British millionaire Sanjay Shah hopes to raise funds for autism research though his charity Autism Rocks, which stages private concerts around the world.
Like so many wealthy philanthropists, British millionaire Sanjay Shah did not funnel his charitable contributions in any organised fashion until a personal crisis. His youngest son Nikhil was diagnosed with autism, which sharpened his focus.
“I’ve been sponsoring kids in India over the past 10 years through Plan International. I would send money every month but I didn’t really have any focus on what I could do for charity other than that,” says the 43-year-old retired trader.
Shah, whose parents immigrated to London from Kenya in the 1960s, grew up in the well-to-do Marylebone neighbourhood in Central London and studied medicine at King’s College before deciding he did not want to become a doctor. He says he did what all medical student deserters do and became an accountant instead. That career path was also short-lived, sacrificed in favour of the high life in the City.
“My first job was for the investment bank Merrill Lynch,” says Shah. That was followed by a who’s who resume of investment banks including Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, ING and the Dutch bank Rabobank, where he worked as head of trading until he was made redundant at the height of the financial crisis in 2009.
It was a turning point for Shah, who says he hated the daily grind of an office job.
“I didn’t like having to go to the office every day and sit there for 10 hours, even if only half of that time I was productive. I didn’t like the commute from my home in Stanmore in North London.”
And, he admits, at the time he didn’t have much prospect of getting a new job so he “took a gamble and started my own brokerage business” the same year.
He says: “The only way for me to earn a living without limiting my income prospects was to become a broker but I thought rather than me doing that job for a big organisation, I’d rather start up my own business.”
He rented a small office, hired a couple of graduates and traders and promised to tough it out for at least a year.
“That’s how Solo Capital was born,” says Shah.
Five years on, he has a net worth of $280 million and Solo Capital has offices in Dubai and London with Shah taking a back seat in the day-to-day running of the business, leaving him free to focus on his philanthropic projects and new business venture with Done Events in Dubai, which he has partnered with to organise the annual music festival Blended.
“I got to the point about a year ago where [Solo Capital] was doing really well and I didn’t need to spend all my time focusing on it so I decided to take a step back. I’d say I’m retired now.”
In 2011, Shah and his wife Usha had to take their two-year-old son Nikhil to the doctors in Dubai when he couldn’t keep his food down. “It was a really bad week for my youngest son. He threw up everything he ate so we had to take him to hospital and he was put on a drip,” explains Shah.
“They suggested that with his behaviour we should go and see a child psychologist to see if he might have a behavioural disorder like attention deficit disorder or autism. There is a well-known connection between food intolerance and autism.”
Shah and his wife, who had been living on the Palm Jumeirah with their three children since 2009 after moving from North London, took their son back to the UK to see a child psychologist in Portland Hospital — one of London’s top women and children’s private hospitals — who confirmed their son’s food allergies with a blood test while another four doctors confirmed he was autistic.
Shah says he sprung into action immediately and wasted no time in taking on board the psychologist’s recommendations to get his son applied behaviour analysis (ABA) therapy “as soon as possible”.
“Research shows if a child gets up to 20 hrs per week, the quicker the child will develop,” explains Shah.
Once back home in Dubai, the family visited Dubai Autism Centre, a government-funded resource to support families with autistic children. However, the Shahs were told Nikhil would have to wait up to five years for the therapy he needed because of the demand on their waiting list.
Fortunately for Shah, he was in a position to pay for the treatment his son needed as well as three full-time therapists who rotated shifts to look after Nikhil from morning to night. He concedes for “families who can’t afford therapy, their child won’t develop as quickly.”
“I wanted to help them so I went to Dubai Autism Centre and asked what they needed. They told me I could donate money but what they needed right away was minibuses for the kids so we went out and bought them two Hyundai minibuses.
“They put our son’s picture on the side of them so now we know which ones we bought if we see them driving around Dubai,” says Shah.
“Then I decided there is potential for me to start raising a lot of money. I’m in a good position where I can persuade colleagues, clients and friends to donate money. I thought if I’m going to start raising larger amounts of money I’d rather it gets focused into something.”
Shah says with his medical background, he is more interested in finding the causes of autism above helping families with autistic children. “Out here there is a lot of support already for families and I personally think there isn’t enough money going into research.”
With more free time on his hands, Shah started thinking about how he could get into the music scene in Dubai both as a business venture and as a way of raising awareness and donations for autism.
“While I was at university I spent a lot of time and effort as a DJ running nightclubs during the week. I am never going to make a million dollars doing it but it’s something that is fun.”
In true entrepreneurial spirit, Shah got in touch with Done Events, a Dubai-based government backed event organiser.
His first proposal for a reggae music festival was turned down on the basis there was no market for it but after a brainstorming session with Done’s management, they agreed to go 50-50 into a “jazz type festival” venture called Blended that took place this year over a weekend in May and targeted the 40-plus demographic.
Shah himself invested $1million in the two-night event, which attracted a few thousand revellers and saw headliners Joss Stone and Elvis Costello perform in Dubai Media City’s amphitheatre. He hopes it will become an annual event on Dubai’s music calendar.
While Shah’s partnership with Done events is purely commercial, he plans to draw on their network of showbusiness contacts to stage a series of concerts to raise money and awareness for the Autism Research Trust in the UK, the charity which donates directly to the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge University.
After Done Events put him in touch with Prince, Shah managed, in under three weeks, to launch his own charity Autism Rocks and staged a top-secret opening concert with the superstar headlining in London’s Café de Paris for a host of VIP guests.
I’m in a good position where I can persuade colleagues, clients and friends to donate money
“At the time I was in the process of organising a charity dinner at the Ritz in London for my clients. I asked the guy if Prince could do it in April at the Ritz and rather than the planned 70 people, to see if we could get 200 to 300 people and get them to donate £500 or £1,000 each. I was pretty sure we could raise a lot for the charity.
“It’s almost like a business. I want to put on concerts that will then generate donations. That is outside the mandate of the Autism Research Trust, of which I am a trustee on the board, but because we had so little time to get approval for the Prince concert, we decided to set up our own charity Autism Rocks.”
Shah invited 600 people to the launch event in Café de Paris, including British comedians Alan Carr and Michael McIntyre, and raised £200,000 for Autism Rocks.
“The idea for future events is to go to artists and say we are going to pay you anyway but instead of doing a 10,000-person concert at Wembley stadium or a big event in Dubai, we want a smaller event for 500 to 1,000 people and everyone is going to pay a lot of money to charity to attend that event.
“Now that I have my own charity, I can direct the money to whichever research projects we want, whether in Europe or the US. We have a board of another four people in London so it is not just me that decides where the money goes.”
Shah’s ultimate goal is to create an Autism Rocks compilation album by next year with various pop artists donating a track.