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Icon: The Hinduja Entrepreneur Making ESG Waves In Finance

The Hinduja name is global. As one of the largest diversified groups in the world, it employs over 150,000 workers and touches nearly every sector of our economy. It’s also a century’s long story of family entrepreneurship. Karam Hinduja is the next generation of Hinduja entrepreneurs who at 30 years old is modernizing the family business while staying true to its social philosophy. Recently named the CEO of Swiss-based S.P. Hinduja Banque Privee, I caught up with Karam to see how he’s navigating his new role and how he sees connecting the bank with the next generation of impact investors and business builders.

Brendan Doherty: Karam, Welcome to Icons of Impact. Let’s start with Timeless, the first company you personally launched.

Karam Hinduja: Timeless is my umbrella holding structure. The general premise is: how do we lean into content to drive smarter, more conscious action across different areas? Within Timeless, Karma focused on business, financial, and investment news. And from an entertainment standpoint, we were focused on driving greater connection to each other, the planet, ourselves, and enhancing the global consciousness. Timeless was set up to explore and pursue activities in that realm. 

Doherty: The effort to drive action from your readers – where did that come from?

Hinduja: Growing up I had many experiences where I’d watch amazing content and be driven to some sort of action. I’d see the world differently or want to take action in a new way. That was always very interesting to me –  that you can be exposed to a piece of content and it fundamentally changes something within you. That’s the initial spark that sat with me.

Doherty: When I started my marketing agency in New York, I had plenty of ups and downs. Often the success narrative in entrepreneurship is the one that gets the most attention, but the reality is much different. Was there a valley or challenge you faced during the early days of Timeless that shaped who you are today?

Hinduja: Yes, it was my first time on the startup journey. My spark came from passion and purpose – as opposed to starting with from interesting business opportunity. It was more of a purpose-driven change that I was then trying to find a business model to fit with it. It was a privileged position that allowed me to be more patient, but it was also a dangerous game to play when you haven’t fully figured out your business strategy. Also, the shift from long form to short form content, and from written to audio and short form video – all of these were changing almost monthly and we were trying to figure it out. I think with all this, we fell into some trenches and had to do a lot of quick pivots and figure it out along the way.

Doherty: It’s not uncommon, especially at a younger age, to have a passion to pursue but not know what the architecture around it should look like. Let’s fast forward – you’re in New York, running Timeless, having these ups and downs, and you get a call from Switzerland about running the S.P. Hinduja Banque Privee. Tell me about that?

Hinduja: It was less sudden than that. I’ve been a member of the bank’s board for about three or four years, so I was heavily integrated. The company had been sort of puttering along but now needed a more dynamic business model. As a board member, I was helping craft and modernize it. I was figuring out what new markets we could tap and how to acquire a new generation of clients. There was a discussion of me coming onboard as a part-time Chief Investment Officer. I was in that role for four to six weeks when at one of the board meetings, the independent director proposed that I take the CEO position. So it didn’t actually come from the family, which was interesting and a great vote of confidence. It’s not something I was looking to do but then I realized it would allow me to keep my same purpose but with a different vehicle to achieve it. That’s why I decided to jump in.

Doherty: Were you nervous to take over a family business?

Hinduja: I was nervous but already being on the board made me less so. When you’re on the board of a regulated company, you’re not operational at all. You’re not allowed to be. So stepping into the CEO role was of course daunting with all the expectations, but it wasn’t stepping into something totally foreign.

Doherty: I’m glad you seized the opportunity. So this idea of exponential economic and social impact, is that something that’s core to the bank? Can you give me an example of how you brought that into the organization where it hadn’t existed before? 

Hinduja: I began by just getting the institution really familiar with what’s out there in terms of ESG products. The last thing we wanted to do is the typical play of just creating dozens of our own products focused on ESG and sustainability. It’s pretty much what everyone else offers and felt pointless to me. So there’s really two things I think we did. 

One is connecting with asset managers in the space who are best in breed with the products they’ve created, and coming up with arrangements where we essentially distribute their products. So really a hub and spoke model where we have a centralized destination for anyone who is looking to invest in sustainability. We can be their trusted navigator. Building Timeless came in handy because the first few dozen phone calls I made were to old friends in various communities like Nexus

The second thing is fundamentally changing the way that we view and engage clients. We’re a small, agile institution and I don’t want to turn us into a factory. We want to consider ourselves as a Chief Business Officer to the purpose-driven entrepreneur. If someone like yourself walks in and says, “Look, this is what I’m into. This is how I want to contribute to the world through my dollars and time. Help me figure out the most effective way to do that.” We like those kinds of opportunities. We might construct a more bespoke ESG solution or introduce you to an interesting person that you could start a business with.

Doherty: It’s much more of a platform effect that can toggle between investment and business creation.

Hinduja: Exactly, we like to think of ourselves as a collective. We like to look at our broader network as a community of people where we can connect dots and create value. 

Doherty: I remember a recent conversation we had about wanting to act as a bridge between East-West or India-Europe. Is that still a core part of the strategy?

Hinduja: The short answer is yes. India of course is a big focus for us, but at the same time, there’s two India’s. There’s a traditional India with a practice of investing in the big name stocks and traditional industries. And there’s another India that is a target for impact and ESG investors and the tech community. The two worlds are pretty different. We’re taking strides to really get involved in the new India and that’s a different process. Unfortunately, it’s more often looking at Indian entrepreneurs that have started companies outside of India and figuring out how we can help them go back into India as a trusted partner. 

Doherty: You invested in a water sanitation company out of Singapore as an ESG play – tell me more about it. 

Hinduja: It’s a great company that checks two boxes for us. First, it’s focused on water sanitation in local municipalities with some fantastic technology that’s helping communities access clean water. Second, it’s an institutional grade investment opportunity that any bank similar to ours would fit in their mandate. It’s a serious company with serious financials that just raised about $100 million in equity from JP Morgan. We came in before that and the fact that it’s getting the attention of the traditional players as well as the ESG folks, I think that’s the goal. It’s an example of an opportunity that’s tangibly bridging the two worlds — attracting serious capital as part of a traditional private equity portion in a client’s portfolio while checking the box on sustainability.

Doherty: Your grandfather S.P. Hinduja talked a lot about the business mindset and Vedic principles behind it. Do you see those same roots in what you’re doing? Do you think about business in terms of faith and culture, or does it feel more about a pure business mindset for you? 

Hinduja: It’s a hard one to toggle for me. I’ve been really keen to ensure that we don’t just keep the business alive but really lead with these principles and ensure we don’t forget the humanity or the human element in everything we do. Ultimately, it’s the communities that are affected by companies, whether as employees, consumers, or broader stakeholders. Not forgetting that is central. Creating value for all of those stakeholders is what we call our X factor and it makes those opportunities all the more exciting for us if an opportunity checks that box. It has our attention. It has the investment Committee’s attention, and we want to look at it and explore it and we want to make it work financially. That’s the initial threshold — is this something that we believe will be good for human beings. It’s hard to measure that right now but it is very much top of mind for us. 

Doherty: I always say that capitalism starts with human capital. Thanks Karam!

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