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December 22, 2016

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China’s investor-monks offer divine example

IN China’s startup scene, restaurant delivery firm is a standout success story. With 20,000 employees picking up food ordered from 300,000 restaurants, mostly over the mobile phone, it serves over 40 million users in 1,000 cities, and racks up a daily turnover of 60 million yuan (US$8.65 million).

So even as the company recently raised capital from the likes of Tencent, Sequoia Capital, and CITIC Capital pushing its market cap beyond US$1 billion, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the angel investors in the fledgling firm was none other than a fund started by the monks at Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple. (Shanghai Daily, 13 December 2016).

The firm’s founder and CEO, Zhang Xuhao started the company while still a student. But when he was about to go bankrupt in 2009, he received a 100,000 yuan sponsorship from the temple. never looked back — and its founder calls the investment his “lucky money.”

Devotees across the globe shower wealth on their deities, their Gods and Goddesses, in the belief that their prayers will be answered. It is extremely rare to hear of instances of monks and priests investing the money they have received from the grateful into social good, especially in young people. Granted, they feed the poor and sometimes build charitable hospitals. But venture capital for the young? It is indeed a move that merits applause.

Out-of-the-box thinking

For a temple to be aligned to a national, or societal interest — such as boosting entrepreneurship and employment — requires out-of-the-box thinking.

This is something that the Tagou school of martial arts, a training ground for thousands of Shaolin monks in Dengfeng County, Henan Province, has also demonstrated. Even as China invests big in football training, vowing to have 50 million school-age players by 2020, some 1,500 students at the school (all trained in the martial arts) have taken to football. The program’s founders, all Shaolin monks, believe that the martial arts form with its emphasis on body flexibility, jumping, control and force meets essential requirements for the game. Their investment is of a different kind, but one that shows an engagement with a young community and their ideals.

Why did these stories appeal to me so much? I’ve been reading about how much money is being collected by temples in India right now, in the aftermath of the country’s demonetization drive.

Unable to convert their “black” money legally, many people are dropping them into collection boxes in temples, hoping for a karmic payback.

The collection at one of Mumbai’s most popular temples, the Siddhi Vinayak Temple dedicated to Ganesha, increased from 4 million rupees (US$59,000) a week to 6 million. At the Tirumala Temple in Tirupati, arguably India’s richest temple, daily collections have similarly increased from 20-30 million rupees to almost 60 million — even as the number of devotees came down slightly.

I wonder what the temples in India would do with so much extra cash. I would urge them to take a leaf out of the book of the monks at the Jade Buddha Temple and Shaolin Temple and invest in providing young people startup opportunities. Or invest in building the infrastructure that the country desperately needs, even if it is about doing it in the immediate vicinity of the temples. These are places that are often in need of better hygiene and sanitation, parking lots and wider streets. We need the priests and policymakers to sit down together and work out where the collaboration can have the quickest payoff.

Such investment can really be the kind of divine intervention that could boost the fortunes of any society.


Kunal Sinha has over 25 years of unearthing and commenting on consumer and cultural trends, and helping companies profit from them. Based in Shanghai for over a decade, he is the author of two books about creativity in business: China’s Creative Imperative, and Raw – Pervasive Creativity in Asia, and has taught at some of the world’s leading business schools.


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