As the man who manages the former Tata Group chairman’s office and his startup investment portfolio, 29-year-old Shantanu Naidu is Ratan Tata’s bridge to the world of young people. He speaks to us about how it is working with the legendary industrialist
Last month, Ratan Tata announced an investment in Goodfellows, a senior citizen companionship startup founded by Shantanu Naidu. The slightly built Naidu, who is 29, manages the former Tata Group chairman’s office and his startup investment portfolio in his role as a general manager.
Goodfellows, which connects the elderly with handpicked empathetic and emotionally intelligent youngsters or ‘Grandpals’, has been shaped both by Naidu’s personal experiences and his intergenerational friendship with Tata. The subscription-based service, which was launched after a six- month beta phase in Mumbai, has 20 ‘Grandpals’ at present and aims to increase its staff count, and expand its geographical presence by the end of the year to Pune, and eventually to Chennai and Bengaluru.
Startups covet an endorsement from Ratan Tata who has invested in some 50 of them since he retired as chairman of the group in 2017. The ticket size of each of his investments may be modest, but his presence on the cap table usually opens doors to more investors and customers. The startups he has backed include eyewear retailer Lenskart, EV startup Ola Electric Mobility, Repos Energy, an energy distribution startup that offers doorstep delivery of fuels through mobile petrol pumps, and pet care portal Dogspot.
Naidu, who grew up in Pune, comes from a family that has, over the last four generations, served the Tata Group in various capacities. He first drew Tata’s attention in 2015 with his social initiative, Motopaws, that made glow-in-the-dark collars for stray dogs to prevent them from getting hit by motorists at night. Tata, who famously loves dogs himself, invited Naidu, then a design engineer with Tata Elxsi in Pune, to Mumbai for a chat. Tata would eventually go on to back Motopaws, which has since then designed, among others, a sensor-circuit-based anti-poaching device for tigers that is used in four national reserves. Their shared love for dogs soon developed into an unlikely friendship that resulted in the younger man being offered a role as the industrialist’s executive assistant when he returned from Cornell — Ratan Tata’s alma mater — after completing his master’s in business administration in 2018. Here, Naidu talks to MW about the genesis of Goodfellows, the Nano, and working with the industry doyen.
It was a combination of factors. I have always had a natural affinity toward elders. My mother especially nurtured this sensitivity I have had towards that generation not just within the family, but also in social settings. The second was that during the pandemic, I used to stay by myself in a small apartment in a heritage building in Colaba and all my neighbours were elderly. I developed a bond with many of them during those bleak days. People think that being a companion to seniors is complicated, but they just need someone to talk to. Simply having a conversation with someone matters a lot to them. During the pandemic, I would often do that, and they would reciprocate by sending over home-cooked meals. That sort of gave me a peek into the problems seniors face. It’s not just about having someone to rely on for utilitarian needs — companionship really needs you to be present and listen to them.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from the intergenerational friendship I have with Mr Tata. He is a great believer intergenerational friendships. Many of the startups we invest in have extremely young founders who have different takes on social problems. The first person I spoke to about the idea was him. And he said that it was a great idea, as long as one could ensure safety on both sides. And I’ve made sure that point has been addressed thoroughly. We have a seven-level recruiting process and out of the 600 or so people we have engaged with in the last six months, we have chosen six. All our recruits are between the ages of 18 and 30.
One of our focus areas is the mental health of the Goodfellows. Just because you have a certain affinity towards seniors doesn’t mean you can do it day after day. Every person has a social battery that eventually runs out and when that happens, you can’t give your best. So, we have capped the number of seniors each Goodfellow will engage with to ensure they are not stretched when it comes to mental health. In terms of scaling up, it will be entirely dependent on the cultural make-up of the cities we plan to launch in. In a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, people are a lot more accommodating and inviting than in, say, Pune, which has its own unique culture. So, that is a challenge that exists and the one we will have to overcome. Instead of focusing on tiers, we are looking at places where the population of retirees is high. Kerala, Chennai, and Bengaluru are definitely on the map. Another challenge is how to recruit double the number of recruits we have today without compromising on the quality. Because we are vetting them for empathy and that’s not something you can get an idea of from their resumes.
That’s right. My great-grandfather worked on the company’s hydroelectric project at Bhira, near Mumbai. My grandfather was an engineer with Tata Electric, and my father stinted at Tata Motors and TCS before joining Tata Administrative Services. I have a cousin who works for TCS, and my great-grandmother, Lalitha Naidu, had this little shrine at home that featured a silver embossed coin featuring Jamsetji Tata. And my father would cut out newspaper articles on Mr Tata and pin them to the soft board at our apartment. I was quite the rebellious teenager, but I suppose growing up in a Tata family subconsciously created an impact and a sense of respect both towards the group and Mr Tata. But, as a teenager, the only Tata project that interested me on a personal level was the Nano. I was in high school back then and the school bullies named me Nano and it was meant to be an insult. The Nano might not have been commercially successful, but I was personally invested in it and always try to ensure people understand the original sentiment behind it. I wrote about it in my book (Once I Came Upon a Lighthouse: A Short Memoir of Life with Ratan Tata, 2021), and recently I suggested to Mr Tata that he should be talking about it on his Instagram page. I said the story of the Nano has to be told by the person who was the driving force behind it.
Mr Tata likes the infectious energy of millennials and young entrepreneurs who want to make a social impact. He’s very open to ideas, but at the same time, he is also highly critical of them. Simply being enthusiastic about a certain pitch or project doesn’t cut it for him. He’s very realistic in terms of execution. He will give you a general sense of direction and then ask you to go ahead and execute it. Among the things I admire most about him is that he always keeps his word. Just before I left for Cornell, I asked him whether he would attend my graduation ceremony. Mr Tata promised he would. I had mentioned it in passing very casually but two years later, he was there.
Lead Image: Tata Sons