Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

Every once in a while, a person comes along whose dreams are so bold, whose style is so outrageous, whose entire being is so un-Philadelphian, that he’s bound to change our city just by putting his mind to it. Is Ajay Raju one of those people?

ACTUALLY, IT’S A BIG bundle of ideas. Stuff like this:

I want to trade Philadelphia on the New York Stock Exchange.

That one is a start-up called TradePhilly, a scheme for market-based volunteerism where pro bono work would produce shares that could be cashed in for products or services, or count toward college admission. More broadly, the goal is to encourage citizens of all ages to take an ownership stake in the city. Raju produced his own promotional video for TradePhilly, recruiting from his unusually wide array of friends. Law partners appear as extras; the hip-hop producer known as Zukhan Bey scored the soundtrack. Raju did the voice-over narration himself and appears first as a mysterious dapper figure walking through shots, and then, at the end, striding into full view, sticking his smooth and hand- some face into the camera’s lens in the middle of traffic on Broad Street to proclaim: “This is our city, our home. Now — what are you doing to trade Philly? Join us.”

TradePhilly has had some difficulty gaining its wings. Which leads to another idea.

I want to create a media environment where TradePhilly will get the appropriate attention.

That involves the fledgling Philadelphia Citizen, a new media venture that’s the brainchild of former Philadelphia magazine and Daily News editor Larry Platt and some others. (Disclosure: I’ve worked with and for Platt and consider him a friend.) Platt says the Citizen “is rethinking what journalism is and ought to be” and will openly promote civic activism. Raju has been bankrolling the incubation of the Citizen. According to people familiar with the venture, he’s already spent nearly half a million and might be willing to double that. He’ll only say, “I have committed a large amount.”

The founders describe the elevator sales pitch for the Citizen as “Slate.com meets the TED talks.” They’ve been carefully surveying the attitudes of millennials and appear convinced that cohort is poised to save us from ourselves — that the kind of young people who move to town to avoid the skyrocketing rents of Brooklyn are going to help transform Philadelphia into a shining city upon the hill. Which leads to Raju’s Big Idea:

I’m sure in my belief that what’s around the horizon is an opportunity for our city to reform and reshape the contours of our potential. Why can’t we? It’s a blank slate. If you can be a magnet to attract the best and the brightest, you have a real winning shot. I want Philadelphia to be the Ellis Island of the new global corporate community and City Hall to be the new Statue of Liberty.

FROM THE DESK of his temporary office in Dilworth Paxson headquarters on the 34th floor of Centre Square West, it seems Ajay Raju could reach out and touch City Hall. Or spit on it. He’s more likely to do the latter. He’s tepidly complimentary to Mayor Nutter: “He was a good mayor. But we need a better cheerleader — we need an Ed Rendell.” Raju routinely describes local government as “the tapeworm.” Don’t get him started on the parasitic petri dish that is the city’s ward leaders.

It’s late on a Friday afternoon. His day began early this morning in Russell Conwell’s old “Acres of Diamonds” church at Temple University, Raju’s alma mater. He graduated with a degree in education in 1992. Like many good Indian immigrant sons, he started off in chemistry, with a goal of med school, then pivoted and earned a J.D. from the law school in 1996.

Taking the stage in a crisply tailored Tom Ford suit, rich knit tie and crimson pocket square (he shuns Friday casual every day of the week), Raju gave a short talk to open a conference of real estate professionals interested in sustainability. Delivering a variant of what he calls “my stump speech,” he opened with a joke about the environmental damage caused by his numerous hair products, riffed through a brief history of technological change, and unleashed the image of Ellis Island and City Hall.