Commerce and Conscience: The Hari Krishna Story

More than a manufacturer: Company founder Savji Dholakia went from rags to riches. Now he’s paying it forward by looking out for his community and working to solve India’s water crisis.

September 20, 2023  |  Rachael Taylor

When Savji Dholakia was young, his mother issued him a directive for life. She told him her dream for him was twofold: that he become a wealthy man and a good man. For her, there was no division between the two, and this belief that commerce and conscience could coexist was deep-seated in Dholakia as he started his working life.

That start came early. When he was just 12 years old, Dholakia traveled more than 500 kilometers from his tiny home village of Dudhala to Indian diamond hub Surat with a view to finding work. He was alone, without a single rupee in his pocket. He went immediately to the diamond district, where he found a job and slept on the floor of the factory.

Dholakia quite literally worked his way up from nothing, climbing the ladder of the diamond world rung by rung until he had the means and the standing to found his own manufacturing business in 1992 with his brothers Tulsi, Himmat and Ghanshyam. They called it Hari Krishna Exports, and it is now one of India’s leading diamond companies, boasting an annual turnover of $1.5 billion.

Dreams to fulfill

He has built this empire with his mother’s words ringing in his ears: Be a good man. His constant thought, he says, is how to improve the lives of others. This started with Hari Krishna’s staff: He created a family-like environment that provided free meals, healthcare, and education for employees’ children. The company’s Loyalty Bonus Program, which launched in 2014, has gifted jewelry, cars and even houses to more than 4,600 employees.

This generous spirit stretches to the wider community. When Hari Krishna’s finished-jewelry brand Kisna — one of India’s bestselling jewelry labels, available at 3,500 stores — opened a new showroom in the Indian city of Bareilly in February, the company celebrated by giving sewing machines to 50 disadvantaged local women to help them find work.

In March last year, after receiving the Padma Shri — the country’s fourth-highest civilian award — for his humanitarian services, Dholakia sat his mother down for an emotional conversation. “I said, ‘I accomplished all your dreams, and I hope that you are satisfied. It took 40 years, and now I can see my dreams, so allow me to take them forward,’” he recalls.

Maker of lakes

Those dreams relate to India’s water crisis. Water scarcity was one of the reasons Dholakia was forced to leave Dudhala, and he sees the devastating impact it continues to have on his country, which has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% of its water resources.

After looking at Google Maps images of India, he seized on the idea of building a lake in Gujarat that farmers could use for irrigation. He tasked Hari Krishna’s charitable trust, the Dholakia Foundation — which he founded in 1996 — with making the idea a reality. In 2017, the first lake was finished.

Soon after, Dholakia moved the goalposts: He was now determined to build 100 lakes in Gujarat, where 44% of districts are drought-prone and 28% of households have no access to safe drinking water.
The foundation has exceeded that target: So far, it has created 111 lakes, supporting more than 200,000 farmers and conserving 7 billion liters of water. Lake by lake, Dholakia is turning Gujarat’s desert-like countryside into lush, green spaces.

In recognition of its work, the foundation was invited to attend the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York, and Dholakia hopes the example Hari Krishna is setting will encourage others to join in creating a positive legacy that will outlive them. “I want to do the kind of work where people will remember me in 400 years,” he says.

His rags-to-riches tale has already made him a legend in the diamond industry, and his benevolence has made him a much-loved figure, but it is his philanthropic and environmental work that feels most vital to him at this stage of his journey.

“Diamonds,” he says, “are a byproduct.”

The wedding organizer

Savji Dholakia describes himself as a father figure for his employees. While this kind of symbolism is common enough among employers, he takes it a step further, making it a priority to be active in all the areas of his staff’s lives that a true father might — including weddings.

For the past nine years, Hari Krishna has organized mass weddings for its workers. The idea first came to Dholakia as a time-saving solution: As a father figure to a staff of 8,000, he was getting invited to a lot of weddings. By grouping many of the celebrations together on the same day, he could attend more of them.

But the choice was also altruistic. Indian weddings tend to be lavish affairs; in 2022, the average cost of such an event was INR 2 million (about $24,000), according to a Wedding Wire India survey. Not only does Hari Krishna cover all the costs for its group weddings, it gifts the newlyweds household items to get them started in their new lives. The couples might not even be direct employees, but the children of Hari Krishna staff; they’re all family to Dholakia.

The mass weddings take place at a nearby cricket field, with each couple allowed to invite 100 guests. The average number of couples at these weddings is 60, and the largest so far was 75 — which, once you add up all the guest lists, equates to a party for 7,650 people.

“We celebrate like it’s our own children’s wedding,” says Dholakia. “We are saving their money, but money is not the matter here. I’m just making myself responsible and taking care [of my employees] and being part of their happiness.”

Main image: Multiple generations of the Dholakia family, including the four brothers who started the company. (Hari Krishna Exports)

This article is from the September-October 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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Commerce and Conscience: The Hari Krishna Story

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