all those brave enough to take the first steps on an untraveled path, they forged a model for future industrialists to learn and prosper from. When thinking about how we wanted to build a company around our higher purpose, we looked at the Tata Group as a model company. Just like the Tata Group at its smallest, Tea of the People is proud to have established corporate social responsibility as a priority, placing emphasis on, not only with the goal of making people healthier, but supporting game-changing entrepreneurs and non-profits reach their dream.

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