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Social Impact Heroes: How Philanthropists Vijay and Umayal Eswaran are uplifting thousands of marginalized young people

We all have a responsibility to this planet. The biggest threat to humanity today is climate change, and we humans are causing it. If we want our children and future generations to be able to walk in nature, swim in the oceans, and breathe clean air we must take drastic action. Switch to a plant-based diet. […]


We all have a responsibility to this planet. The biggest threat to humanity today is climate change, and we humans are causing it. If we want our children and future generations to be able to walk in nature, swim in the oceans, and breathe clean air we must take drastic action.

Switch to a plant-based diet. Animal agriculture plays a role in almost all of the major environmental issues that plague the earth — climate change, habitat loss and destruction, wildlife extinction, overconsumption, soil degradation, water pollution and air pollution. We have a responsibility to the planet to sustain its limited resources for future generations. I believe going meat free and promoting a plant-based diet will make a significant impact to the environment.

Ban single use plastic. It is already well known that plastic is choking our planet, killing marine life, and contributing to massive environmental pollution through landfills. Just the act of stopping all use of single-use plastic can make a drastic difference in mitigating the negative impact.

Education our children from an early age about sustainability. Habits are harder to break as one gets older.We have to inculcate these values and habits from an early age. Children follow what they see adults do. We need to set an example with the actions we take, and the practices we follow to show them to respect natural resources.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Vijay Eswaran, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the QI Group. Vijay Eswaran is a prominent Malaysian entrepreneur, philanthropist and author. The QI Group of Companies, a multinational conglomerate with interests in direct selling, retail, financial services, hospitality, education and technology, is headquartered in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur with operations in more than 30 countries.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was a confluence of events, but two in particular that put me on this path. I returned to Asia in the early 90s after spending 13 years in the UK and North America. I always wanted to do something of my own but was unnerved at the prospect of it. Upon my return to the Far East, I worked a number of jobs, mainly as a consultant before landing as the CEO of a publishing house in Malaysia. I was brought in to save the company from the brink of bankruptcy. It took me two years to turn things around. Upon which, I was sent to the US on a trip to supposedly explore new business opportunities. By the time I returned, I found the company had been sold, catching me completely off guard. The new owners brought in their own team. Just like that, I was out.

This was the catalyst that changed my paradigm and I began my entrepreneurial journey. I looked towards the direct selling business, something I had dabbled it part-time as a student in the UK. Turned out I was quite good at it and soon had grown a successful direct sales team in South East Asia. This led to the second incident that would chart the rest of my path.

My direct sales team was given a great opportunity by an American direct selling company that was looking to expand its business in the Philippines. It was an exciting opportunity and we were able to grow their business rapidly. However, we soon discovered that the American company was not being honest with us, and soon they were delaying product delivery, and holding back commission payments. We had built a team of about 2000 people who had believed in us as leaders of the team. When the principle company shut shop and disappeared, we were left holding the pieces.

We had a choice between pleading innocence and letting down thousands of people or taking responsibility for a team that placed their trust in us. If we shut down, we could never regain the trust of these people. Between my partners and I, we had extensive experience in direct selling, but I was the only one with experience in corporate management. As a trained economist, I believed in the power of the direct selling business to help create micro entrepreneurs and make a major socio-economic impact.

I convinced three of the other partners that we could start our own direct selling company and take back control of the situation. So, armed only with the purpose of helping those who had trusted us, we announced the decision to start our own company. That was the beginning. Since then, we have grown into a conglomerate with diverse business interests.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

An incident that continues to serve as my inspiration till date, is one from the early days of the company. I was traveling in one of the smaller provinces in the Philippines meeting our distributors, conducting training programs, talking about our products, explaining to prospective customers how direct selling works and its potential to help people. As I was leaving the meeting, this elderly woman stopped me and handed me a large bag of fresh produce and started telling me how grateful she was for the opportunity our business had provided her.

She was the sole caretaker of her granddaughter and had been very concerned for her future. She had been growing vegetables in her garden to sell at the local market, and that was her only income. After hearing about our business, she had decided to purchase our products and join our direct selling business in order to make a supplemental income that she could put away for her grandchild. In a few months, this elderly woman who was obviously very well networked in her community had built a very successful direct selling business and was making a comfortable income from her sales commissions. She wanted to thank me by giving me this large overflowing bag of produce she had grown herself. That gift counts as one of the most precious gifts I have received till today.

Can you describe how your organisation is making a significant social impact?

I am fortunate that my business partners and I share the same values. The circumstances under which we started the company had already established that we would always put people first, over profits. We knew that if we took care of our people, profits would follow. The last twenty years are proof of that.

We started with direct selling because we saw how powerful it was. This business was not about one person with a big idea changing the world, but a large number of people helping each other collectively improve the quality of their lives in small ways through great products and services, and a business opportunity that allowed great flexibility. So, our very first business was about helping people improve their socio-economic status and rise above their limitations. Today, we have millions of happy and satisfied customers in more than 100 countries who have improved their health and lifestyle thanks to our direct selling business.

Since then, we have expanded into several other businesses and we have also set up a corporate foundation, that serves as our social impact initiative.

In 2011, we established a University in Malaysia because I firmly believe that quality education is an effective means of eradicating poverty, building peace and creating sustainable development. For years, the trend has been for Asian students to go to UK, US or Australia for higher education. I wanted to reverse that trend by making a similar quality of education accessible to students closer to their homes, at a much more affordable price. I am proud to say that our Quest International University today has over 2000 students from 30 countries.

RYTHM Foundation, which is run by my wife Umayal, who has been an intrinsic part of my journey, works on projects that contribute to various UN Sustainable Development Goals such as education, women empowerment and sustainable community development. Since the beginning, 10 per cent of our revenues go directly to the Foundation each year.

One of the flagship projects of the Foundation that we are personally very proud of is called Maharani. It was initiated in Malaysia in 2010 to address the unique challenges and social stigma faced by teenage girls from low income families. Through the Maharani Programme, the girls learn about gender, sexual and reproductive health, ethnicity and culture, and the importance of physical and spiritual wellness, giving them the tools to develop into confident, responsible and civic minded young women. They are also trained in vocational skills and given a safe space to express their creativity. The aim is to help these girls develop self-confidence and equip them with the skills to break the cycle of poverty. Till date, around 7000 young girls between the ages of 13 and 16 from marginalized communities have been helped through this program.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who has impacted this cause?

My business partners and I come from different countries, faiths and cultures, but when we first came together and started discussing our personal heroes and the people who have inspired us, it was interesting that the one person we all had great admiration for was Gandhi. The fact that Gandhi had been dead for 50 odd years by then, made no difference to us. He was a leader without a title, and yet he inspired a global movement for social justice and peace. His followers included the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

Gandhi was a visionary and a pragmatist. He promoted micro enterprises for economic growth, education in health and hygiene, equality for women, ecological conservation; all issues that are as relevant today as they were a 100 years ago during his time. He was the original poster boy for social impact and his messages went viral way before social media.

At QI Group, we consider Gandhi to be our corporate icon. The term RYTHM (not a typo) stands for Raise Yourself to Help Mankind. It comes from a story about Gandhi I heard a long time ago.

When Gandhi was in South Africa, volunteers would come and offer their services at his ashram. One day, he came across a young man who was sweeping the courtyard. He asked him where he came from and the young man said he had dropped out of studying engineering at university to serve the Gandhian cause. Gandhi told him he had more than enough labourers. What was needed were engineers, lawyers, doctors and people with specialist educations. So, he told him, ‘go back, raise yourself, come back and together we will help mankind.’

So RYTHM — Raise Yourself to Help Mankind, comes from those words, and serves as our guiding principle.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We all have a responsibility to this planet. The biggest threat to humanity today is climate change, and we humans are causing it. If we want our children and future generations to be able to walk in nature, swim in the oceans, and breathe clean air we must take drastic action.

  1. Switch to a plant-based diet. Animal agriculture plays a role in almost all of the major environmental issues that plague the earth — climate change, habitat loss and destruction, wildlife extinction, overconsumption, soil degradation, water pollution and air pollution. We have a responsibility to the planet to sustain its limited resources for future generations. I believe going meat free and promoting a plant-based diet will make a significant impact to the environment.
  2. Ban single use plastic. It is already well known that plastic is choking our planet, killing marine life, and contributing to massive environmental pollution through landfills. Just the act of stopping all use of single-use plastic can make a drastic difference in mitigating the negative impact.
  3. Education our children from an early age about sustainability. Habits are harder to break as one gets older.We have to inculcate these values and habits from an early age. Children follow what they see adults do. We need to set an example with the actions we take, and the practices we follow to show them to respect natural resources.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is not about telling people what to do. A true leader is one who knows how to serve. I believe in the concept of servant leadership. This means different things to different people. The philosophy closest to my heart, one that I learned at an early age from my father is of “service above self.” I watched him work tirelessly to develop other people and focus on what he could do to help selflessly.

Being a true servant leader is putting the needs of others ahead of your own in service to a larger purpose.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Do it now. There is no such thing as the right time. Waiting for the right time for anything is simply a fallacy. You have only now.
  2. Lead by example. People do not listen to what you say. They do what you do.
  3. Power is addictive. The more power you wield, the harder it is to let go, leading eventually to you being a dictator. Power is best controlled with detachment.
  4. The only prison you need to fear is your own mind. It can be the one thing that holds you back and is far more dangerous than brick and mortar.
  5. You cannot do anything alone. It is always teams that take you to the top. Find your team and you will find your path.

None of these lessons were new to me. But truly understanding them and applying them took much longer.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There is growing awareness about the benefits of going meat free and to some extent, there is a movement in different pockets of the world around this. I would love to encourage more people to give plant-based diet a chance. It is good for the planet, it is healthier, and it is the right moral choice.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Be the change that you want to see in the world, by Gandhi. I try to apply this principle in every facet of my life and that of the QI group. I have been a lifelong vegetarian, and the company has always had a meat free policy since our inception. Recently, we also instilled a ban on all single use plastic in all our offices. My wife and I have banished all single use plastic from our home.

We are also very active in our local community and have encouraged all our employees to volunteer their time to causes that are important to the community in all the countries where we have offices. Every employee gives up to 16 hours of their personal time each year towards programs helping their community.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

All the people I would LOVE to have breakfasts with are no longer with us. They are my 4 Ms

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/DatoSriVijayEswaran

Instagram — Instagram.com/vijayeswaran

Twitter: twitter.com/vjayeswaran

YouTube — youtube.com/vijayeswaran

Website — www.vijayeswaran.com

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