As far as she knows, her name means wealth, “both spiritual and material,” says Jeroo Billimoria. Born in a Parsi family in Mumbai, Jeroo imbibed all the qualities of her name: she now helps underprivileged youth around the world create wealth and break out of the shackles of poverty.
“My social-worker mom took me to every community meeting and social-work event, and my accountant dad was always ready to help everyone under the sun. I was 12 when I first helped a domestic helper get her own bank account,” says the 52-year-old who is now based in the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and two children.
Having an “amazing set of parents” definitely guided the younger Jeroo’s sense of purpose. Having graduated from the University of Mumbai, she did her Master’s in social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and then headed to New York to earn an MS in non-profit management from the New School for Social Research.
She worked for several years as an instructor in Tata Institute of Social Sciences before setting up Meljol, an organization to help children of all backgrounds learn about their rights and responsibilities, and to provide them with opportunities to contribute positively to their environment.
In 1996, she set up Childline India Foundation, a 24-hour emergency number for children. Within just three years, with support from the government, Childline had spread to several states, and now comes under the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development.
But that wasn’t enough for Jeroo. She pushed ahead and founded Child Helpline International, a collective of child helplines supported by civil society and governmental organizations worldwide. The first global meeting of 49 child helplines was held in 2003. Since then, it has grown to 181 members in 147 countries (as of May 2017).
When Jeroo was 35, she fell in love with a Dutchman, and set up base in the Netherlands with him. There, she focused on expanding Childline. “I like to start things, take them to scale, and then hand them over to stakeholders and let them run the show,” she says, adding that the going was tough in the early years.
“I had to face quite a bit of racism then, but I still managed to take Childline to 134 countries.” What drove her was the knowledge that kids everywhere needed help.
“I had to do the fund-raising myself,” recalls Jeroo of those years of setting up organizations that would go to on to affection hundreds of millions of lives across the planet. “I didn’t work with very large budgets, and I put in the seed capital myself. You have to put your money where your mouth is.”
Seven years ago, she set up another organization, Child and Youth Finance International, a global network of states, financial entities and educational institutions that help increase the financial capabilities of children and youth through resource-sharing.
Jeroo has been a speaker at World Economic Forum and Skoll World Forum amongst many other prestigious platforms. She has received numerous awards the latest being appointed Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau from the King of the Netherlands for outstanding service to society.
And yet, she’s still as friendly and down-to-earth in person as ever. “I am not overtly spiritual but I believe God has given me this responsibility. And so I keep at it.” Some heroes don’t wear capes.
First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine