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Ratan Tata, 84, Backs Startup That Staves Off Senior Loneliness

(Bloomberg) -- Ratan Tata, the octogenarian industrialist who steered the $128 billion Tata Group for decades, has backed a startup that connects senior citizens with young graduates for meaningful friendships.

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Goodfellows, which promotes “inter-generational friendships” said on Tuesday that it received a seed investment of an undisclosed sum from Tata, the influential chairman emeritus of Tata Sons Ltd., which runs about 150 companies including some of India’s most valuable such as software outsourcer Tata Consultancy Service Ltd. and the country’s largest steelmaker Tata Steel Ltd.

The startup was founded by Shantanu Naidu, 30, who manages Ratan Tata’s office and his startup investment portfolio, in the role of general manager. Naidu also assists Tata as chairman of the group’s massive philanthropy arm, Tata Trusts.

“You don’t know what it is to be lonely until you spend time alone wishing for companionship,” Tata said Tuesday at the startup’s official launch in Mumbai. “You don’t mind getting old, until you get old and you find it’s a difficult world,” he said, addressing a group consisting of seniors and their young friends.

Naidu said the idea for the startup came from his own rapport with Tata, which he termed a “peak example of an intergenerational friendship given the five-and-a-half-decade age difference.” He added that he gravitates toward those like Tata for their new-found innocence, wisdom, and the motto of savoring every moment.

Tata is credited with turning around the tradition-bound 168-year-old steel-to-airlines group founded by his great grandfather. But he came into his own after his exit from executive duties at the group five years ago, unexpectedly turning into a star figure in India’s startup circles. He has since backed over 50 startups including eyewear retailer Lenskart, digital payments brand Paytm, electric vehicle startup Ola Electric Mobility Pvt. and online stock trading platform Upstox.

Even a small check from Ratan Tata is considered a badge of honor among the country’s fraternity of entrepreneurs. Naidu, a design engineer and an MBA from Cornell University, the alma mater of Ratan Tata, connected with Tata when he sought funding for his first startup, Motopaws, a social enterprise that provided reflective collars for street dogs. The two bonded instantly.

“He selects his investments intuitively,” Naidu said in a phone conversation after the launch. “He aligns with young people, and backs their drive, and the social impact they will have. It’s never about financial returns.”

Goodfellows connects about 50 “grandpals,” men and women over 70 with “good fellows” in their twenties, an eclectic group of employees, chosen after several round of intense vetting and psychometric testing. Many are recent graduates in engineering, the arts or filmmaking and are paid salaries.

In a country of about 1.4 billion people, every second Indian is under the age of 25. But over 15 million elderly Indians live alone, either because they have no family or because their children are overseas, which presents a mental and physical health challenges.

The subscription-based service is only available in Mumbai currently but will be offered in other cities including Bengaluru soon. The startup emphasizes companionship, which could mean anything from going for a quiet walk or watching a movie to just engaging in conversations. Non-profit models that have attempted this have failed, Naidu said, as the companions are unpaid volunteers who don’t commit long-term.

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