Action For India Founder Sanjay Kadaveru talks about how the nonprofit is multiplying impact by inspiring and investing in social innovation
By Aishwarya Singh
One of the most powerful levers for sustained and exponential social impact is investing in young social entrepreneurs. There are countless examples of how early-stage social entrepreneurs have taken their ideas to tackle big changes in areas such as livelihoods, disaster management, women empowerment, climate change and more. When their ideas are at the take-off stage, these social entrepreneurs need someone to believe in them and help launch them. Action For India has been effectively playing that role for over 11 years and creating an ecosystem for these impactful ideas to scale and remove the barriers faced by these innovators. Sanjay Kadaveru, the organization’s Founder and Chairman, talked to Aishwarya Singh about the organization’s journey, future vision and its immediate focus to further strengthen its role and impact.
Aishwarya Singh: Congratulations on the completion of 11 years of the founding of Action For India (AFI) and the positive impact that AFI social entrepreneurs have made. Can you share why you decided to start the organization a decade ago?
Sanjay Kadaveru: Thank you, Aishwarya. I’m glad to be talking with you about a topic close to my heart- social entrepreneurship in India. The trigger for starting AFI was realizing, in a place like India, you don’t need to search hard to identify problems. You can go out on the streets and find problems of various kinds, types, and magnitudes. The idea was to figure out who could best solve these problems.
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People typically expect the government to solve them for us or maybe the private sector or perhaps even civil society. But if one dug a little deeper, it was clear that even the government, with all its resources, didn’t have enough to solve everything that comes in front of it. The private sector was primarily focused on shareholders and profit maximization (notwithstanding their contribution to CSR projects). Civil society organizations have a lot of compassion and a lot of desire to make a difference, but they’d have to constantly chase donors, which meant they didn’t have the wherewithal to solve these problems fundamentally. Each of these constituents had a host of its own hurdles and none were fully capable of tackling these issues by themselves. It was that realization that led to the founding of AFI.
AS: Having mapped the context, what vehicle did you identify to bring about sustainable change?
SK: Upon gauging the shortcomings of these various sectors, we knew we had a vehicle for change in young and energetic social entrepreneurs. If we could identify a whole host of high-potential, innovative social entrepreneurs who have the energy and the passion, who are leveraging market-based approaches, tech-savvy solutions to make a dent in some of the big problems facing the country, then significant progress is possible. So, our organization’s mission became – how to identify such social entrepreneurs from the country, in sectors like education, healthcare, agriculture, livelihood, fintech, cleantech, etc., and how to flood them with resources to scale the impact of their work. At AFI, we have been focused on these two objectives since inception and aligning our resources in this direction for more than a decade now.
AS: If you had to describe AFI’s core purpose and goal with these entrepreneurs, what would it be?
SK: What AFI has been blessed with is this truly influential network of mentors, advisors, and donors — not just in India, but also globally. What we do best is connect our powerful network to some of the country’s most high-potential social entrepreneurs, thereby enabling them to start or accelerate their scaling journeys.
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AS: Many of these young social entrepreneurs are hidden gems. How does AFI go about finding the young entrepreneurs it works with?
SK: It’s heartwarming and surprising to see the number of people who have said no to lucrative careers in the private sector and have decided they would rather do something to make a change on the ground in India. In the early years, we depended a lot on our partner organizations to find entrepreneurs, such as The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) (in particular chapters in Delhi, Silicon Valley, etc..), the IIT Alumni Network, Jagriti Yatra, etc. We have been organizing the AFI Annual Forums since 2012. During these convenings, we assemble 100 leading social entrepreneurs from around the country and connect them with 100 “influencers”—donors, investors, top civil servants, technology executives, and policy analysts. The aim is to create relationships between these entrepreneurs and leaders from various domains who could play a role in scaling their impact. We were also able to leverage the support of “sector champions” who have tremendous experience in the various impact sectors we focus on and have good visibility into the organizations doing important work in those sectors. The sector champions connect AFI’s team to these organizations and the AFI team then establishes a relationship with them which further leads to finding new entrepreneurs. These were some of our early-year mechanisms. Once we consistently did our work for several years, we built a credible and trustworthy brand in the ecosystem and then then the entrepreneurs began to approach us directly.
AS: Can you illustrate the work of AFI through two social entrepreneurs you have recently supported? Tell us what AFI’s impact has been on their entrepreneurial progress…
SK: Over the course of the last decade, we’ve worked with more than 1,000 social entrepreneurs from various parts of India. One specific example is a brilliant young entrepreneur named Akshita Sachdeva, who is the co-founder of a company called Trestle Labs. They have a great mission of ensuring equal education and employment opportunities for blind and visually impaired individuals. They have developed solutions that help listen, translate and digitize content across several global languages.
It’s a for-profit entity and we’ve been able to connect her with relevant mentors and connect her with some state governments in India. She was able to connect with some of our donors in the U.S., such as IDRF, that engaged with her when she was selected for a fellowship in Washington, D.C.
Another inspiring example is of Shashank Kumar who is the co-founder and CEO of DeHaat. His organization works with marginal farmers from states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. He came to our Annual Forum in 2016 in Delhi and was one of the top 5 social entrepreneurs selected for the Silicon Valley Challenge. In the Valley, he had a chance to meet valuable new contacts, including executives from Google and professors from Stanford. He has said that this trip was one of the defining moments of his entrepreneurial journey. Once he came back to India, within a few years he received initial funding from an agritech venture capital fund called Omnivore, and within a year of that, he raised around $10 million from Sequoia India. In a subsequent round of funding, he was able to raise more than $115 million from a global consortium of investors. That is the largest round of venture funding ever received by any agritech entrepreneur in India. He’s really been a source of inspiration and pride for AFI’s network of entrepreneurs. If we continue to boost entrepreneurs and enterprises like Akshita @Trestle, and Shashank @DeHaat, at critical times in their evolution, nothing will bring me greater joy.
AS: You mention Akshita Sachdeva, an incredible example of women’s entrepreneurship. The AFI website also has a dedicated section on women entrepreneurs. Can you talk about the importance of investing in women entrepreneurs to begin with?
SK: The idea is to figure out how we can design and customize support for women social entrepreneurs to scale up their organizations. There are a lot of accelerators and incubators working with commercial and social entrepreneurs, but women, in particular, have a unique set of challenges that need to be overcome. One thing that we have realized is of high value to these women entrepreneurs is being given a safe space to share and discuss the specific challenges that they face in running their organizations. In fact, over the years, investing in women social entrepreneurs has been one of our top priorities at AFI. A few years ago, the eBay Foundation was focused on supporting entrepreneurship among minority populations globally. It selected a few organizations from around the world and invited them to submit proposals aligned with that broad theme. AFI was one of the organizations they selected during this intense competition. Our proposal, which focused on working with leading women social entrepreneurs of India, was approved and eBay Foundation supported our work for two years.
AS: While the goal of wanting to invest more in women entrepreneurs might be clear, the path can sometimes be difficult. Could you elaborate on how AFI has gone about investing in women social entrepreneurs?
SK: This is a topic close to my heart. I have spent a lot of my time figuring out what we at AFI can do to bring Indian women entrepreneurs to the forefront. Do we just offer assertiveness training because people say women don’t make aggressive projections and predictions with regard to how well a product or service has done or because they don’t aggressively network with VC funds or investors? Different people have tried different approaches. One organization decided they would focus on simply putting women entrepreneurs in front of investors while another took the stance that this is a policy issue and that we need to work on bringing paternity leave into law, the implication being that if the entrepreneur becomes pregnant with a child, her husband can help with housekeeping. At AFI, we have witnessed the tenacity, passion, and social mindedness that women social entrepreneurs have to make a difference. We, as an organization, just have to stand by them, empower them and give them access to the right networks for them to do a world of good.
AS: You mention AFI’s ties to Silicon Valley and how you put your access to work for the entrepreneurs you work with. How has the Indian Diaspora within the Valley, and in the United States more broadly, played a role in AFI’s growth and impact over the last decade?
SK: The Indian diaspora is one of the most powerful within the United States. Average annual incomes are the highest for the Indian diaspora when compared to any other similar group. If you look at the Fortune 500 CEOs, Indian diaspora members make up a large and growing number of them. In fact, there is a statistic that half of all Silicon Valley startups have an India diaspora member either as a founder or as a top management member. So, right from the early days, Indian Diaspora members have been great pillars of support for AFI, whether financially or by acting as mentors or by facilitating partnerships with relevant organizations. This is a powerful differentiator for AFI as an impact-driven organization focused on India: our ability to mobilize successful tech entrepreneurs and investors to support Indian social entrepreneurs. These diaspora members are very successful to begin with, in sectors ranging from academia to business and, of course, entrepreneurship. Added to that, they have a deep desire to connect with what happens on the ground in India as a way of giving back. That is where organizations like AFI give them that opportunity to connect with India in a meaningful and impactful way.
AS: How can common diaspora members get more involved and help further the mission of AFI even more than they already have?
SK: We have concluded that in order to help all of the high-potential, early-stage social entrepreneurs coming to us, we need to broaden our base of support in the United States. It is great to have leading companies back us, but in order to expand our work on the scale required, we need hundreds and later thousands and even millions of people around the country who understand, believe in, and invest in our work. It is also a requirement of being a public charity in the United States to show that you are not simply supported by a few wealthy individuals and companies but have attracted donations from concerned people generally. So, we are prioritizing donations of $1,000 or less for the next couple of years.
People should feel confident in our approach with so many well-known companies and philanthropists already having vetted and backed us. We have been supported by the likes of Cisco, Intel, Hewlett Packard, eBay India, India Development Relief Fund (IDRF), Guru Krupa Foundation (GKF), eBay Foundation, Flora Family Foundation, the Deshpande Foundation, the Motwani Jadeja Foundation, the Goradia Foundation, etc. to name a few. Hopefully, many people around the country will consider including us in their philanthropic portfolios starting this year. The link to support us is: https://actionforindia.org/contact-afi-donate.html