Cover Dato' Vijay Eswaran at Qi Tower, Petaling Jaya (Photo: Imran Sulaiman/Tatler Malaysia

The low-key executive chairman of multinational conglomerate QI Group on leading a business that puts people and the planet first

Growing up, Dato’ Sri Vijay Eswaran learnt a lot about leadership from his father, a prominent youth leader in the 1950s who lived by the principle of ‘service above self’. Inspired by his father’s values and raised in a traditional Malaysian Indian family, Vijay completed his education abroad and dutifully entered the corporate career that was expected of him.

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“As a boy born into a middle-class family, I was following a set path,” shared Vijay, who studied economics and political science in the UK. “It was much later, when circumstances forced me to evaluate what I was doing with my life, that the idea of becoming an entrepreneur began to take root. No one in my family had ever tried their hand at business, so I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice.”

After spending 13 years abroad in the UK and the US, which included a stint in corporate America, Vijay returned home to Malaysia in the early 90s. It would take a few more years and a move to the Philippines before he embarked on his entrepreneurship journey. In 1998, Vijay and his partners founded the QI Group, guiding the startup through an economic crisis and sticking to their defining tenet of ‘Raise yourself to help mankind.’

"We had read an interesting anecdote about the great Indian humanitarian Mahatma Gandhi’s time in South Africa and his campaign for non-violent resistance against the discrimination of Indians there in the early 1900s," he explained. 

“Many people volunteered their services to support his movement, including a young man who had just dropped out of university. The young man came to Gandhi, who asked him how he could contribute. The young man said he would do anything that was needed, from cleaning the premises to odd jobs and errands. Gandhi apparently told him, ‘We have plenty of people to do that. What we need are doctors to tend to the sick, lawyers to defend our people and teachers to educate the young. So go make something of yourself first so that you are in a position to help the community. You need to raise yourself first before you can help others.’

"Inspired by this story, we coined the phrase 'Raise Yourself To Help Mankind'. In its simplest form it means empowering yourself, before you can help someone else. This philosophy has held us in good stead for over two decades because it is the driving force of everything we do.”

Today, the QI Group of companies values sustainability, integrity and community development above all. Beyond just rhetoric, this influential conglomerate walks the talk and empowers underprivileged communities directly through its social impact initiative, RYTHM Foundation.   

“Our business interests are diverse, including education, e-commerce, direct selling, hospitality, luxury retail and more. While these may seem rather varied, the common thread that connects them is that each entity is driven by the desire to make a positive social impact.”

Vijay chats more with Tatler on the importance of leading by example and why a strong value system is the bedrock of running a successful and sustainable business in an increasingly uncertain world.

How do you motivate your team members to align with the QI Group’s values?

By leading by example. Some things our employees learn right at the onset of their journey with us are tied to our core values. We make it clear at the interview stage that we have certain policies that are intrinsic to who we are. One of these is that we are a meat-free company.

It doesn’t mean that we only hire employees that follow a plant-based diet. It means that as a business we do not pay for meat-based meals for any of our official events, conferences or meetings. We have also banned single-use plastic from all our office premises and have already started transitioning many of our product packaging to eco-friendly materials.

In what other ways are QI Group employees empowered to make a positive difference?

All our employees are encouraged to dedicate 16 hours of personal time each year to causes that benefit their local communities. In some cases, employees dedicate more than the required 16 hours of time as they recognise the importance of serving others. Since the launch of the employee volunteering programme in 2013, QI Group employees have dedicated over 100,000 hours in more than 20 countries to volunteerism.

 

It is only by developing calmness and clear-sightedness that we can help others and in so doing, even help ourselves.
Dato' Sri Vijay Eswaran

What are you mindful to avoid as a business leader?  

I never forget where I came from. I have a daily practice that some may consider strange, but it is an important part of my day. Every time I step into my office, I bow down to a pair of slippers that once belonged to my spiritual teacher which are always placed on my chair when I am not in the office. Only after I have paid my respects, I begin my workday. It serves as a daily reminder to me that I am a mere caretaker, carrying forward the lessons of the many great leaders and mentors who have shaped me. 

Why is running an organisation that makes a positive impact more important to you than making a one-off donation?

When we founded the company over 20 years ago, we made it clear that we would set aside a percentage of our profits for giving back to the community. For several years, we regularly donated to various well-known organisations involved in humanitarian efforts around the world. We found out the hard way that the bang for our buck was almost invariably lost along the way. Having learned that, we decided to do it ourselves and that’s how the RYTHM Foundation was born.

Once the Foundation was established, we realised that writing a one-time cheque is not a sustainable solution to any of the problems faced by vulnerable communities. They need skills, access to resources and training, infrastructure and opportunities. My wife spearheads the Foundation. She brought in experts to help develop our charter which led us to aligning with the UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Every project is designed to address a specific set of goals that have been identified after extensive due diligence and none of the projects are shorter than three years, the minimum time required to drive longer term change.

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Why was it so important to align the QI Group’s goals with the UN Sustainable Development Goals? 

The SDGs are a good place to start, especially for the private sector and businesses that have a presence in many different geographies. There are so many areas of need in this world. As much as we would like to help everyone everywhere, it is not practical. For companies that want to make a difference and don’t know where to begin, the SDGs serve as a useful guide in identifying the type of actions you want to be involved in that will make an impact for a better and more sustainable future for your community.

Why is value-based leadership so important to you?

As a young boy, I watched my father work tirelessly to serve others selflessly. From him I learnt that being a true servant leader means putting the needs of others ahead of your own, in service to a greater purpose.

We live in a world today that is becoming increasingly divided and polarised. We are just emerging from a difficult two years into a post pandemic world with more uncertainties than ever. It is only by developing calmness and clear-sightedness that we can help others and, in so doing, even help ourselves. This is only possible when we are guided by a strong value system.

Have you ever found yourself in a position where business interests conflicted with your personal values?

It’s very simple. There is no compromise. When it is profit versus personal values, the values will always trump. I have no problem walking away from a business deal if it doesn’t align with my values.

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