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Return on Investment

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

Mercy auntie was on the phone. Could I go over to her place in Cochin next Saturday? There was a function celebrating her 60th birthday. Nothing fancy. She would appreciate it if I did not vacillate, as was my tendency on personal matters. This was a strong comment from my mild-mannered aunt. I promised that we would be there, both Sumi and me. We could spend a day or two with her if she could suffer me for that duration! Ha! Ha! She said it wouldn’t be necessary in her characteristic no-nonsense style. Just come for the function. While driving home from the office, I thought about Mercy auntie. My father’s cousin had a colourful life by the Central Travancore Syrian Christian norms. Her husband, a consulting engineer, working with Tata Consulting Engineers in Mumbai, had died in an accident. They had no children. She decided not to remarry but develop and utilise her innate financial skills, strengthened by her training as a Chartered Accountant. The insurance money for her husband’s death was the capital for her investments. She would continue living in Mumbai. Whenever she was in Cochin, she would appear at all the family functions, weddings, christening, and funerals. Always with a present, a bouquet or a wreath as the occasion demanded. Her cards would be the first to arrive during Christmas. There would be Mattanchere Spice cakes delivered to her cousins. She would remember all the birthdays, and there would always be a birthday card with some personal comments. Nobody much knew what she was doing. It was something to do with finance in Mumbai. She didn’t encourage confidences on her personal life. Searching questions were firmly but politely left unanswered. She seemed to be all right financially. Her house in Cochin was in Lily Street, a two-storey Dutch-type building with stores, a kitchen etc., on the lower part and sprawling living quarters on the upper floor. The house had walls at least 4 feet thick. An elderly couple stayed, cooking and looking after the house in her absence. She would be in Cochin once in a while and sometimes invite other members of the family or us for lunch, which we were eager to accept, remembering that she served a good spread. The Cochin location had a car and all the trimmings of wealth. But they were subdued in expression. The presents were decent, but never splashy. The birthday cards were elegant but never gaudy. The greetings were warm but never sentimental. On Thursday, I got a call from her office advising that the function would occur in Le Meridien. We should reach the place by 11 am. On Saturday, We reached the hotel before time. Many of the family members had come already with packages of gifts. We slowly drifted into the conference room. The place was beginning to fill up. Corporate soft music was playing in the background. A group of well-groomed youngsters were huddled in a corner in a hush-hush conversation. When Mercy auntie arrived precisely at 11 am, she was presented with flowers and hugged by the youngsters one after the other. She finally freed herself from their attention and came over to thank us for coming. She was, as usual, full of enquires about how the family members and we were doing. Has Kunjachayan, my father, fully recovered after an old age bout of hospitalisation? How are Annie and her month-old child? Her memory was remarkable. By this time, a few other guests also had arrived. They seemed to be like the banking type, formally dressed. They were also received with bouquets and escorted to the stage by a few youngsters. A smartly dressed girl and a youngster went to the podium and started to call the event to order. Would Mercy auntie please go to the stage and be seated? Would everyone settle down? The Chairman was just about to arrive. The screen lit up with a PowerPoint slide. It announced the inauguration of the MeVar Investment Fund at Le Meridien by the distinguished Chairman of the Credit Cochin Bank. In a fanfare accompanied by a pilot team, the Chairman finally arrived and got into his seat. After the usual lighting of the lamps and welcome, one of the youngsters came to the podium to brief us about the event. He said his name was Raghu. He explained how Mercy auntie, about 20 years back, started using her funds and resources to mentor struggling young entrepreneurs in Mumbai and to give them a support system. Lessons she learned while managing her fledgling investment grow to considerable heights gave her an uncommon level of understanding of why enterprises succeed and fail. This was the information pool she used to advise her younger charges on what to do and what not to do. Starting with one, the number gradually grew. Word of mouth information flow brought her new charges needing advice and financial support. She would draw them out in her quiet but clever ways and separate the chaff from the grain, the genuine ones from the pretenders. To those who passed her test, she gave everything. Initially, it was market analysis and advice. Pep talks to boost the confidence of her charges. Slowly as she gained confidence, she started funding as an angel investor. So the twenty-odd of her proteges who succeeded thought they should do something for her on her 60th birthday. They collected a substantial corpus and set up an investment fund for her to play with. He wouldn’t specify how much was the corpus but hinted that it ran into seven figures. She could continue her mission, but now with the funds from the Venture Fund. She was the Chairperson of the Foundation. Mercy auntie had not lost any money in her vicarious entrepreneurship but had made money. It was the turn of the Chairman to formally inaugurate the foundation, which he did with an economy of words, which I found impressive. Then Mercy auntie spoke, thanking everyone for their grand gesture. She recalled the early days of self-doubts and questions, then how she met Raghu, a youngster with a fire in the belly that she could but admire. Raghu had started her journey in Angel Funding. She enjoyed every moment of it. She was proud that her clutch of investors had grown so big. There was tremendous applause for this lady, the personification of pluck and enterprise. After a few more speeches from her proteges, the meeting was finally over, and we dispersed for lunch. I finally met her when she was free of her doting crowd. I asked why she did this strange thing? Why risk money on unknown people when she could retire comfortably with the insurance fund. She said that Varghese Achayan always thought about starting an enterprise while working with the Tata Consulting Engineers. However, business was considered too risky in those days, and Syrian Christians were quite risk-averse. So this was her way of vicarious entrepreneurship, which she said would have indeed made Varghese Achayan happy. I agreed with her and thought that the quiet way she carried on her mission was totally in character with that lady with firm convictions.

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