Sanjay Rawal is a philanthropy junkie. He has led dozens of projects around the world and helped launch some of the most impressive relief campaigns to date. His previous work with the likes of Donna Karan and Wyclef Jean has quickly earned him a position as a go-to guy when it comes to humanitarian endeavors.
We sat down to talk shop with the man who likes going all the way – to support the right cause.
Q. How and when did you become a member of ASW?
Sanjay Rawal: Late last spring my ultra-connected friend, Octavio Domit, invited me after another member teased me for not having joined yet. I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I should have!
Q. How do you use ASW and what’s your favorite site feature?
SR: I have to hand it to ASW, just for giving hundreds of super-connected, super-creative people the chance and comfort to interact on a global scale. Since I joined in June, I have joined the board of an ASW member-led bottled water company, developed a few new philanthropic projects with ASWers and received immeasurable help and advice from a number of people. ASWers are definitely way more [socially] conscious than the average Joe and the opportunities to collaborate on a business and philanthropic level are staggering. Through ASW alone, I ended up helping a friend finish building a community centre for children in Mississippi who were affected by Hurricane Katrina!
Q. You sort of ‘stumbled’ upon directing a humanitarian program in Nepal, when the person in charge of the direction of the development arrived three weeks late. This seems like a good luck/bad luck type of situation that seems to have had a big influence on you. Can you tell us something about your first experience and how it developed?
SR: I was a bit confused trying to find a real career in New York City. I originally moved to the city for grad school in 1997, but was lured by the bright lights of Broadway, actually off-off-Broadway. I took a lead in a small production, which ended up touring Europe. I came back to do the career thing and joined an iBank in 1998.
Later that summer, a friend of mine who worked at UNICEF in NYC encouraged me to get involved as a volunteer with a project she was working on in Nepal. At the same time I was becoming disillusioned by Wall Street, quit my job, and basically began helping in minor ways to put together a peace initiative she was launching in Nepal. I was just trying to find something I really enjoyed, I guess.
As I got more involved, she suggested I go there with her. I got my ticket to Kathmandu, then found out she was going to be three weeks late for this program, for which we just had one month to launch!
But I went, had a wonderful time, felt purpose (finally) and never looked back. Basically we had lobbied the Nepali Government all fall to pass a peace resolution and went to Nepal to rally all the political parties around this resolution as a show of national solidarity for peace. We had a grand kick-off and even brought elephants to the lobby of a five star hotel for the event (they made such a mess!).
Sanjay Rawal and Angelique Kidjo
Q. After Nepal you led programs in Brazil, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysian Borneo, Brunei, Thailand, The Gambia, and elsewhere. Were all of these programs peace-related? Could you tell us about the nature of some of these programs and their impact on the community?
SR: After my experience in Nepal, I began to understand the simplicity of lobbying and working with governments as well as local non-profits to make a sustainable impact on communities – basically helping groups drive through red tape. I also learned that if one was willing to work for (nearly) nothing, there were endless job possibilities in this field!
After Nepal my next gig was in Brazil, set up by a friend of mine who paired me with Brazilian Olympic hero, Joaquim Cruz, to create an identical program to the one I did in Nepal. We helped to motivate the government to actively support peace through sports and helped give voice to hundreds of national-caliber athletes living at or below the poverty line. Surprisingly enough, it was successful and when I came back to New York I realized I could make a real career out of this and subsequently traveled to 35 countries over the next five years.Most of the projects were, in fact, related to peace – developing a sense of local, national or international peace, through initiatives that encouraged sports (like the World Harmony Run), the arts, culture or government, and sometimes all four. The projects I worked on were varied but all helped to establish platforms for dialogue and lead parties to constructive resolutions.
I was at home in New York on 9/11. After those events, ‘peace’ became a bad word and I had to re-calibrate on a number of levels, so to speak. I became more focused on governmental relations and helping governments and non-profits communicate with each other and the public more effectively.
Q. Tell us about Wyclef Jean and the program you started with him to help Haiti.
SR: In 2004, Wyclef and I were sitting in his music studio in New York. Clef had just met Harry Belafonte who lauded him for his humanitarian activities but also told him he had a long way to go.
Clef hadn’t been back to Haiti since 1997 when the Fugees performed in Port-au-Prince – [band member] Pras wore a bullet-proof vest on stage! So, on a whim, we flew down to plan the largest concert in Haiti’s history – multi-million attendee concert set for December 2004 – as a demonstration of peace.
To make a long story short, the unrest in Haiti reached a boiling point that October and we were forced to scuttle our plans for the concert, but having realized the impact Wyclef could make in Haiti on a purely humanitarian level, we launched Yele Haiti to address key development issues in the area.
We wanted to start small, but the need was so great. In just two years, Yele became the best-known non-profit in Haiti. Down there we ran slum clean-up projects and gave scholarships. In the States we had meetings with World Bank President James Wolfensohn, State Department and intelligence officials, and had fundraisers with Angelina Jolie, Norah Jones, Drew Barrymore, Meryl Streep and others. It was a wild ride.
Wyclef Jean in Haiti
Q. After you quit managing Yele, what happened next?
SR: After about 16 months of working 80-hour weeks, I was totally burned out. I had an opportunity to spend three months in Malaysia on beaches, working part-time on projects with children orphaned by the 2004 tsunami. Yele was in a great place and I felt it was a good opportunity to move on.
When I returned in 2005, I joined a consulting company started by a couple of friends focused on development. This company took over Yele when I retired. We just merged this month with an advertising agency to become what I think is the premier agency for execution of cause-related marketing and non-profit work from the ground up. We are called The Vox. [Other principals include ASWers Roberto Ramos and Susan Jaramillo].
Q. You seem to have a close relationship with music foundations. Tell us about Batonga and Bambai Bling.
SR: Musicians and artists are some of the most creative people I know. When they are given the space and freedom to create sustainable development projects, the ideas they develop are absolutely genius. And of course, the energy they bring can break down many barriers.
We followed the model of Yele, which mixed music with development efforts – we had local hip-hop stars distributing rations in the poorest neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince – to create Batonga: an organization headed by African superstar and UNICEF Ambassador Angelique Kidjo, oriented to bring education to young girls in underdeveloped African nations.
Over the last few years, there has been a huge international push to put kids in Africa into primary school; however, most groups realized that there weren’t too many options for kids to continue school past the sixth grade – especially girls. With Batonga, we are giving girls in five countries such opportunities.
Similarly, last year a couple filmmaker friends of mine took rapper Paul Wall, Raekwon of the Wu Tang Clan and child-soldier-turned-author Ishmael Beah to Sierra Leone to explore the intersection of civil war, blood diamonds and bling. Their documentary Bling: A Planet Rock was a huge hit on VH1 and helped start a foundation we created for the children of Sierra Leone. Bambai Bling launched last June with the help of Jeff Skoll and Jennifer Connelly at an event widely attended by ASW members.
Q. You have worked with many interesting people. From General Khinh Nyunt in Myanmar to Donna Karan in New York. Who has inspired you the most?
SR: The one thing I learned in New York, if I have learned anything at all (!) is the need for inner peace. I think that if I didn’t meditate on a daily basis I would have gone totally nuts. I am pretty lucky to be close to Sri Chinmoy, a well-known meditation teacher and humanitarian who lives, of all places, in New York City. His philosophy is: “If you are not in the world, you can’t change it.” Very practical.
He also introduced me to a number of his close friends, like President Gorbachev, Susan Sarandon, Sting and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with whom I ended up working at one point.
Q. You are very fond of philanthropy, there’s no doubt about that. What is it that you find most attractive about your occupation? Where do you get your inspiration from?
SR: I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I am constantly learning but I know that if I offer myself with at least a little bit of humility in the service of others, I sleep well at night! I really just value freedom, the ability to feel grateful and to feel a connection with other people. Philanthropy allows me to experience those emotions on a daily basis and get a little more satisfaction out of life. I am no Mother Teresa or anything but I do get inspiration when I see people who have a lot of love and don’t mind sharing it.
Q. What would you say to people to inspire them to make a positive change in the world?
SR: I think we are all pretty much seeking the same things at the end of the day and that everyone is making a positive change in the world whether they know it or not. The question is: How conscious are they of their importance in this world? I think each person is pretty special and when they realize this, they begin to feel more fulfilled by life. Of course when this happens, the world always changes for the better.
Q. What makes you happiest?
SR: Having an ice-cream sundae after running a marathon.
Children in West Africa
Q. Where is your favorite travel destination?
SR: Bali, hands down, barrel-seeking at Uluwatu.
Q. What is your greatest vice?
SR: Oversleeping. I’d sleep all day if I could.
Q. What are your top 5 hotels?
SR: Kempinski in Istanbul, Amanusa in Bali, Raffles in Phnom Penh, Andaman in Langkawi, Four Seasons in Chiang Mai. Yes I have spent a LOT of time in Southeast Asia
Q. What is your favorite restaurant?
SR: I am a vegetarian and it’s rare for me to find good-tasting vegetarian; however, Bagatelle in Oslo has an incredible vegetarian restaurant! Otherwise, in New York, my favorite meal is truffle pizza and onion rings at Five Points.
Q. What is your favorite beach?
SR: Because of the solitude and the waves, I’d have to say Nusa Dua, Bali.
Q. What film has had the greatest effect on you? Why?
SR: I loved Bling: A Planet Rock, Hotel Rwanda and The Killing Fields – not exactly popcorn and milk duds movies, but I like to learn something when I watch films.
Q. What is your favorite book?
SR: Fiction: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
Non-fiction: What is the What by Dave Eggers
Q. What is your favorite ski resort?
SR: I prefer surf to snow, but after spending a hot June week snowboarding on the glaciers of Norway, I’d have to say Stryn.
Q. What cause is closest to your heart? Why?
SR: Refugee assistance and disaster relief, due to the sheer inhumanity of their situation.
Q. What’s one thing you would like to change about yourself?
SR: I could use a lot more drive and focus sometimes. Sometimes I prefer a lazy beach day to a hard-work day. But maybe that’s not all that bad!
Q. Which artist do you admire most?
SR: Sri Chinmoy. His paintings really move me.
Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
SR: Tried to negotiate a cease-fire between rival gangs and militia in Haiti with Wyclef. It worked but not before bullets flew (and flew way too close to me for comfort).
Q. Who is your favorite historical figure?
SR: The Buddha. Why not? I am sure he was a totally nice guy.
Q. What upsets you the most?
SR: When friends don’t get back to me right away (you know who you are).
Q. What is your favorite bar?
SR: I am not a drinker, but I spent hours at the FCC in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. I also like watching the sunsets over Port-au-Prince in Haiti at the bar at the Hotel Montana.
Q. What gadget can’t you live without?
SR: My blackberry.
Q. What are you most afraid of?
SR: Being old and having any regrets over any missed opportunities.
Q. Were do you love to shop?
SR: Philosophy (Kuala Lumpur), Triple Five Soul (Soho), Hansen’s Surfshop (in Encinitas) and any Versace store, really. Oops, I forgot to add DKNY.
Q. What’s your favorite drink?
SR: Give me a fresh coconut under a palm tree and I am in heaven.
Q. What are your top 3 songs?
SR: ‘Five More Minutes’ by OAR, ‘F Stop Blues’ by Jack Johnson and ‘Prabhuji’ by Ravi Shankar
— Alonso Dominguez