Meet Nikhil Kamath, India's Youngest Billionaire
It’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday and Nikhil Kamath is in his study. At 34, Kamath, recently named India’s youngest billionaire by Forbes India, has been working more from home lately, but not because of the pandemic. In fact, Kamath’s home base of Bangalore has recorded remarkably few infections of late, so life in the city has marched on, more or less, as normal. Kamath, the chief investment officer of two finance companies he started with his older brother Nithin—True Beacon, an asset management firm, and Zerodha, the country’s largest stock brokerage—works at home, alone in his bookshelf-lined office because, well, he prefers it.
“I think I’m better at thinking in silo,” he says. We’re talking on a video call, one of many on his agenda today, packed back-to-back in the six hours between the 3:30pm market close and his daily late-night workout routine—personal training most days and the occasional badminton match—before bed. “My brother has always been more people-focused and I’ve been more market- focused. I don’t really manage people and stuff like that. I’m more interested in what happens in the markets.”
In the last ten years, Zerodha has been hailed for making the Indian stock market more accessible to everyday investors, with more than four million active users, ten million daily transactions and US$10 billion in daily turnover. True Beacon, started in August 2019, operates differently from most wealth managers in that its fees are based purely on performance, which the Kamath brothers believe will bring a higher level of accountability to the industry.
At home today, Nikhil sits on a high-backed chair in a room lined with dark-wood bookshelves. He’s casually dressed in a red, white and blue checked shirt, elbows propped on the desk in front of him, sunlight streaming in from a window on his left casting shadows across his face. This study, where he spends the bulk of his time making money moves as well as launching projects like Rainmatter, a non-profit focused on climate change, is possibly the most subdued of all the rooms in his sprawling 8,000 sq ft apartment, which is perched high above the city skyline in its most luxurious development, Kingfisher Towers. Beyond the office doors, Kamath’s home is swathed in soothing neutral tones and textures, with nature-inspired pops of colour: green, gold and floral accents.
Even as a teenager, young Nikhil exhibited a headstrong independence. Somehow, he convinced his parents to let him quit school at 14 so he could play chess on the competitive circuit, even without any formal qualifications. A few years later, he and his brother started trading.
“I wasn’t the most responsible child. I was fairly naughty and I wasn’t very academically inclined,” Kamath recalls. “The starting point was definitely about wanting the things I did not have: ‘I want to buy a nice car. I want to have this, I want to have that.’ And it was also about solving a problem that we faced as traders ourselves, trying to make a living by buying and selling equity on the stock markets. The brokers of the time were so inefficient that people like us found it very hard to survive.”
For Kamath, this early exposure to the stock market and the lure of its possibilities blossomed into a lifelong obsession. And while hobbies, like motorcycles and exercise regimens, have come and gone—“I’ve had many fitness goals over many decades and I have never achieved any of them,” he says—his most ardent relationship has been with his work. He has gone 16 years without missing a single day.
“I fail to understand moderation in life,” he says. “Everything, in relationships, in my professional life, in physical fitness, is extreme.”
So is his obsession with his own mortality. Earlier this year, he posted on social media a photo of Ernest Becker’s 1973 book The Denial of Death, tweeting, “Book of the year for me, so at 34, a fair estimate is I have 36 years left. (Avg life span 70) So easy to forget the finite nature of life, if u were to live backwards with awareness of how much time (approx) is left, what would you change?”
Surely this newly minted billionaire—and he’s single—is not having a mid-life crisis already?
“I think it comes from the fact that I don’t have any dependents,” he says. “So I often wonder in life if tomorrow, I’m walking down the road and a bus were to run over me, what would have been the point of everything? Am I going to my deathbed thinking about what I have achieved or what I have missed out on?”
In the context of a place like Silicon Valley, a precocious teenager turned bootstrapping mid-career billionaire in search of meaning in life is practically a meme. But in India, Kamath is a rarity, as a leading figure in the country’s rising generation of fintech superstars. And his unconventional journey is coupled with a worldview that similarly defies the boundaries of societal expectations. It would be an understatement to say that, in the cultural context of India, it is rare for someone of Kamath’s background, success and profile to be single, but the amicable dissolution of his short-lived marriage two years ago has not reinvigorated any burning desire in him to find The One.
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Suffice to say, if this interview were a first date, it would not be going well.
“At this point I’m gradually shifting towards living a more complete life with many other facets outside of just work,” he says. “The concept of marriage as our parents and our ancestors knew it is no longer relevant. For two people to live together and be happy, both of them are compromising at a certain level.”
Oh, Nikhil, you charmer. This personals ad practically writes itself:
“I don’t need to have kids. I think we make too much of what will happen after we are dead and what our kids will do with our name. Live to the fullest, do the best you can, and after you’re dead, everything is gone anyway.”
Wait, wait. Don’t swipe left just yet.
Devoid of context, Kamath might sound a bit cold and callous, but his tone is thoughtful and considered. He’s a self-professed adherent to stoicism and displays heightened self-awareness when discussing his values and how they impact his personal and professional pursuits differently.
“I’ve been this way for a long time, as far back as I can remember,” Kamath says. “I think it’s important to be able to take professional failures, put them in a compartment in your head and not fret about them. I do that a lot professionally, especially working in an ecosystem like the stock market. You can’t predict the outcome of every event, so the ability to remain objective is a good example of stoicism, professionally.
“But stoicism is bad for relationships,” he says. “If you carry it back home, people will think of you as emotionally unavailable and you’ll start behaving like a robot because you’re not reacting to anything.”
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As a reminder to live in the moment, Kamath has a tattoo that reads “Be Here Now”, a phrase associated with the contemporary stoic movement, on his right forearm. On his left wrist, another tattoo reads “Shalom” in English and Hebrew.
“I like the fact that it’s a reminder of peace,” he says. “Peace of mind is the closest notion to happiness that I know.”
But what is he looking for in order to have absolute peace of mind? Unsurprisingly, it’s not a billion dollars in the bank. And it’s not a mate, either.
“I want the fate of my life to be governed by me,” Kamath says. “I can wake up tomorrow and go anywhere in the world and live there for however long I like. I can work on what I want. I would much rather have that than the traditional construct of a family, just because society and moral policing mandates me to.”
In January, the Kamath brothers committed US$100 million to launch the Rainmatter Foundation, a non-profit fund and incubator that supports individuals and organisations working on climate change—specifically afforestation and ecological regeneration.
“As an entrepreneur, I feel my time is better spent making the money required to go into these causes,” Nikhil says, ever the pragmatist. ‘We’d rather allocate the money to someone very well-versed, who can make an actual change and impact, versus running these causes on our own.” And climate change is only the first of many causes Nikhil plans to throw his weight and wallet behind. He’s a very millennial sort of billionaire.
“I don’t think it will be limited to one or two causes—I think there will be everything,” he says. “The great thing about not having children is you don’t have anything else to do. I have to put money towards these causes and what I believe will make society better.”
Even though he hasn’t taken a holiday in nearly two decades, Kamath has aspirations to travel, to go backpacking across the world, to catch a train, to live in a hostel, to experience a city for what it truly is.
“I think the pandemic has taught us one thing: the future is unpredictable,” he says. “We are all so fixated on this notion of success and having more. But I think it’s a good start to try and think about what we really, really want, and not what society has made us think we want.”
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