Dilworth Paxson CEO and co-chairman Ajay Raju is not only one of Philadelphia's brightest legal minds but the new face of community leadership.
Having climbed to the top of Philadelphia law, Ajay Raju now also finds himself atop the city’s most prominent civic and philanthropic ventures.
Sitting at a small table inside Parc on a breezy late fall afternoon, Ajay Raju looks every bit the part one has come to expect from the 44-year-old lawyer and newly minted thought leader of Philadelphia. Dressed in one of his requisite tailored suits and sporting his meticulously coiffed tuft of black hair, Raju speaks in hearty conversational gulps about his love for the city, his visions for a better future, and yes, even about the juxtaposition of his appearance and ambitions.
“The tomatoes that get thrown at me, I earn them,” says Raju, who was recently appointed CEO and cochairman of powerhouse law firm Dilworth Paxson after nearly a decade spent climbing the ranks at Reed Smith. “[But] the majority of serious people doing serious things don’t obsess over running out of hair gel.”
Since taking on his new role at Dilworth in January, Raju has made a conscious decision to leverage his corporate achievements and embrace his flamboyant public persona in order to aggressively effect social and economic change in Philadelphia. “I’ve come out of the shadows recently because I think I have a brand and I should be putting that brand to use,” he says.
The view of City Hall from Raju’s office helps him keep his goals for the city in mind.
He is now, seemingly, everywhere. A regional champion who likes to say he was “born in India but made in Philadelphia,” Raju is unflinchingly bullish in his optimism for the city he’s called home since his parents emigrated to Northeast Philly when he was 14 years old and spoke no English. Once he starts talking about his love for Philadelphia, Raju barely pauses to breathe, calling the city a “mecca of arts and culture” that deserves the same cachet as Paris, London, or Vienna.
“There is so much to be proud of here, but that doesn’t mean we can just boast and gloat. You have to provide commentary on both sides,” says Raju, who appears as a regular on 6ABC’s Sunday morning roundtable show Inside Story. “We are the poorest congressional district in the country. We’re a digital third-world country, with 52 percent of folks not connected to broadband. These are massive concerns, and they have to be addressed.”
To that end, Raju has recently aligned himself with some of the city’s most prominent civic and philanthropic ventures. In 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed him to the board of directors of Philadelphia Works, the region’s premier workforce development bureau and the city’s fiscal agent for state and federal employment and training funds. He also serves as chairman of Center PAC—his own political action committee, focused on civic-minded business politics—and is a member of the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Comcast/NBCUniversal’s Joint Diversity Council, the World Affairs Council, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (to name but a handful). To be sure, it’s a laundry list of commitments, but Raju balks at claims that his many irons in the fire suggest a man who is spreading himself too thin. “People always say that I have all of these projects, but I really only have one project, and that’s our region,” he says. “I’m not a podiatrist or cardiologist. The whole patient is what I’m focused on.”
When pressed, Raju says his approach to “the whole patient” is tightly focused on playing an active role in three primary aspects of the city’s evolution—education, workforce development, and arts and culture. “Everything I do is ultimately connected to those things,” he says. “It’s organized chaos in my life.”
For instance, Raju is very excited about his fledgling Germination Project, which he’s launched with $500,000 from his charitable nonprofit, the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation. The basic premise is to identify Philadelphia high school students who have the “greatest potential for leadership” and offer them intensive guidance and mentoring in order to “establish a self-sustaining ecosystem of leadership to transform this city.”
For inspiration, Raju constantly looks to what he calls his “Mount Rushmore of people I admire,” which comprises business mogul and arts patron Richard Vague, Comcast Executive Vice President and longtime Ed Rendell confidant David Cohen, Drexel University President John Fry, Philadelphia Zoo CEO Vikram Dewan, and local entrepreneur and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest. In the end, Raju hopes future generations will place him on a similar mountain.
“I’m deeply concerned and aware of what my footprint will be when I’m gone,” says Raju. “After my death, I don’t want anyone saying, ‘Man, we gave that kid so much, but what did we get in return?’ I want them to say I tried to do something to pay it back. And frankly, it’s fun to imagine a brighter future and then have a sense of hubris that you can reshape the contours of our potential as a city.”