Social Enterpreneurship: Actions speak far louder than words | Anand Shah

Anand Shah, CEO, Piramal Foundation

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“If you’re an entrepreneur, and you have a good idea, and you believe it’s possible you need to stick with that idea. There is no substitute for action whatsoever, when you act the money will follow.”

In 2008, Anand and a team of 4 Social Entrepreneurs launched Sarvajal to provide clean drinking water to rural Indian villages. Anand also serves as CEO of the Piramal Foundation, an innovative private foundation dedicated to developing the social infrastructure to enable India’s youth to actively participate in the nation’s progress. Anand is also a consultant on academic strategy for the upcoming Vedanta University. He has been a Core member of an effort to start “Teach for India”, is a member of the tt30 (a young think tank of the Club of Rome), and serves on the international board of KaosPilots (a European school of creative business design and social innovation).

After graduating from Harvard in 1999, Anand served as the Technology Director and teacher at the MATCH Charter school in Boston. In 2001, with his two sisters and many friends, Anand helped found Indicorps, where he currently manages overall programs and strategy.

Co-create for Sustainability




Teresa Khanna: Hello Anand, and welcome to the Khemka Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

Anand Shah: Thanks for having me.

Teresa Khanna: So without much ado Anand, starting with wanting to know your experience covers a wide range of organizations that you have been associated with – Indicorps, Sarvajal, TeachforIndia and other social driven initiatives. What is that you are itching to do next?

Anand Shah: Well there’s always something else coming along I think in a world of serial entrepreneurs that I think I fit in. I think that you know Indicorps goals was to get young people to feel like it was legitimate to give back to the country, TeachforIndia was very similar, Sarvajal was further down the stream, it was a company that was trying to solve a social problem but really was about asking highly talented people to come into the sector and solve a problem that had been around for a long time. So for me, the thing I care most about is how do I get talented people to work on some of our biggest problems that frankly shouldn’t exist. I don’t know how to do that without being political in a partisan sense but for a long while I’ve been trying to think about how you start an institute that trains people to go into politics.

Teresa Khanna: Wow, That’s something that we could do with. Looking at your experience Anand, can you also elaborate a bit about the key learnings that you have had with the social enterprise sector, and what really makes it thrive?

Anand Shah: Yea I mean, so the thing that makes it thrive, as it does everywhere in the world is that there are really great people that want to be social entrepreneurs. And you know I think that all ecosystems around start-ups, whether its social or non-social start with people who have ideas, who have the will to do something. I think the rest of the ecosystem has some issues, in the sense that there is money, but it’s not the right kind of money. There are forums, but we need more of them. Khemka is doing a great job at them, but there are others. I think that there is education for entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs doesn’t exist. So you know if I am a social entrepreneur solving a problem there is no school for me to go to. There is no place for me to have continuous learning, learn how to be better at finance, learn how to be a better leader, learn how to be a better manager, particularly in the context of our sector. So I think there are limitations in some places, but the one thing that we have that I think is better than any other place on the planet is an incredible supply of fantastic people and young people, and young people who are willing to do what it takes to solve social problems.

Teresa Khanna: So is it going to be this particular group who is going to change or transform things as we know it, the sector as we see it? And what is the next big development waiting to happen according to you?

Anand Shah: Well, I mean that’s a broad question. I think no matter what, it’s true that whatever ends up changing the things that we need to change are going to be derivatives of the things that people are doing now. I think that the big question almost always comes down to scale. And you know scale is an elusive thing. Everybody wants things to scale. We talk about it as if it’s a free statement that you know ‘oh obviously we can scale that,’ but scale is very complicated. For example I think there are people that have great ideas, how to solve early childhood education issues in India that we struggle with. But they’ve done that in small examples there’s a great school in every city, there are great schools in many villages, and districts across the country. But the vast majority of people who need help in India are in public schools, and how do these people be able to do what they know how to do, in the public sector, I think is a real question, at least in the Indian case because the public sector is still responsible for so many of the core things that matter – water, education, sanitation, you know access to many jobs or public sector still for many of the poor. So a lot of these things you know need interaction with the public sector and the public sector has to be willing to listen to them. On the second side the private sector needs to think more long term and feel like nation builders, and the public sector needs to you know let innovation enter it’s sort of fortress knowing full well that’s it’s going to take some time for those things to scale.

Teresa Khanna: Right, Where in the jigsaw puzzle does Indicorps come in? Do you think there is impact, there is of course impact that you’re trying to make, and what would that be?

Anand Shah: So that’s, there’s a simple answer. So when we started Indicorps fourteen years ago, there wasn’t a way for a young person who said I want to give a year to my country to do so. Our goal was to make that a legitimate idea. So the issues were several – A) there was no physical place for them to go. No organization that gave them an opportunity. B) There was a lot of social stigma against the idea of giving back to society with your time. Especially for the so called most talented, best and brightest, who had some sort of pedigree. You know third, they needed support. It’s a very difficult thing to do, and none of those things existed as an ecosystem. So our goal with Indicorps was to simply legitimize that. We simply wanted young people, the best and the brightest to believe that that was a reasonable and respected and prestigious option to spend one or two years of your time giving back to society. And we’ve done that, I mean you know Indicorps started and gave rise to many other programs. We were fortunate to be involved in the rise of TeachforIndia, the rise of the Gandhi Fellowship, the rise of the Piramal Fellowship, you know and many other programs from great organizations. So to me the impact of Indicorps is the existence of this entire sector of people giving back in the form of fellowships or intense service programs.

Teresa Khanna: That is true, and just as a matter of curiosity, how many fellows has Indicorps seen in the last 14 years.

Anand Shah: So Indicorps has done about 220 fellows. And there’s been several hundred other people, probably about four or five hundred that have come for shorter periods of time, in some way or the other. We are actually in the middle now of transitioning Indicorps because one of the things of Indicorps is that it was funded by my sisters and my savings at the beginning, and much of the money we raise afterwards was very unconditional, in the sense that people were giving it with no strings attached so one of the things we have chosen to do after 12 years of fellows is that we’ve stopped the fellowship program to try and figure out what’s next. So we are trying to invent ourselves as the next big ask for young people and for society that contributes to the future of India.

Teresa Khanna: Right, and also wanted to know, because people are as you rightly mentioned looking forward to such opportunities to give back. What is it that they are giving back to? Are there any particular issues or domain areas that are more popular than the rest?

Anand Shah: Yea, I mean there are, and I think you could break that down. I think anything that has to do with kids is always very very interesting. I think that environment is becoming increasingly more interesting. I think entrepreneurship and job creation, you know the social enterprise and for profit sense of it, has gotten the fancy of many talented folks because they feel like doing good and being able to do well should come together. So I think part of the art is in figuring out how to let people follow their passions because we need that too.

Teresa Khanna:  One of your passions like I’ve mentioned before was and continues to be Sarvajal. Can you take us briefly through the Sarvajal model and what kind of impact it has had till now?

Anand Shah: Yea, I mean so Sarvajal model started as a franchise model. The basic argument was two things, one the standard sense of what water infrastructure means is a very western idea. And that idea is 24 hours clean water, coming through your pipe. Unfortunately that is an impossible dream.  We don’t have enough water for that, the cost of laying that pipe is absurd and you know 90 percent of the water that anybody uses on a given day doesn’t need to be clean. In the sense it doesn’t have to be potable, drinkable water. You don’t need it to wash the dishes, wash the car, water the plants. So the first premise was can we split this idea so that all water has to be clean and has come through a pipe and say drinking water can be separated from non-drinking water. The truth is the rich already do that. People have an RO machine or whatever they use in their house and they use that for drinking and cooking. And they use the water from out of the tap for everything else. So why not turn that into the utility. The second issue was that you know people need to value water, if you want people to stop a tap that’s dripping they have to believe that it’s worth something. So we felt that if you’re splitting drinking water from non-drinking water, people may be willing to pay for it, and it costs something to do, and the truth is that they are not paying for the water, but they are paying for the process of having it cleaned. So the argument is can you create a process by which people can collectively clean the water they have in a way that is better for the environment, that’s cheaper for them, that they don’t have to deal with maintenance, they don’t have to pay for the capital costs. we decided to make it a franchising model, we grew very quickly in 2008, 9 to about 300 franchises across six states and learned very fast that franchising was very complicated, that having a small entrepreneur in a village who for the first time was working with a brand of some kind, who had some structure had to sign an agreement, and had to share money you know was complex and it was hard for us to trust them, and it was hard for them to trust you. So we started building a bunch of technology that made it possible to do that. We gave each of our franchises are given a machine that can filter between 500- 1000 litres an hour. That machine comes to them, virtually at no cost. They pay about 15 percent the cost of the machine to become a franchise, so they have some skin in the game. They operate the machine, they open a store, they deliver water to their community. The community feels like it’s one of them. It’s that persons business, its local and we provide all of the service and maintenance, we provide the brand, we provide the know-how and the business intelligence on how to operate a franchise like this. And they share their revenue. So traditionally that’s been 40 percent of revenue comes to us, 60 percent stays with them. And the idea was that a franchise should be able to make you know 10,000 rupees at minimum and 20- 30 thousand rupees a month by being the water utility for drinking water in their community. We then decided that look it needed a particular size of village to operate, that was about 4000 people and a lot of the water problems were in much smaller places so we started inventing technology to make that happen, and that’s where the water ATM came from. The idea was that you know it’s too expensive to provide a manned facility in a village of 250 people, where we could put an automated vending machine where we refill it when it needs to be refilled, but that someone, anyone can come and get water whenever they need it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and know that’s its safe. That’s what the water ATM was invented for, now it’s being applied primarily in urban areas. And we invented other technology for monitoring control of our machinery to make sure the quality was right.

Teresa Khanna: This does sound wonderful given that the evolution from the start to now has been tremendous, and you have learned and tweaked the process on its way. So it is a classic win win as we know it. Before we let go of you we would really like to know your thoughts or tips that you might have for budding entrepreneurs who may not have the money but have the passion?

Anand Shah: So basic tip is this – if you’re an entrepreneur, and you have a good idea, and you believe it’s possible you need to stick with that idea. There is no substitute for action whatsoever, when you act the money will follow. If you’re worried about cash first and you want someone to buy you’re idea and invest in your idea alone, you are too worried. My experience in life and my advice to anyone who is an entrepreneur is actions speak far louder than words and behind the scenes there are many many people that are looking for people who act on problems they are willing to back you, they are willing to support you, you just need to start.

Teresa Khanna: Thank you so much Anand for sharing your wisdom, and that was quite a few pearls of wisdom in there. Thanks once again.

Anand Shah: Thank you, thank you again. Thanks to the Khemka Foundation for continuing to be such a force in this sector.


Views expressed here are solely that of the person interviewed and may not represent the views of The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.