High-flying Philadelphia lawyer Ajay Raju, who stepped down as Chairman and CEO of Dilworth Paxson late last year, speaks about his new law firm Raju LLP, The Ark Institute — a platform for combating global health crises — and his venture capital, media and philanthropic efforts. This is the first in a new biweekly interview series featuring prominent CEOs and business leaders.
When The American Bazaar last sat down with Philadelphia-based law firm leader, philanthropist and venture capitalist Ajay Raju, he was hosting and entertaining a large cohort of the national delegates who descended upon his adopted hometown during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Back then, we looked ahead at what turned out to be the most socially cataclysmic presidential election in modern American history.
Now, nearly five years later, there’s a new occupant in the White House, one determined to restore a modicum of the political decorum and equanimity eschewed by his immediate predecessor. But of course, nothing has truly gone “back to normal.” A once-in-a-century pandemic, exacerbated by the negligence of political leadership, continues to destroy lives, disrupt livelihoods, and throw the routines of daily existence into disarray.
As concerted vaccination efforts continue to build momentum, Americans are seeing the first glimpses of life beyond quarantine, though the rhythms and contours of this new reality are still sketchy at best. Never one to balk at change or bold bets on the future, Raju is a keen observer of crises and the opportunities they engender. In this latest conversation, we catch up with Raju to find out what’s endured (The Germination Project, his philanthropic foundation’s flagship leadership incubator), what’s changed (a new law firm, a new interdisciplinary “think and do tank” founded to battle future global health events), and his own predictions for the post-pandemic world.
First things first, how have you and your family been holding up?
We’re all healthy and well. Of course, the world around us continues to deal with the devastating toll this pandemic has taken, so thinking about the larger family and community has become even more important than ever. So, the larger family is not doing so well.
Well, if you or a loved one is on a ventilator fighting to live, if you’ve lost your job, if you’re facing down eviction or a mortgage foreclosure, you’re living quite literally in the moment. Our family and I have enjoyed distance from the exigencies of basic survival, buffered from real-life stress. Others have not been so lucky.
There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the media about “pandemic survivor’s guilt.” Is that a sensation that plagues you?
Not for a minute. Look, I understand the impulse to think, “There but for the grace of God,” but to entertain that train of thought in a serious way is useless, and frankly, self-indulgent. The tragic irony of the pandemic is the way that this non-sentient virus, a germ with no way to discern between rich and poor, advantaged or disadvantaged, has only underscored and heightened the rampant inequality that persists among populations here in the States and around the world. Being on the upside of that ledger, the last thing my peers and I ought to be doing is wallowing in our good fortune. The imperative for us is to be asking, “How can we redistribute our resources to help folks come out intact on the other side of this thing.”
I get the impression that impulse was behind your creation of The Ark Institute?
Yes. Only a few months into the pandemic, it started to become clear that this crisis wasn’t going away anytime soon. Of course, that sad reality was due in large part to the fact that a scary percentage in our nation rejected fundamental principles of epidemiology, virology and biology in favor of political ideology. Our national and local response should’ve been much better than it was.
Our government actors, whether by willful disregard, exhaustion or abdication of duty just aren’t willing to or capable of taking on the massive effort of combating global health crises effectively. There’s a vacuum there and that’s what we’re trying to fill with the introduction of the Ark Institute. Of course, the public sector should take the lead in pandemic planning and response, but we need to create a dynamic symbiosis within the public-private worlds offering all players a platform from which to contribute. That means bringing together leaders from the philanthropic realm, the biotech and life sciences industries, supply chain management experts and public health policy makers to develop not only ideas, but actual mechanisms that can be deployed in the real world to anticipate and mitigate the impact of the next pandemic.
That’s a bold mission. Is the Ark something that can thrive with a home base in Philadelphia?
I know I’m biased, but there’s no better place than Philly for an initiative like this. I’ve taken to saying lately that if Philadelphia is Idaho, then biotech is our potato. We’ve got this unbelievable embarrassment of riches when it comes to intellectual firepower and infrastructure around medicine and healthcare innovation. With regard to immunotherapy advancements, just for one example, the work that’s coming out of places like Penn Medicine, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Jefferson University is lightyears beyond what we might have conceived of just a decade or two ago. And that’s to say nothing of either the host of new medtech companies sprouting up in this fertile soil, or the stalwart pharmaceutical firms still developing new formulations and applications up I-95.
So tell us how a little more how you bring together these various actors in the Region under The Ark.
I look at the Ark being built on a tripod of logistics, research and industry. In terms of research, we’re co-incubating and supporting Penn Medicine’s CORONA project, which is the brainchild of Dr. David Fajgenbaum, a pre-eminent doctor and researcher and an Ark board member. To date, the CORONA project houses the world’s largest dataset of over 350 treatments of more than 100,0000 COVID-19 patients, and that data is already being synthesized by Google Health and the FDA, just to name a few.
On the industry side, we’ve teamed up with locally based pharmaceutical firm Ocugen, which is collaborating with Bharat Biotech to introduce Bharat’s Covaxin vaccine into the U.S. market. As an Indian-American, I’m personally excited about this partnership, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that Covaxin is based on a multi-antigen formulation, much as the most effective polio vaccines have been, and the fact that there is a very promising chance that Covaxin will be our best bet to inoculate kids against the coronavirus.
For a lawyer, you talk about immunology pretty fluidly.
I have no real academic background in the sciences, but in another life I’m convinced I would have been a biochemist, or at least a pharmacist. You know. we’ve been honored for the past few summers to have Penn Medicine host and lead the Germination Project Summer Boot Camp, which is an unparalleled opportunity for our student fellows to engage with some of the greatest scientific minds in the world and get a glimpse of the groundbreaking research being done at that institution. But at this point, I’m willing to admit I’m just as wide-eyed and awestruck as the kids are to be in that atmosphere.
What’s the latest with the Germination Project?
It’s hard to believe but we just finished the interview process for our seventh class of GP Student Fellows, which means that our first couple of classes are now finishing up college and launching their careers. Needless to say, they’re all doing remarkable things. With the benefit of the better part of the decade under our belts as an initiative, I’ve come to realize that what we’ve really been doing here is to develop sort of an organic longitudinal study on the outcomes and attributes of leadership emerging from a common point departure. Now, of course, I have no doubt that each and every one of our GP fellows would have thrived in their lives even if they’d never heard of the Germination Project, but what I’m proud of is the idea that we were able to create a particular context and environment for these kids to develop a philosophy on leadership, on collaboration, on civic engagement and social responsibility at a really formative point in their lives. And now we’re seeing that bear out in their careers, which is truly gratifying.
You recently launched a new law firm, aptly named Raju LLP. What’s the story there?
Back at Dilworth Paxson, we introduced the concept of “an institution of counsel,” which was an approach to the practice and business of law centered on a commitment that we would not just meet clients where they were, but align ourselves seamlessly with their interests and priorities. At Raju LLP, we describe ourselves as an I/O or Inside/Outside law firm, which is in many ways an extension or an evolution of the institution of counsel concept. The I/O model is based on the philosophy of putting ourselves in the shoes of our clients, just as we help them to put themselves in the shoes of the customers, industries or other stakeholders that they serve. We’re capable of delivering traditional legal services, sure, but our real value proposition is in our willingness to embed with our clients, to help formulate strategies for their success and share in both the rewards and risks of making ambitious decisions.
Speaking of ambitious decisions, it’s a risky move to start your own firm in a pretty saturated market.
Maybe, but there’s also a great sense of security in knowing exactly where the buck stops. I’ve always believed that, especially in this day and age, a law firm can be and do much more for our clients than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. Now I’ve got the opportunity to not just explore those new frontiers but, to start expanding the breadth of services we can provide, if not through the law firm, then through our media enterprise Front Seat films, our VC fund 215 Capital or our consulting platform Indigo Global. There are so many permutations of ways to help businesses grow and thrive, it’s been a really liberating adventure so far.
Back in 2019 you launched your Overheard interview series with Disney’s local affiliate in Philadelphia. Those were some great, probing conversations, and it’s a shame that the pandemic cut the series short. Do you have plans to resume Overheard?
Absolutely, we’ll be bringing back Overheard as soon it’s safe to do so. When Covid hit, we’d briefly considered moving the interviews to Zoom or another videoconference platform, but ultimately decided not to. I think the depth and nuance that we’ve been able draw out of these conversations is directly attributable to the in-person, face-to-face nature of the format, and that’s just something I didn’t want to have to surrender. In any case, I hope our absence has made the hearts of Overheard fans grow fonder, because we’ve got a terrific roster of guests on deck for Season 2.
Any names you can share?
You’ll have to tune in! But suffice it to say, we’re making a point of talking to folks whose experience and insight provide some invaluable perspectives on what post-pandemic life will look and feel like, how we can make the best of a new normal, and what we can do to make sure we never have to go through an ordeal like this again.
Philadelphia lawyer Ajay Raju tapped to host peer-to-peer talk show on ABC (January 16, 2020)