Sanjay Shah is a British-born entrepreneur and philanthropist with an unwavering belief in humanity’s fundamental goodness. After making a name for himself in the turbulent world of global finance, Shah now focuses on making the world a better place for its most vulnerable denizens.
As the founder and leader of Autism Rocks, he spends his days merging his passion for music with his solemn commitment—born from personal experience—to families living with autism. He’s working on some big projects for Autism Rocks, including the launch of a Dubai-based support center for vulnerable families facing autism and the construction of a 21,000-seat performance venue that promises to take the charity’s work—and profile—to the next level.
Shah is active in other philanthropic activities as well. In the past, he has contributed considerable resources and time to Film Aid projects in Kenya and sponsored a number of children through Plan U.K.
A jack of all trades, Shah is now extending his passion for entertainment to his relatively new career as an executive film producer. He knows how to pick ’em: His most recent project, “Under the Shadow,” earned a BAFTA Award for outstanding debut in 2016, thanks to the amazing work of first-time director Babak Anvari.
Born to Kenyan emigrants, Shah grew up in North London during the 1970s. He initially studied to become a physician, enrolling in the school of medicine at King’s College.
Shah eventually decided that medicine wasn’t for him. After withdrawing from the school of medicine, he switched his focus to accounting. His first regular role in the industry was as an auditor trainee at KPMG, an international accounting and auditing firm. Shah credits his training with giving him a respect for the rigorous, detail-oriented nature of corporate accounting—a competency that served him well as he rose through the ranks of London’s red-hot finance industry during the late 1990s and 2000s.
Following his stint at KPMG, Shah took a job in Merrill Lynch’s London back office. He soon gained a reputation for his focus and work ethic and quickly moved up the City’s food chain, taking on progressively more responsibility with Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, ING and finally Rabobank, where he served as head of derivatives trading.
Like so many other London-based financial professionals, Shah was laid off during the 2008 financial crisis. Rather than see the setback as a defeat, he took it as an opportunity to reexamine his priorities and refocus his career. In 2009, he and his family moved to Dubai, an energetic seaside metropolis far removed from the economic turmoil wracking the rest of the developed world.
Shah says it’s the best decision he’s ever made.
“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.”
“Dubai is a lot sunnier than London too,” he adds.
Shah continued to work in finance after the move to Dubai, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he found his true passion—and, arguably, his true calling in life. After what he and his wife remember as a “difficult week” that saw their son Nikhil hospitalized with a violent illness, the Shah family received a troubling diagnosis from the army of Dubai- and London-based physicians and psychologists they’d retained: Nikhil had autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
The family sprang into action. Once they arrived back in Dubai, they visited the government-run Dubai Autism Centre. Shah was shocked to find the place overwhelmed by demand for its services. Much of the demand came from low- and middle-income Dubai families who couldn’t afford the high cost of behavioral therapy—in some cases, they couldn’t even afford transportation to the center’s campus in central Dubai.
Moved, Shah donated two new minibuses to the center. Though he’d donated to distant charities in the past, this was the first time he’d intervened directly to help less fortunate members of his own community. He was hooked.
Shah began to consider how else he could use his resources to help families in need, especially those living with ASD who don’t have the funds to pay for therapy.
“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.”
Until then, Shah’s approach to giving had been haphazard and hands-off: He’d supported charities in India, his ancestral homeland, and no doubt improved the lives of children and adults there. But he hadn’t immersed himself in the relief efforts or spent much time on the ground in the country itself.
Now that he had a personal stake in a worthy cause, Shah saw an opportunity to effect real, positive change. He joined the board of the Autism Research Trust, a well-regarded autism research funding organization. Then, during a chance meeting with rapper Snoop Dogg, the light bulb went off, and Shah embarked on a whirlwind planning journey that would culminate in the launch of Autism Rocks.
Shah envisioned Autism Rocks as a big-name concert series that would raise significant funds to be distributed through the Autism Research Trust. He was confident that the promise of intimate events with international pop artists would convince his colleagues and acquaintances to open their checkbooks for autism research.
He was right. Held at London’s legendary Cafe de Paris, the charity’s first event—headlined by the late, great Prince—drew some £200,000 in donations from 600 attendees.
Today, Shah is looking forward to the opening of the Autism Rocks Support Centre, a sorely needed resource for Dubai families dealing with the challenges of ASD, and the 2018 completion of the Autism Rocks Arena. (A temporary venue, with room for 21,000, is operating nearby.)
It’s been a long ride from the KPMG training room—and it’s far from over.