Back home

Real estate billionaire PNC Menon invests $8m a year to support projects in India. Here, he talks data, unlocking diaspora giving, and his promise to give half his wealth away to good causes.

When PNC Menon arrived in Muscat from southern India, aged 28, he had just $7 in his pocket. The year was 1976 and the GCC’s oil boom was well underway, offering fertile ground for an entrepreneurial college dropout with an eye for opportunity. 

Menon was quick to launch a small furniture and interiors business, which found a ready market in Oman, then a seaside sultanate in the grip of a building frenzy. The company grew rapidly into a major fit-out firm, snapping up high-level contracts in the GCC and beyond, including for the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat and the palaces of Brunei.

Success in Oman was a springboard into Qatar, Tajikistan and Bahrain, and then on into India and the UAE, where today, Sobha Group is a privately-held powerhouse in real estate, construction and more.

Along the way, Menon has amassed a fortune, most recently estimated by Forbes at $1.1bn. But this affluence came with a self-imposed caveat.

“Forty years ago, I decided I should give half of my wealth to society,” explains Menon from his 13th floor office of Sobha Sapphire tower in Business Bay, one of Dubai’s main commercial districts. “It was a decision I took when I was 31. I know what life is like when you don’t have money, and what that means, so that was the inspiration for me to take this decision. Fifty per cent for my family, and 50 per cent for society. I thought that was a fair amount.”

For more than a decade, Menon has donated close to $8m a year through his Sri Kurumba Educational and Charitable Trust, which he set up in 1994 to support impoverished communities in India.

The trust acts as the philanthropic arm of Sobha, and its flagship project is Graamasobha – a play on the Sobha brand, and the Sanskrit word for traditional village councils. Established in 2006, the project works to improve the education, healthcare and livelihoods of low-income families in three municipalities close to Thrissur, Kerala, where Menon was born.

Thanks to the trust, there is now a school, clinic and retirement home, both serving and employing residents in the panchayats of Vadakkenchery, Kizhakkenchery and Kannambra; areas that each house two villages. Other community initiatives benefiting the district’s approximately 5,000 families include vocational training; mentoring projects for promising students; funding for wedding dowries; assistance for young mothers; women’s empowerment programmes, and sustainable agriculture schemes.

Menon’s motivation for giving is simple. “It’s not a favour: when a person has done well, they should invest their wealth back into society,” he says. “I believe in karma and that the sole thing you take with you are your deeds. So be kind.”


Menon is part of a growing cohort of wealthy Indians who have made their fortunes overseas but focused their philanthropy on their homeland – and often, their birth states and villages.

Between 2014 and 2018, private philanthropy from Indians living overseas to support projects back home grew by 15 per cent to $10bn, according to the 2019 India Philanthropy Report, co-authored by Dasra and Bain & Co.

More Indian businesses are also making social commitments, thanks to the 2013 Companies Act, which requires large firms to spend 2 per cent of their profits on corporate social responsibility activities in the country.

In 2017, a study by global consulting firm Dalberg, which surveyed 80 diaspora-based donors, philanthropy experts and NGOs – including 10 high-net-worth Indians based in the UAE – found that motivations and methods for supporting charitable initiatives varied considerably.

According to the research, which had funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, some gave to enhance their business networks or build their profile, while others were driven by a core belief in supporting needy communities and a sense of patriotic duty.

Read more: Indian industrialists Faizal and Shabana Kottikollon are on a mission to upgrade India’s public education system.

Sobha’s model is not unusual. Across India, corporates ranging from Canon India to the State Bank of India have ‘adopted’ villages as part of their CSR efforts, as a way to help lift rural communities out of chronic poverty. In partnership with local authorities, and often with implementing NGOs, funding is used to find and fill gaps in village infrastructure that contribute to families remaining trapped in penury.

Interventions can range from funding sanitation facilities and village infrastructure, to scholarships, microloans and more, helping to offset shortfalls in government spending.

Graamasobha’s approach is to target those with the lowest incomes, to break the cycle that has traditionally kept India’s poorest out of school and their families below the breadline. It is holistic in its programming; going beyond basic teaching to fund support for gifted students, as well as providing struggling women-led households with the tools to improve their lives and those of their children.

“There’s no difference between a poor child and a rich child,” Menon says, “it’s about education. With the opportunity of education, children in these villages can achieve anything.”

GraamaSobha’s initiatives are built on a blueprint of community needs. Before launching the project in Kerala, Sri Kurumba carried out a social empowerment mapping exercise – or SEME for short. This detailed, multi-question survey was conducted by teams of researchers going house-to-house to poll villagers on their income, housing situation, availability of water and sanitation, education levels and access to healthcare.

At least three rounds of SEMEs have been completed since GraamaSobha began, providing insights on progress, the impact of investment to date, and the effectiveness – or not – of various interventions. The data also helps to decide which services are funded and how individuals are targeted for support.

Without this information, says Menon, “we wouldn’t be doing our job. [The work] has to be delivered properly.”

The 71-year-old is as vocal an advocate for structured philanthropy, believing ad hoc donations to be an ineffective and potentially wasteful way to give.

“This is my hard-earned money and fortunately, I have a team of people who can look after that better than I can myself,” he says, adding that paying staff competitively is key to ensuring you attract and retain talent. “It’s important to have a good team. We pay a good salary because I don't want charity from the people who work for us. You have to pay them properly, that's very important.”

So while Menon visits his ‘adopted’ panchayats regularly and follows what goes on there closely, he does not take a hands-on approach, instead leaving the running of Sri Kurumba to his staff.

“I don’t do micro management. Anything of this size, you have to professionalise it,” he says. “You can’t have your whims and fancies and then start dictating.”

“There’s no difference between a poor child and a rich child. It’s about education.”

More recently, Sri Kurumba has swung its focus towards educating girls. In India, the world’s fifth largest economy, an estimated 4 million girls are out of school, according to the education nonprofit Pratham. Of those who to attend primary school, some 80 per cent will drop out before reaching the eighth grade.

Menon believes funding education for girls provides outsize benefits for the dollars invested, a position backed by data. Research suggests girls who complete school are less likely to marry young, will earn higher incomes, and are more likely to educate and immunise their own children.

In October 2020, a report by Citi GPS and Plan International that surveyed eight countries, including India, found that if all girls in emerging economies were to complete secondary school, it could boost the GDP of that country by an average of 10 per cent.

“If you educate a girl, that’s a family done – especially in India where women are the spine of society,” Menon explains. “We focus on girls and their education and we make sure we take that forward.”

“It’s not just giving them a school education,“ he adds. “We continue to support them in university and to help them settle, so it becomes a 360-degree [intervention].”

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Research suggests girls who finish school are less likely to marry young, earn better, and are more likely to educate their own children. Photo: Panos.

In 2016, Menon took the Giving Pledge, making public his early promise to give away half of his wealth to charitable causes. The pledge, a campaign founded by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet to encourage purposeful giving among the world’s super-rich, has shifted the narrative around philanthropy, attracting signatories ranging from Elon Musk to Saudi’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

In his accompanying pledge letter, Menon said his motivation was inspire his peers – especially non-resident Indians in the GCC – to participate and collaborate in philanthropy.

“The sooner we can discover the importance of philanthropy, the more impact we can collectively have on a global scale,” he wrote. “I see no greater gift than the ability to give.”


In August 2010, billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates launched a campaign that they hoped would set a new standard of philanthropy: the Giving Pledge. A global movement, the pledge is an open invitation to the world’s super-rich to commit to giving away at least half of their money, with the aim of making large-scale and purposeful philanthropy the norm among the world’s wealthiest people.

The pledge launched with 40 signatories, all of whom were American. In the decade since, its ranks have swelled to include more than 200 members from 24 countries; a mix of rich and emerging world billionaires ranging in age from their 30s to their 90s.

The pledge does not accept money, nor tell people where or how to donate their wealth. Instead, signatories gain access to a network of peer philanthropists eager to share ideas, successes and failures, and to discuss how best to leverage their giving to tackle global challenges.

UAE-based members include GEMS Education founder Sunny Varkey and his wife Sherly; VPS Healthcare’s Shamsheer Vayalil and his wife Shabeena; and Emirati businessman Sheikh Dr Mohammed bin Musallam Al Ameri. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is also a signatory.

“The sooner we can discover the importance of philanthropy, the more impact we can collectively have on a global scale.”

For Menon, however, this is a broader conversation. While the Giving Pledge targets billionaires, Menon believes there is value in extending the invitation to the less-endowed and aspiring rich. By persuading people of any level of wealth to commit to using their money, time and influence to do good, he explains, society could tap a much broader pool of funding and people, all pulling together to drive change.

“Look, this is a pyramid of wealth,” he says, sketching out a diagram to illustrate his point. “These are the layers of the middle class. They might not have the financial resources individually to solve the problem of poverty, but collectively their impact could be huge.”

Drumming up donations from these second and third tiers could transform the flow of charitable funding for intractable social problems, he adds: particularly if channelled through a single and strategic platform.

“I’m not talking about the super-rich, about people giving millions, I’m talking about small donations, maybe $5,000, maybe $2,000,” he suggests. The key is to ensure philanthropy is not seen as only the preserve of the super wealthy.

“There are 31 million people in the Indian diaspora, for example, and a lot of them could be contributing. There’s huge potential there. You can start from just a few dollars.”

He would equally like to see more corporations follow in Sobha’s footsteps by ‘adopting’ villages, and helping to lift Indian communities out of poverty.

“We at Sobha strongly believe that if an initiative like Grammasobha can be taken up by other companies, institutions and organisations, then it could change India’s poverty equation forever and bring about a sea change in the social fabric of the country.”

Looking forward, Menon plans to extend his philanthropy in India, and also to launch projects in Oman, a country where he holds citizenship. He has also established a trust to pass his business interests and wealth to his three children: his son, Ravi, is already chairman of Sobha’s Indian arm.

Whether the siblings continue with his philanthropic work must be up to them, he says. “We do not know what’s going to happen. God will play his own game.” – PA