My son had come down for his first vacation after leaving home for college. I assumed that he would want to relax, laze around and catch up on all the lost sleep. But to my surprise he had very different plans. I watched open mouthed as he got up at 5.30 am and left for work at an unearthly 6.30 am every morning including Saturdays. He told me about the villages he visited and the data that his project team was collecting to figure out if formal banking really helped the rural folks. By the end of his vacation, he knew more about the real condition in the villages than I have ever known. I realised that he had already embarked on his proclaimed mission to leverage his education to solve problems he saw around him. But he is not an isolated case. There was this smart young American from Caltech who had descended into Bangalore bag and baggage to try and reach affordable, reliable power to the forgotten lot in India. Running a start-up is lonely uphill task even with friends and family around but to attempt it in a foreign country that too in the social sector, requires phenomenal passion. Then yesterday I met another young man, a National Law School alumni who had quit a lucrative law partnership to build for-profit social enterprises. The law practice at its best fell short of his overarching ambition to change the lives of millions at the base of the economic pyramid.
I can’t but contrast this with what I hear from the successful executives whom I meet day in and day out. Will I make it to the CXO level or will I get stuck with the VP tag forever? Am I making as much as my peers in other places? Am I missing out on the next big thing by staying put in my job? Should I ask for an expat status? Unending list of concerns and desires, which seem to be the hallmark of the more ambitious type A super achievers today. The sad part is that at the end of the day they are still more anxious, more restless and more dissatisfied. There is this sense of where are we going with this? Buying the first car is an unforgettable experience but buying the next car and the next somehow seems to follow the law of diminishing returns exponentially. And so here we are at the peak of our professional life strangely afflicted by this inexplicable mid-life crisis, which refuses to go away. Can we see ourselves playing the same corporate politics, selling yet another brand and sucking up to yet another boss for the next 20+ years? Is there an option out there, which our kids seem to have discovered before us?
In some ways, the SKS IPO has heralded the advent of a choice so far unavailable or perhaps undiscovered. It showed that there are global investors with deep pockets willing to bet on the bottom of the pyramid. It proved that attractive profits could be made if we get the business model right. Above all it demonstrated that a great team with experience in the conventional corporate sector is needed to pull it off. So here we now have a chance to put to use our expertise in scaling, building organisation, designing technology and selling new services, to impact the lives of the multitudes positively. A smile on their face could perhaps mean a lot more than a few more lakhs in the bank. Can we build a new way of reaching affordable primary healthcare to our masses and make a profitable, scalable business out of it? Can we figure out how to deliver high quality education to every child? We have so many problems to solve right here, which need and demand all the entrepreneurial drive and the execution smarts of our best and the brightest. Can we raise our hands? Can we make India the hub for corporate social sector? Is this not more critical and many times more satisfying than building one more IT services company or one more offshore center for an MNC?
Sangita Talwar walked out of Tata Tea to head our almost forgotten but one of the earliest instances of corporate social organisation – NDDB – to spearhead the second milk revolution and reach milk to every child in the country. When asked about her reasons for the unconventional move she said: “This job will enable me to work with rural India and create value for them. The cause here is so large that it is worth leaving my comfort zone. It’s a great challenge for a person who has all along worked with the private sector”. I’m sure a lot of us feel that way but don’t take the first step due to sheer inertia and ignorance.
Today we have venture capitalists that have raised money exclusively to fund social for-profit ventures. Elevar, Aavishkar, Acumen and many more to follow have created a new category of social venture capital funds. So capital is not the issue. But there is a real scarcity of entrepreneurs with execution experience who can come up with new business models or who can fine-tune existing models and scale them. Passion and zeal alone can’t get us there - we have a substantial network of well meaning NGO’s which are struggling to scale their impact. Our problems are huge and complex and therefore need the organisation skills that the large corporates have so successfully imparted, to make a significant dent.
Bill Gates said quoting his mother in the Harvard Commencement Speech in 2007 that “For those to whom much is given, much is expected”. Our generation has had the benefit of the longest Bull Run in the country. We have benefited from the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS etc; that set us up to compete with the best globally and win. It is time to think hard on how we can use our experience, knowledge and network to change the lives of millions rather than just ours. All it requires is a reorientation of our mindset to believe that we can achieve our financial and professional goals without necessarily working for the Wall Street investment bank or the Fortune500 FMCG.
Are you ready for a more meaningful second innings?