Living the dreams

President-elect Shekhar Mehta isn’t afraid to make big plans. And with a little teamwork, he has a way of making them reality.

Photography by Sephi Bergerson

Throughout an hour-long interview with Rotary magazine, Shekhar Mehta mentions dreaming no fewer than a dozen times. Dreams about repairing broken hearts. About eradicating polio from the world. About reaching a 95 per cent literacy rate by 2026 in India, a country where one in four people can’t read.

“Dreams have to be big enough for people to be motivated to achieve them,” he says. “Gandhi once said that if you find the goal, the means will come. That’s how it’s been my whole Rotary life.”

Shekhar grew up in a home committed to service; both of his parents were members of Lions Clubs International. Having learned from an early age about the good that service organisations can do, when his friend Chittaranjan Choudhury asked him to become a Rotary member, Shekhar readily agreed. Though only 25 years old at the time, he was quickly tapped to take on additional roles within Rotary – his motto being that if somebody asked, he would say yes. Shekhar, who values the contributions of a team, would then enlist others to help.

That exemplifies his ability not only to dream big, but to get things done.

“I either have done it or have a plan for it; otherwise I won’t ask others to do it,” he says.

He is a director of the India arm of Operation Eyesight Universal, a former trustee of ShelterBox (he helped build nearly 500 homes for families affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami), and the architect of a literacy program that has reached thousands of schools. Yet he didn’t mention any of that during this interview, and when talking about accomplishments, he always says ‘we’, rather than ‘I’.

His theme, Serve to Change Lives, flows naturally from, and informs, everything he does.

With his wife Rashi seated next to him, Shekhar spoke with Rotary editor-in-chief John Rezek and senior staff writer Diana Schoberg in November from the Mehtas’ home in Kolkata, where Shekhar is a member of the Rotary Club of Calcutta-Mahanagar. Although the discussion took place over Zoom and the participants were separated by 8000 miles, Mehta’s message and enthusiasm were as stirring and immediate as if everyone were together in the president-elect’s office at Rotary International headquarters in Evanston. By the end, everyone was thinking about how big and daring our dreams can be.

When did you realise that you could accomplish something significant in Rotary as a member?
I had a baptism by fire. I was 25 when I got admitted to my club, after a friend asked me if I’d like to join. The first month I was asked to create a souvenir publication to raise funds through the sales of advertisements. I had no clue how to do this. But I was asked, and I said OK. Many people offered to help me, and suddenly it became very successful. We raised a lot of money and everybody said, “Wow, Shekhar, well done!” Three months later, I was asked to become the editor of the club bulletin. I loved that job! If ever I were asked to do another thing at the club level, that’s the job I’d love to do. You become the nerve centre; every piece of information passes through you. You know what’s happening around the club, which was one of the reasons I got so involved.

Shortly after, we organised an artificial limb camp, where we would fit limbs for people who did not have legs and give them hand-crank tricycles. Everybody was given a job. I was given the responsibility to determine whether the recipient had enough hand or arm strength to pedal one. So I’d have the person grab my hands and I would pull.

I saw the first person coming, but he wasn’t walking, he was crawling. And as he stretched out his hand, and I stretched mine to pull his, I shuddered. I didn’t want to touch his hands; they were very soiled. The fourth person was a leper, but I had no option: I had to hold every hand. But by the seventh or eighth hand, I had forgotten about my reservations and I was thinking about their plight. I think that’s when I became a Rotarian: I started feeling how others felt.

Did you seek higher levels of responsibility in Rotary or did higher levels of responsibility seek you?
I never sought anything in Rotary and I never said no to anything. This is what I keep telling everyone: a Rotarian is a volunteer, and being a volunteer means yes, I want to do something. What kind of volunteer are you if you say no?

What was your reaction when you found out you were going to become president of Rotary?
The immediate reaction? It felt nice. I didn’t jump with excitement or anything like that. Whenever responsibilities come to me, I think of them as a greater opportunity for service.

I’ll give you an example. When I was nominated to be a Rotary director, I was invited to a huge felicitation program. hese are very common in India. People come and say nice things about you, and I felt such embarrassment. I thought I needed to do extraordinary things to justify the adulation. So, that night, I wrote down what I hoped to achieve in the next two years. I was coming from a world where there are too many needs and there is a lot of opportunity to do the work. And so I sat down until 4 in the morning thinking of, say, opening 50 eye hospitals in India; of doing 5,000 heart surgeries for children. One of the former presidents of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, used to say that dreams are not what you see when you sleep, but dreams are those things that do not let you sleep. That day his thoughts resonated with me so vividly.

People laughed when they heard what I was planning to achieve. But when you’re trying to do something extraordinary, they may laugh at you, but you’ll have the last laugh. I am happy to tell you, many of these dreams got fulfilled.

“For the coming year, the focus will be on empowering girls. We are committed to educating all children, but the focus will be a little more on girls.”

Are we going to see an exponential series of dreams during your time as Rotary president?
Absolutely. If that doesn’t happen, in my heart, I’m not a worthy president. But I also understand that when I was a Rotary director, my focus was on India. When I’m the president of Rotary, my focus has to be on the world, and Rotary is not the same around the world.

We’re an organisation that is 116 years old, which is present in more than 200 countries and geographical areas, and has 1.2 million leaders – not just Rotarians, leaders – and the legacy of nearly eradicating a disease. We have to do projects that have an impact on the national level. I come from one of the largest countries in the world, and Rotary’s work today is absolutely having an impact on the national level. It can have a national impact in Nepal, I’m aware of it. It can happen in Bangladesh, in Pakistan. And polio eradication is something we have done on the world level, with polio now endemic in only two countries.

Rotary in India had the idea to present grade school education on TV, one channel for each grade – so grade 3, channel 3; grade 9, channel 9. The telecast is the same curriculum that the child would get in school, and at the end of each lesson there’s a message that this was made possible by Rotary. This is presented to 100 million children every day; 100 million children get to hear the name of Rotary and get to know Rotary as an organisation that does good in the world.

Our plan was to do this in 5 1/2 years. But COVID-19 provided an opportunity, the government was interested in supporting this, and what was supposed to take 5 1/2 years, we did in 5 1/2 weeks.

So, when I say we can have an impact on the national level, I know we can. Rotary has the power to do it.

What are the characteristics of Rotary in India, and which of those characteristics do you think other areas of the Rotary world should adopt?
Think first from the heart, not from the mind. Imagine the people who thought we would eradicate polio, and if they had used only their minds, we’d never be able to do it. It was a crazy dream. Have you ever planned anything that would take decades? Yet we have the courage to dream of such a thing.

We need to have the courage to take up these projects and be ready to take the risk. I am not worried about failures at all. I would rather have 10 dreams and succeed in only six of them than be a person who only has two dreams and succeeds at them both. This is not a percentage game; this is about doing good in the world. Dream big.

What do you want to accomplish in your year?
I have two broad goals. One, that our membership needs to reach 1.3 million. It’s been 1.2 million for 20 years. This needs to change, and it’s not too difficult to change it: each member brings in just one new member. Every one of us will do that job. And yes, I will get one as well.

I’m very passionate about service. Our organisation is doing good in the world by serving people. For the coming year, the focus will be on empowering girls. We are committed to educating all children, but the focus will be a little more on girls. We will concentrate on providing toilets and all other hygiene facilities. We need to understand that girls are more vulnerable – to trafficking, especially sexual trafficking – and it is crucial that we protect them.

Is a year too short a time for the Rotary presidency?
I don’t think the president makes a lot of change to the organisation, and I don’t think the president should. And, if you look at the past 10 years, it’s very difficult to say this thing happened during that year. I’m very happy you’re not able to say that, because that shows that it’s not about the president; it’s about the organisation. A president can do well to inspire the 1.2 million members to grow more and do more.

Is the Rotary presidency the best job in Rotary?
The presidency at the club level is the best job you can have in Rotary. You do far more at far greater speed as club president than you do as RI president. You get to have the pleasure of doing hands-on work.

Did you come up with your theme by yourself?
No. With me, it’s always about teamwork. I love to take everybody’s views. There were about 10 of us in the room. It truly reflects my philosophy in Rotary. I wanted it to be ‘service’, but people said it should be a call to action. So, service became “serve”. And when you do that, you change lives for the good. So, the theme is: Serve to Change Lives.

What do you think will be the greatest challenge?
The only challenge, if any, will be the pandemic, because it may hamper my meeting people. I love the virtual world, because it has great advantages. But Rotary is a people’s organisation. People have to meet people. The impact I can have with an in-person meeting is much greater than when I’m just taping a message. So let us overcome COVID and meet each other as soon as possible.

Do you acknowledge that there are hopeless situations?
No, never. Nothing could be more hopeless than this pandemic, but we still find a way. I’ll give you an example. My club has 90 members, but during the pandemic we had 2,400 people at a recent regular weekly meeting. Without the pandemic, we would not have been able to do it. So, hopeless situation? No, we find opportunities there.

Watch Shekhar Mehta’s speech at the International Assembly at