GC chats with legendary developer PNC Menon, founder and chairman of the multinational real estate and construction giant Sobha Realty, and the man who has pledged 50% of his wealth to charity
Growing up in Kerala, was it your dream to become a billionaire?
My lessons came in small steps. No one can say they planned to become a billionaire. I came from very humble beginnings, and my growth was very gradual, and I certainly never aspired to reach billionaire status. It’s important to note that I didn’t even become a billionaire until my late 50s, and it was a sheer accident. Of course, I wanted to be successful and respectable, but never at the cost of my values. There are 2,700 billionaires globally, and in my opinion, it’s nothing but an accident, whether you inherit your fortune and work to manage it or reach that status through the success of your work, I believe the achievement of great wealth is purely accidental.
Philanthropy is a very important aspect of my success, which is why I dedicate 50 per cent of my wealth to charitable causes. Giving back is very important to my faith and who I am as a human being.
What philosophies did your parents have in teaching you about the value of money?
I lost my father at a very young age. He was also a businessman. Our family had a small trucking business, which consisted of three trucks. He was very successful in his own way, but I lost him when I was ten years old, and my mother had mental health issues, so, I lacked the parental guidance growing up. Of course, I had my grandparents, but they were not hands on in the teachings of financial matters and that kind of development, and it would be fair to say that they ways of thinking were outdated in that sense. But my upbringing was certainly a driving force in wanting to be successful and have my own independence.
What kind of jobs did you have as a teen, and what did you take away from those experiences?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. As a young teen, I started my first business as a street-side contractor. One of the first projects I ever worked on was having a small table made, and I still have that table today, which I plan to take with me to the ashes when I reach my next journey in life.
When you don’t have money and start building your career, you go through many bad experiences and hardships, which can be very painful at times, but that’s part of your life, and you’ll remember those experiences that shape who you are.
What is your dynamic like as a marital team with your beloved wife, Sobha?
My wife, Sobha, is a simple woman from a small village. We married young – she is ten years younger than I am. She is the boss in our family, but she doesn’t get involved in the business. We keep our family life entirely separate from work life. When I get home from work, I enjoy my quiet time, watching the news and unwinding, and she gives me that time to reflect and think.
Sobha has always taken great pride and interest in focusing on raising our children and nurturing their education.
How do you figure out how to maximise the impact of your humanitarian efforts?
I have always felt that the most vulnerable, particularly where I grew up, was the society of women, so my focus has always been on helping women. The schools that I have built are solely for girls to gain an education, and we provide everything they need to ensure they become educated, including food and clothing. Young girls are often the most abused and disadvantaged globally, even in the Western world.
Through our Sri Kurumba Trust, we have a God-given opportunity to give back and change lives forever. Currently, we have Sobha Hermitage, which is a home for the elderly sprawling over 27 acres of green estates in the heart of Kerala. It’s a place of warmth and affection, a true haven for the less fortunate. Further, our social rehabilitation scheme for young mothers ensures their safety and security with no costs incurred.
Through the Sobha Rural Women Empowerment Program, Sobha covers the expenses of fifty widowed mothers of the Kizhakkenchery Panchayat, including an allowance, clothing, medical, and other personal accessories, and educational expenses for their children. Our vocational training program enables the less privileged to pursue a vocation of their choice with access to training centres with computers and music, and paid apprenticeships and employment opportunities.
We have a dedicated healthcare centre, which currently provides access to healthcare for over 2,500 families from adopted panchayat, the Sobha Academy, and Sobha Hermitage. Our beneficiaries receive free medical consultations, checkups, and treatment.
I am now working on building an integrated housing community in my village of Kerala, which will house 100 female orphans and 100 elderly women. In our culture, family is very important, so this is a unique approach that brings together generational girls and women to instill those values and relationships to those who don’t have them.
I run my philanthropic projects like a business. I am very invested in overseeing the development of these projects and ensure that I visit the sites regularly to meet the people and ensure the quality of everything that we do as part of our mission.
You joined the Giving Pledge, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates. Why is the Giving Pledge such an important thing for wealthy individuals to sign onto?
I had committed to donating half of my wealth over thirty years ago. Joining the Pledge was only recent. I was pleased to find such a group of unified individuals, and it’s a great community to share ideas and join forces for the sake of philanthropy.
What life lessons do you try to pass along to your own children?
All of my children believe in the power of philanthropy, and they all hold a strong value system, which I give my wife credit for. We were able to give them a privileged life with all the luxuries, but my wife was devoted to ensuring they were raised to be humble in their outlook and keep their head on their shoulders. If there was a Nobel Prize for mothers, she would certainly be eligible for it.
My mother was not able to provide me that guidance and support, so I admire what she has instilled in them, and never take for granted a mother’s role in her child’s life.
For those who want to get involved in philanthropy, but don’t have the financial means per se, where is a good place to start?
There are a lot of people out there who want to get involved, but may not have the monetary resources, but a little goes a long way. As a charitable brand, trust is of the utmost importance because people want to ensure that their donations are reaching the people or causes that need them. Most funds available can be attributed to the masses of smaller donations by good, hard-working individuals who come together and join hands and funds. Just because you can’t afford to build an institution, doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to a lofty charitable goal. Every donation and effort counts. The trouble is that most people lack the trust for the organisations who are collecting resources, so one of the most important things we can do is build trust and transparency about where charitable money is going and who it is benefitting.