Shekhar Mehta is the President of Rotary International for 2021-22 and is only the 4th Indian to hold the position in 115 years. He is a Chartered Accountant by profession and chair of the Skyline Group, a real estate development company. He has been actively involved in disaster management and worked to build 500 homes after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Mehta has also helped establish hospitals in Bhubaneswar, Hooghly and Kolkata, and he chairs the Saving Little Hearts charity, which has facilitated nearly 2000 heart surgeries for children. He has served Rotary as a committee and task force member, resource group zone coordinator, training leader, and district Rotary Foundation committee chair. Mehta has received the RI Service Above Self Award and the Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award.
Shekhar Mehta was born to an affluent family in Kolkata, India, in 1959. Recalling his childhood days, he adds, “I often say, my life was ‘air-conditioned’, whether it was a house, car or office. What did I know about the problems of people in the rest of the world?”
But that soon changed when his friend invited him to join the Rotary Club when he was just 25 years old, and as Mehta describes it, it was indeed a baptism by fire. He says, “The first month, I was asked to create a souvenir publication to raise funding through the sales of advertisements. I had no clue how to do this. But I was asked, and I readily accepted. Many people offered to help me, and suddenly it became a huge success. We raised a substantial sum of money, and everybody said, ‘Wow, Shekhar, well done!'”
This incident acted as a catalyst to fuel the desire to help others. Three months later, he was asked to become the Editor of the club bulletin. He recalled, “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 center; every piece of information passes through you. You know what’s happening around the club.” This was also one of the reasons Mehta got deeply involved with the club.
Soon after, the club organized an artificial limb camp, where they fit limbs for people who did not have legs and gave them hand-crank tricycles to assist them. In order to ensure a smooth event, everybody was given a role, and Mehta was responsible for determining whether the recipient had enough hand or arm strength to pedal one. He says, “So I would have the person grab my hands, and I would pull.”
He continued, “I saw the first person approaching, 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 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 and misery.”
After this incident, Mehta developed a deep sense of empathy for others. He says, “I think that’s when I became a Rotarian: I started feeling how others felt.” After this incident, Mehta worked long hours and days on end to help others to reduce their plight and suffering in any way he could.
At the time, his mentor, Past District Governor (PDG) Chandramohan, advised him to write all his goals for his District Governor (DG) year. Mehta drew up a list of what he called ‘millennium dreams’, as that was Rotary’s millennium year. He is a big believer in dreaming big; talking about this philosophy, he says, “This habit of dreaming big came to me 20 years ago. When I shared these dreams, there were sniggers. Just as the famous saying goes, ‘first, they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win!’ This has happened to me multiple times, but it never bothered me; I continued working and dreaming big. As a builder by profession, I imagined building 500 homes with Rotary’s wheel on them for people who never had a home!”
Mehta shared his audacious dream at his Presidents-Elect Training Seminar (PETS), and fortunately, somebody soon donated land for houses for the poor. A 3H grant application was also approved at lightning speed. “Tears rolled down my cheeks when I came to know of this approval within the same Rotary year, and 300 of the 500 houses of my crazy dream were built,” he recalled.
This was the miracle that taught him that anything is possible if you put your mind and heart into achieving it. As he kept advancing within the leadership ranks, he was in charge of service activities at a much larger scale.
One of the projects he is most appreciative about is the pediatric heart surgery programme. Rotarian Gupta provided the trigger with a call, “Shekhar, can you please take a look at the heart surgery programme? In the North-East so many children require heart surgery.” At the time, Mehta wasn’t aware of heart defects and said he didn’t know “the right ventricle from the left or what a hole in the heart meant.”
But when you set out to do good, things miraculously fall into place, as was the case for Mehta. In that year, Dr Ram Pal Vidhawan, the incoming President of his club, wanted to have heart surgeries for kids. His goal was to do six operations that year; with Mehta’s persistence; they ended up doing 66!
Mehta adds, “Now, as Rotary International President, the goal is to do 20,000 heart surgeries in the next five years. When this target was known, Rotarian Vivek spoke to me in Delhi and said that for each of those five years, I would sponsor 3,000 additional surgeries. So the five-year goal has increased from 20,000 to 35,000 heart surgeries!” Mehta has also done incredible work in eye operations and has helped set up 15 eye hospitals across India amongst his long list of humanitarian work.
His most ambitious dream is to get Rotary’s membership up to 1.3 million by the end of his year. However, he is certain to meet this goal and has a simple formula to achieve this. “Each one brings one. The response I get from across the world makes me optimistic about achieving this goal.”
He is exceptionally proud of the COVID-19 relief work done by Rotarians worldwide. “In India, so much was done in all the waves of the pandemic; in the first wave, monetary contributions upward of ₹100 crores ($13.7 million) and grassroots projects worth ₹150 crores ($20.6 million) were done. In the second wave, the response was equally as swift and even bigger.”
Looking at the sheer scale and breadth of the work done by Rotarians, he is confident that this pandemic will not have an adverse impact on Rotary’s membership. On the contrary, he feels, Rotary’s uplifting work will draw people to join it as people see the immense opportunity Rotary offers to help those in need worldwide.”
His top priority as the President of Rotary International is twofold; he says, “One internal and the other external; basically, grow more and do more. Grow more is the internal goal and doing more is the external goal. Grow more because we want our numbers to grow from 1.2 million to 1.3 million. We have 200,000 rotaractors, and I want them to become 300,000; so, Rotaract and Rotary combined should become over 1.5 million.”
He draws inspiration from the Founder of Rotary International, Paul Harris, the man who started it all with his incredible vision. He says, “If you read his books, you’ll be amazed. For instance, he says, ‘Tolerance is the cornerstone of Rotary.’” This concept is essential even today, a century later, with Mehta using it as his guiding principle.
In conclusion, in keeping with his philosophy to always dream big, he says, “A leader has to dream big. And he has to choose the right people to create more leaders.” This will have a ripple effect to create more empathetic leaders that will increase kindness and generosity in the world.