Sanjay Shah is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to live up to their full potential. As the founder of Autism Rocks, an innovative charity that uses the power of music to raise money for autism research, Shah is consistently reminded that no challenge is too big or too complex to solve. Driven by his steadfast love for his son, who was diagnosed with autism in 2011, Shah is committed to changing the world—through music.
Shah’s passion for helping others isn’t some newfound diversion. As a young boy in 1970s London, Shah knew he wanted to become a doctor. After enrolling in medicine at King’s College, Shah poured himself into his studies, disregarding the nagging sense that he was made for something else. Eventually, he could ignore his heart no longer. He withdrew from medical school and sought out a career in finance.
Shah initially trained as an auditor at the London office of KPMG, a respected accounting firm, before switching focus and securing a position in the London back office of Merrill Lynch in 1996. For more than a decade, Shah rode the City’s financial boom, rising from his first job at Merrill to become head of derivatives trading at Rabobank, a Dutch firm with a heavy presence in the U.K. In between, Shah worked at a who’s who of global financial institutions: Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, ING.
Alas, the good times didn’t last. Like thousands of other financial professionals toiling away on the city’s trading floors, Shah ran headlong into the global financial crisis.
Shah’s position at Rabobank was eliminated in 2008. He used the momentary setback—shared by so many other high performers during that dark period in global finance—to reevaluate his priorities. The following year, after extensive consultations with his family and a long interval of self-reflection, he made the decision to move his young, growing family to beautiful Dubai.
“My heart will always be in London, but I’ve grown to love Dubai’s boundless energy and seemingly limitless sunshine,” says Shah. “My family is absolutely thriving here.”
In 2011, Shah turned what could have been another moment of vulnerability into a commitment to helping the less fortunate. After a “difficult week” during which his son Nikhil struggled to keep down solid food and ultimately ended up in the hospital, Shah and his wife consulted with a battery of physicians and psychologists in Dubai and London to figure out just what was the matter.
Soon enough, they knew: Nikhil was displaying the telltale signs of autism. Back in Dubai, the family visited the government-run Dubai Autism Centre, which was very nearly overwhelmed by demand from local families, many of whom couldn’t afford to pay for behavioural therapy on their own.
Shah realised the extent of the need and saw an opportunity to make a difference. The center had an immediate, acute need for new vehicles to transport children and parents from far-flung parts of the city-state, so Shah donated two new minibuses. This was his first real taste of direct, local philanthropy—and he loved it.
The experience got Shah thinking seriously about how to share his material success with his community, including poor and middle-class families without the resources to support children with autism spectrum disorders.
For more than a decade, he’d been sending regular donations to well-vetted Indian charities to help lift impoverished children out of poverty in the world’s largest democracy. But his personal investment in the endeavour was limited: He worked through intermediaries and didn’t spend much time on the ground in the communities he supported.
“I’ve long believed it my duty to give generously to my community and to the causes I care about in the wider world,” says Shah, “but I’d never really discussed intentional philanthropy with my family until Nikhil’s diagnosis.”
Shah resolved to leverage the connections he’d built over the course of his financial career to support autism research, which he believed to be underfunded and scattershot. He joined the board of the Autism Research Trust, well-known for its funding of autism research. But Shah believed he could do more. His well-heeled colleagues and acquaintances could be persuaded to throw their financial support (not to mention their own personal networks) behind the autism research, he reasoned, were they simply given a tangible target—an engaging “hook”—for their philanthropy.
During a chance meeting with legendary hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg, Shah found his hook: a star-studded concert series that funneled its proceeds to autism research. In 2014, Autism Rocks was born, and the dream had become a reality. With Prince as the headliner, the charity’s first event was a smashing success that raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from some 600 philanthropic Londoners. The rest, as they say, is history.
As Autism Rocks grows, Shah is getting used to setting—and clearing—high bars for his charitable activities. He’s currently overseeing the construction of the Autism Rocks Support Centre, a full-spectrum resource for Dubai families facing autism-related challenges. According to Shah, the Support Centre will fill a crucial and largely unmet need in the emirate.
“The Autism Rocks Support Centre is a much-needed facility in the UAE,” says Shah. “Autism is not recognised for insurance-funded care here, which presents substantial challenges for families with limited resources.”
Shah is also deeply involved in the continued development of the Autism Rocks Arena. Launched in 2016 with the help of pop superstar Nicki Minaj, the arena is a purpose-built temporary venue with seating space for 21,000. Though it’s merely a placeholder for the permanent arena, which is set to open its doors in 2018, the temporary space has a full concert schedule—proof positive that Shah’s passion for autism research (and good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll) is infectious.