Ajay Raju: attorney, philanthropist, venture capitalist, and perhaps, the Mayor of Philly, someday

A candid interview with the Chairman and CEO of Dilworth Paxson.

Pamela & Ajay Raju
Pamela and Ajay Raju

For one sweltering week this past July, Philadelphia played host to the Democratic National Convention, that quadrennial confabulation of politicos, pundits, power brokers, protestors and oh yes, the Democratic nominee for President of the United States of America.

The year 2016 has been, to put it mildly, an unusual election year in the history of presidential campaigns. Between the incendiary bombast of the Republican nominee and the unshakeable specter of deceitfulness hovering around the Democratic standard bearer, it’s been hard for the electorate to find much to love about this cycle. That’s not to say the DNC wasn’t a boon for Philadelphia; the massive infusion of big egos and big expense accounts meant Philly’s restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and taxi services were abuzz with activity.

And all that activity kept Ajay Raju busy. When not serving as ground zero for this grand political carnival, the City of Brotherly Love is the adoptive hometown and home base of this Bhopal-born, Philly-bred attorney, venture capitalist, philanthropist and kingmaker in the making. A registered independent who may be the world’s only self-described “Sanders Republican,” Raju has earned a reputation as a visionary with his sights set on helping seemingly disparate interests find common ground. For all the wheeling and dealing going on during convention week, Raju’s ever-present pair of mobile devices rang incessantly with calls seeking his guidance and mediation.

Raju is a tireless and vociferous booster of Philadelphia, so much so that the chattering classes have for years been convinced that he’s moments away from announcing his mayoral candidacy. That speculation only intensified a couple of years ago when Raju became the CEO and Chairman of Dilworth Paxson LLP, a storied white-shoe law firm whose namesake is an iconic Philadelphia mayor of the 20th century, and is as much a civic institution as City Hall across the street.

Still, Raju insists that he is best positioned to serve the city from his several private sector perches, a stance that reflects both his personal perspective and his civic philosophy. To that end, he and his wife Pamela recently launched an ambitious family foundation, whose mission, according to its website, is nothing less than to re-establish Philadelphia “as a global force in policy, commerce and culture through civic and education-based philanthropic initiatives.”

But back to the DNC. Raju wisely kept his distance from the traffic snarls and maddening crowds descendant upon the Wells Fargo Center, but he nevertheless hosted a lively and well-attended “Chai and Chaat” event at Dilworth Paxson.

The soiree, which served primarily as a rally for Indian-Americans running for statewide office, featured a keynote speech from New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, who had electrified television audiences a night earlier with his fiery address in the convention hall. Raju kept a low profile at the event, preferring focused strategy huddles to generalized mingling, but The American Bazaar managed to sit down with him for a discussion on his improbable life story, his unorthodox outlook on the business of law, his passion for Philadelphia’s future, and yes, his own political aspirations.

Excerpts from the interview with Ajay Raju:

There’s a chapter about you in Scott Haas’ new book (Those Immigrants! Indians in America: a Psychological Exploration). In that profile, you talk about the unplanned, almost random series of events that brought you and your family from Bhopal to Philadelphia in 1984. From your current vantage point, are you able to identify a clear line from point A to point B, or could you have gotten where you are from any starting point?

Absolutely not. My experience as an immigrant isn’t just a major factor in the career choices I’ve made, it’s as integral to my identity as are being shorter than I would like and using more hair gel than my family would like. Look, the term “disruption” is one of those business buzzwords that has become overused to the point of meaninglessness. I’ll admit I’ve probably uttered it myself a few hundred times too many. But for immigrants, this notion of disruption has a much deeper meaning. For us, it’s the essential, watershed concept of our lives. If you begin your life, say, in central India, spending 14 years immersed in a particular environment and culture, surrounded largely by people who look like you, who speak the same language, and who share the same values, and then suddenly, you’re uprooted and shipped across an ocean and deposited in Northeast Philadelphia, that’s the literal definition of disruption. And it’s something that wholly alters your outlook

What that disruption did for me, and what I believe it’s done for so many immigrants to America, is that it forced me to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude toward my own life. Emigrating from one country to another is a psychologically cataclysmic experience, but there is a major upside to it, which is that it short-circuits inertia. When you’re plucked so abruptly from the middle of one path and placed at the beginning of another, you are faced with the fact that your life will be precisely what you make of it, nothing more and nothing less; you have nothing but your own agency. Having to adapt to new surroundings, to be without the luxury to take anything for granted, to have to learn, absorb and react to everything I encountered just to make it from day to day without humiliating myself, or worse, equipped me with some invaluable tools. More than anything, it made me immune to the fear of change. I think that’s the strength that all immigrants have in common, the ability to face uncertainty with confidence.

It’s interesting that you talk about disruption and the fear of change; for a few years now, we’ve been hearing about the massive disruption in the American legal industry resulting from the economic crash, and the struggles of major law firms in dealing with this new normal. Do you see any parallels here with your own personal experience?

There are undeniable parallels. The collapse of the financial markets in 2008 represented an almost total upheaval of the typical corporate law firm business model and the environment that had sustained it for so long. I don’t think there’s a firm still standing that hasn’t accepted that fact, but that doesn’t mean every firm has any inkling as to how to proceed on this new path. As a profession, we lawyers tend to be late adopters. In a lot of ways that’s a good thing, a necessary thing. Ours is a legal system steeped in the concept of adhering to precedent. That approach ensures the continuity of the rule of law because it fosters consistent guidance for behavior under the law and imposes predictable consequences for bad behavior under the law. The problem, in my view, is that law firms apply this principle not just to the practice of law, but to the business of law. Essentially, that narrowly-focused rearward looking mindset that serves law firms well in litigation, doesn’t serve them well at all when it comes to building their revenue models.

As a law firm leader in this extremely uncertain landscape, my immigrant’s outlook is beneficial because it’s programmed me to always be looking for a way forward through uncertain landscape. That certainly doesn’t mean I don’t stumble, but I think it’s equipped me with the tools to determine whether an obstacle is an impassable mountain or just a large boulder.

Now, Dilworth Paxson is sort of the quintessential Philadelphia law firm. It’s been around for a long time and plays a big role in the civic life of your city. It was even founded by one of Philadelphia’s most famous mayors? Do those sort of provincial characteristics present the kind of obstacle that you’re talking about?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dilworth is such an important part of Philadelphia’s past, present, and more than anything, its future precisely because the spirit of entrepreneurship is at the core of the firm’s culture. What attracted me to Dilworth back in 2014 was its ironclad legacy in the city, but as I suspected, the firm isn’t shackled to that legacy. By and large, from our senior partners down to our energetic young associates, my colleagues are eager to embrace change and actively open-minded about re-imagining what a law firm can be. We can do more than “just” be lawyers. We can be co-stakeholders with our clients, we can help them create new business opportunities. We can provide counsel rather than mere advice. And frankly, we can create new models of revenue in the process. This isn’t a notion that I first planted here, I’ve just been a cheerleader for it.

Elaborate on what you mean by “re-imagining what a law firm can be.”

Well, I’ll give you some examples of the initiatives we’ve undertaken just in the past two and a half years. First, we convened a CEO Council, which is something akin to an advisory board of corporate luminaries who share our vision. These are the leaders of major businesses both within and without the region who enhance our work and our capabilities with their unique insights and connections across a range of industry sectors. We also started an endeavor known as the Exchange, which I believe is an almost entirely new concept in the legal industry. With the Exchange, we’re creating a platform—call it an ecosystem—where entrepreneurs, investors, and of course, our lawyers, can collaborate and build new business together. We’ve already closed 18 deals hatched through the Exchange, and we’ve got dozens more in the pipeline. We’ve got Cross Properties, which is a burgeoning new real estate company affiliated with the firm, and most recently we’ve started a new venture fund known as 215 Capital in collaboration with Rudy Karsan, who engineered the richest tech exit in Philadelphia’s history. This fund is tapping into Philadelphia’s large but heretofore fairly subdued community of institutional and high net worth individual investors, with the aim of capitalizing early and growth stage companies poised to make a big impact in the region.

You used the word “ecosystem” there, which is how you describe the Germination Project, one of your family foundation’s initiatives.

That’s right, and this idea of an ecosystem really pervades my entire perspective on Philadelphia. An ecosystem is an environment in which all of its component parts are working in harmony, whether consciously or not, to make the environment flourish as a whole. It’s quite literally the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s how I think about Philadelphia; we’ve got all these tremendous assets—our universities, our med-tech industries, our geographic location, our history, our pugnacity—but we’ve yet to truly harmonize to make the region really flourish. And that’s the tall order we’re trying to meet with the Germination Project. If we can find Philadelphia’s brightest, most driven young people, and cultivate their talent and energy as an investment in the city, we can create this self-sustaining root system for leadership. It’s not going to happen overnight of course; it could take a generation or more to truly see the impact, but if we do it right, that impact will grow exponentially.

As for the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation, you’ve got essentially four initiatives under the umbrella, the Germination Project being one of them. How do these disparate projects work in concert toward creating this ecosystem?

When Pam and I first started talking about starting a foundation, we determined fairly early on that we didn’t just want to be a grant-giving organization. Partly because I’m a bit of a control freak, but mostly because, rather than just writing checks to other non-profit organizations, we wanted to focus on initiatives that had the potential to really alter the DNA of the region, and sort of become perpetual motion machines for positive change. I’ve talked about the Germination Project, and one of our other initiatives is the Philadelphia Citizen, an online media and civic advocacy outlet that aims at getting readers actively involved in the life of the city. In a similar vein, we endow a program at the World Affairs Council that encourages young professionals to play a role in international issues. And of course, a particular program of the foundation that’s kept us quite busy lately is the IntXchange.

Tell us a bit more about the IntXchange.

I describe the IntXchange as an attempt to forge a new cultural trade route between the Philadelphia and India, through partnerships with artists from the Indian subcontinent and institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The foundation recently made a donation to the Art Museum of Jitish Kallat’s Covering Letter, which recontextualizes Gandhi’s famous letter to Hitler before the outbreak of World War II. I’m proud to say that Covering Letter was the first work by an Indian artist to be made a part of the Museum’s contemporary collection, where we felt it belonged. Carlos Basualdo, the Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, and Darielle Mason, the Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, were completely empathetic with that perspective, and it’s been tremendously encouraging to see that an institution as august as the Museum of Art is so interested in breaking down cultural, linguistic and natural borders.

The IntXchange’s other big venture in the offing is the upcoming Christie’s Asian Art Week auction in New York on September 14th. We were blessed to have a cohort of India’s leading contemporary artists, Jitish Kallat, A. Balasubramaniam, Ranjani Shettar,  Atul Dodiya, Rashid Rana, and Reena Kallat, as well the Delhi Art Gallery, each contribute original pieces to the auction, with all the proceeds benefiting the Germination Project. Like the Museum of Art, Christie’s has been a tremendously invaluable partner, not only in showcasing great Indian artists stateside, but in supporting our efforts to build transnational bridges out of Philadelphia.

We live in a world of extreme specialization these days. Between your law firm leadership, the foundation, the venture capital firm, the Germination Project, and the art patronage, you seem to be something of a modern day renaissance man. Do you think you might be spreading yourself too thin?

It’s flattering to be called a renaissance man, even if in a backhanded way [laughs]. The truth is, I do think of myself as a specialist. It just happens that I’m specializing in Philadelphia, in my region. All of these endeavors, while distinct from one another, all serve a shared goal. As far as the law firm is concerned, Dilworth Paxson is an essential part of Philadelphia’s past and present, and I see my obligation as helping to ensure that it is an essential part of Philadelphia’s future as well. The Germination Project is committed to providing a multigenerational pipeline of talent and ambition to steward that future.

The World Affairs Council program, the IntXChange, and The Philadelphia Citizen are all about promoting a culture of engagement and pushing back against provincialism. And of course, 215 Capital is focused on enhancing a robust marketplace for innovation in the region. We’re fixated on deploying capital in a way that meets the profit imperative but also satisfies the need to solve social, environmental and economic problems. I mean, Philadelphia is home to top-flight research and higher ed institutions like Jefferson University, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Drexel, Wharton, Penn Medicine, and Rowan University. Among other things, they’re making mind-bending advancements in medical technology and therapies virtually on a daily basis. If we can further open access to capital around these innovations, we can accelerate and multiply their beneficial impact in the region.

In terms of big picture, what we’re really trying to do is get Philadelphia and Philadelphians to think bigger, to look beyond our history and really buy in to the idea that Philadelphia can be major player on the global stage in the 21st Century. And we expect the rest of the world to buy into that idea too.

So, is this where you announce you’re running for mayor?

[Laughs] I’m afraid there’s no big scoop for you there. The truth is, I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing and acutely aware of how much more there is to be done. There’s a big role for the government and politicians to play of course, but I don’t think that’s a role where I’d be most effective. If nothing else, I hope to succeed as a private sector public servant.

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