WHO IS “X” AND WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
NATASHA POONWALLA: SAVING THE WORLD WHILE WEARING COUTURE
Welcome to the first in a series of Who is “X” and Why Should We Care? where I will highlight people who are not household names but probably should be.
Today’s piece is about Natasha Poonawalla. Poonawalla is married into a family of billionaires, is an avid fashionista, hob nobs with celebrities (is besties with the cabal of Bollywood wives highlighted in my article) and is a regular at the Met Ball.
She has an advanced degree from the London School of Economics but speaks with the languid, upper-crust Indian drawl of someone whose only pressing need is to get to lunch on time.
She and her husband, Adar, are unabashed—or, as Natasha puts it, “unapologetic” about their wealth and lifestyle. Their opulent home in Pune, India (one of many) has been on the cover Architectural Digest India. They also own the $113 million former American consulate building in Mumbai. They have planes, boats…and a Batmobile.
So why amplify another seemingly vapid international socialite of the “let them eat cake” variety? Simply put, the Poonawallas’s family business, the Serum Institute of India (SRI), is the largest manufacturer of vaccines in the world. And, as such, they are poised to save much of the planet from Covid-19.
In just the time it took to read up to this point, their company has produced 5,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine (it’s local, catchy brand name), a collaboration with AstraZeneca-Oxford University. The Poonawallas took the bold, risky and ultimately prescient step to mass-produce the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine at their own cost while it was still in clinical trials. They did this in order to avoid losing time should the vaccine prove effective, which, thankfully, it did.
Now they are ready to rumble mainly due to volume, volume, volume. They have the capacity to produce 1.5 billion vaccine doses in 2021 and can increase that to 2.5 billion doses by the end of the year (as a comparison, it is currently producing almost three times the number of shots per month as Pfizer is).
The family history is a living example of the power of epiphany. Over 50 years ago, Adar’s father, Cyrus, was in the business of running horse stud farms. The family used to donate retired horses to labs where their serum was used to produce vaccines. The brilliant Cyrus questioned the value of giving the horses away, hired a handful of scientists and created a vertically-integrated business of processing the serum and making vaccines himself (and amassing a fortune in the process). His vaccines have been a vital part of the fight against polio, tuberculosis, hepatitis…they even make a remedy for poisonous snake bites. They supply vaccines to 170 countries, and it’s estimated that 65% of the world’s children have received vaccinations manufactured by SRI.
They are also active philanthropists in a country where the need is great yet the culture of philanthropy is underdeveloped. Through their family foundation (which Natasha runs), the family has done loads of good in the areas of health, education and sanitation. One of their more interesting innovations is the establishment of “water ATMs” providing small villages around their hometown of Pune with safe drinking water with pipelines in a sort of “hub and spoke” design (I think the great state of Texas could have recently used a few of these “water ATMs”).
Clearly, Natasha and her family are doing amazing work, professionally and personally. But I find her particularly intriguing because this model of do-gooder is so antithetical to the way we need/require our altruists to comport themselves here in the U.S. and I would argue much of the western world. Is the public perception of Natasha diminished at all by the fact that she lives exceptionally large? It’s not as if she patently compartmentalizes her good works and then tone deafly runs around in crazy thigh high boots while the rest of the nation languishes. Oh wait…
The lifestyle can and does seem at odds with the good works. After all, the family resides in and makes their living in one of the poorest countries in the world. On the other hand, they have done more for India than many. For example, their first priority for vaccine distribution is India. Once India’s needs are met, their next priority will be non-wealthy nations and that also at competitive prices that those nations can afford.
Yet, in this moment of vaccine scarcity, everyone wants a piece of them. Wealthy countries are beating a path to their door too. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have been all-in with his powers of persuasion, and Adar Poonawalla had to send him a little Tweet asking him to slow his roll.
For countries like India who have typically been on the “ask” side of international geopolitics, this is a pretty unexpected and intriguing turn of events.
But back to our expectations of do-gooders…take Melinda Gates, for instance. She (along with husband, Bill) is also a hero in the vaccination space, having long prioritized vaccine development as part of the work of the Gates Foundation. Her public persona is low-key and humble. In a recent interview between Gates and Brenee Brown, Brown sounded on the verge of nominating Gates for sainthood. In my mind’s eye, Gates wears sensible shoes. If Gates wore fashion-forward ensembles made of leather and feathers and showcased her fancy home, cars, boats and overall lifestyle in the media, would we not cancel her (and arguably this would have been the sensibility long before the prevalent cancel culture of today)? What would being non-plussed about their wealth do to the Gates’s public credibility?
What are we as a society projecting on to public figures when we decide to appreciate or cancel their efforts? What does it say about us and our uneasy relationship with wealth? Could our standards for how wealthy people should behave have something to do with the fact that America is an increasingly unequal society (whereas places like India have been since the beginning of time), and we are vexed by it (AOC recently posited that “every billionaire is a policy failure”)? Are capitalism and our puritanical origins just completely and forever at odds with one another? Or, would being just a little more self-aware help make people like the Poonawallas a bit more palatable?
If anyone has any good answers, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, I think Natasha looks resplendent in a sari…and, self-aware or not, if she invited me to lunch, I would definitely take a selfie.