Some may know Tej Kohli for his passion for luxury cars or his vast array of exceptional properties dotted across the world. However, what he should be best known for is his unwavering mission to give away swathes of his wealth to improve the lives of others.
As Britain’s wealthiest became wealthier in recent years, they tended to donate less to charitable and philanthropic causes and astoundingly just 10% of multimillionaires in the UK give to charity. And this “generosity gap” is not just seen in the UK. The Forbes 400, which ranks the richest 400 Americans, showed that 156 have given less than 1% of their wealth to charity.
One man who is helping to close the generosity gap is London tycoon Tej Kohli. The self-styled technologist, investor and father-of-two are based in Oxfordshire. Known by some for his larger-than-life style and recreations, the luxury of his life today is far from what he saw around him when he was growing up in India in the 1960s. Despite growing up in a middle-class family, Kohli saw first-hand how the extreme poverty that was prevalent in Delhi affected people’s lives and futures. The young Tej Kohli vowed to one day do something to make a difference.
The building blocks of his fortune
Kohli graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1980 after studying Electrical Engineering and he found success early on in the 1980s as an investor in real estate whilst living in California. However, this triumphant early success culminated in a downfall which led to him having to rebuild himself and his image, with the philanthropist and investor prevailing solely through hard work and a mind set on success.
“I rebuilt myself into a big success, and I’m determined to use that success to help rebuild others too”, says Kohli on his website. It is a fitting quote. Catching on to the dot com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kohli set up a payment gateway company which quickly became one of the leading companies in the industry, leading to a lucrative sale in 2006 when he sold the company and swapped living in the USA for the UK.
Kohli began growing his global real estate portfolio, which today, under the name Zibel Real Estate, comprises locations in South-East Asia, Europe and the UAE. Selecting sites where rapid technological developments are occurring, Kohli’s Zibel aims to invest in and to hold commercial and residential properties in some of the most desirable locations in the world.
An interest in all things engineering
Tej Kohli’s interest in engineering of all kinds, electrical to technological, also led him to begin funding and backing technology ventures, proudly relying on his own funds to support his investment activities without the help of banks or third-party investors. Kohli also indulges himself in some of the world’s finest engineering – automobiles. His collection is a car lover’s fantasy, with a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse and a Pagani Huayra in his repertoire.
When he is not collaborating with his teams around the world on various projects and investments, he is known to frequent some of London’s most exclusive clubs. Sporting suits made of the finest materials in vibrant hues, he lunches around exclusive Mayfair, the location of his family Office. Kohli is also an avid tennis enthusiast with two courts at his Oxfordshire home and impressively can list off the winners of Wimbledon and the U.S Open dating back decades.
Aside from luxury cars and clubs, Kohli has been an avid supporter of all things technology, particularly artificial intelligence, which he believes has the potential to make large positive impacts on human living. A desire to make an impact on human lives through ‘impact investments’ is a large part of why he invests in businesses that have the potential to aid human growth. Using his investment vehicle, Kohli Ventures, Kohli also seeks to alleviate the pressure and stresses on founders of having multiple rounds of funding and searching for investors, by prioritising opportunities where he can be the main or sole investor on an ongoing basis.
Biotech company Detraxi aims to find solutions to urgent global health challenges by engineering and regenerating organs and enhancing diagnostics to treat diseases more efficiently. Another venture, Open Bionics, is a robotics company that creates custom prosthetic limbs for disabled children. Both have had long-term backing from Kohli.
Poverty and prosthetics
But it is the philanthropic endeavours that Tej Kohli has undertaken in his life that have undoubtedly made a difference to the lives of thousands of children and adults from far-reaching points of the world.
Tej Kohli set up the Tej Kohli Foundation in the mid-2000s to support people in areas that are most affected by extreme poverty. The foundation makes direct interventions through grassroots programmes such as FundaKohli, a program launched by Tej Kohli 2005 in Costa Rica. The program aims to provide food for low-income families and the project has given free nutritional meals to children and their families every day since its genesis.
Kohli’s #FutureBionics project is the epitome of the Tej Kohli Foundation’s focus. It focuses on young people living with disabilities and makes a meaningful and generous contribution to their lives by harnessing innovative technology. The program partners with a Bristol-based robotics pioneer, which is building the next generation of cost-efficient bionic limbs that turn disabilities into superpowers. The program can drastically improve the confidence, social interactions and lives of young people and is a pioneering program in the field.
Tej Kohli has most notably had a longstanding interest in improving eye health, particularly in developing nations. In 2010 Kohli began to fund corneal transplant surgeries in India and his success and interest in this led him to set up the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute in Hyderabad, India, in 2015. The centre collaborated with the World Health Organisation in researching and developing prevention medicines and providing free corneal transplants to the masses.
From 2016 to 2019, the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute screened 223,404 people for cataracts and performed 43,255 procedures to cure patients of blindness. 38,225 donor corneas were collected and 22,176 donor corneas were utilised in surgeries. The Institute trained 152 clinicians and published 202 papers, as well as giving 892 educational presentations.
The Tej Kohli Foundation has also awarded grants to innovative research and scientific projects that aim to bridge the gap between blindness and extreme poverty. In 2019 Kohli pledged $2 million to a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital to launch the Tej Kohli Cornea Program.
The program aims to accelerate innovation in diagnosing corneal diseases. Experts believe that the best way to reduce long-term problems associated with corneal diseases is to increase the diagnostic time. Therefore, the pledge from Kohli has been directed towards a rapid diagnosis program that will speed up cornea disease diagnosis, treating patients before irreversible scarring and blindness is caused.
A partnership sparking change
Kohli’s focus on eye health stretched even further in 2021 when he and Dr Sanduk Ruit, who is better known as the ‘God of Sight’, partnered to combat needless cataract blindness by launching the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation. When the foundation began in March of 2021, the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that many other health issues were put on the back foot, especially eye health. Mr Kohli understood the essential timing of the creation of the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation and so ensured the foundation got to work immediately. By the end of 2022, it hopes to have welcomed over 200,000 patients from countries spanning from Indonesia to Tanzania.
There is an inextricable link between poverty and blindness as highlighted in The Lancet 2022 publication. Their research, alongside other publications over recent years, demonstrated that poverty was both a cause and consequence of poor eye health and blindness. Poor health is closely linked with poverty on a global scale, but of the developing nations the foundation has worked in, the Tej Kohli and Ruit Foundation has found that people with visual impairments are much less likely to be able to earn a living. This reduces the overall household income and can push families deeper into extreme poverty.
The Tej Kohli and Ruit Foundation aims to establish a lasting change amongst poor and underprivileged communities by making direct interventions through eye care. Mr Kohli and Dr Ruit have seen firsthand the effect that cataract surgery has had on some patients, including an increased sense of wellbeing and an ability to earn money for their families. The foundation hopes its work will contribute towards the United Nation’s commitment to achieving the First Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) by 2030 – ending extreme poverty in all cases.
Combining Dr Ruit’s seasoned skills and Kohli’s business-oriented engineering mind, the foundation treats thousands of patients at scale. So far, the foundation has cured over 18,465 people in developing countries of cataract blindness – and the numbers are growing daily. With 88 outreach camps in Nepal and Bhutan, and one recently in Ghana – and more planned in other countries in the future – the foundation is making enormous strides.
Spearheaded by Tej Kohli and Dr Ruit, the foundation hopes to have screened 1,000,000 people and cured at least 300,000 cases of cataracts by 2026. 10,000 of these cases have been pledged to take place in Bhutan, as the foundation has recently made a partnership with the Ministry of Health in the Kingdom and the Bhutanese government. Mr Kohli’s warm relationship with the Royal Grandmother has been a large factor to this agreement being advanced and both parties are thrilled at the idea of the achievable outcome.
The aim of the partnership is to treat citizens of Bhutan of needless cataract blindness, a condition that affects over 85% of the blind population in the country. Operating on both a small and large scale, the Tej Kohli and Ruit Foundation doctors and staff at outreach camps are working in collaboration with Bhutan’s Ministry of Health to treat the backlog of people awaiting cataract surgery. All additional expenses incurred during the partnership will generously be paid for by the Tej Kohli and Ruit Foundation.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is funded entirely by Tej Kohli and through a combination of his exceptional generosity and Dr Ruit’s masterful expertise, the foundation is changing the lives of thousands of people and their families.
Even with his ornate lifestyle, the amount of time and money that Tej Kohli has dedicated to humanitarian work cannot be looked past. He has certainly been generous in fulfilling the vow he made as a younger man to one day do something to help others in what is today known as the developing world. In a world where giving away wealth is not in vogue, Kohli’s generous streak may be surprising. But the world is better for it.
The Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation is a restricted fund operating under the auspices of Prism The Gift Fund, registered UK charity number 1099682.