An inspiring approach to bridging the gap

Date:   Wednesday , August 29, 2007

India is one of the few places in the world where we have talent and at the same time a large marginalized population. This combination creates an excellent opportunity to bring the entrepreneurial energy and innovation to social services to benefit everyone in India. I see hope and an opportunity for India to lead the world in Social Entrepreneurship.

The Sandbox
My wife Jaishree and I set up the Deshpande foundation in 1994 after our first company Cascade Communications went public. Our first gift was to IIT Madras to establish an IIT Alumni Network. That initial donation spurred IIT Madras Alumni activities forward and it is good to see the strong IIT Alumni network in place now. After our second company Sycamore Networks went public we created the "Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation" at MIT. The purpose of this center is to connect the Innovators at MIT to the relevance in the world so that the innovators can innovate meaningful solutions to the world problems. We are very pleased with the progress. In the process of working with the center at MIT, we realized that Innovation has a role to play not only in the most sophisticated technology but in solving every problem in the world. This thought spurred the establishment of the "Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship" and the concept of the "Social Entrepreneurship Sandbox" in India.

When we started working in India, we realized that India has a lot of compassionate people. In fact, India has over a million NGOs dedicated to serving people. This is a very large number. However, we also found that NGOs in India start with a good heart but lack resources to achieve their dreams. NGOs in India are like under funded startups; they start with a big dream, struggle to survive, get defocused and barely mange to make a living. We saw an opportunity to add value by bringing the financial, managerial and intellectual resources to NGOs in India to make them successful. Our Foundation has created a "Social Entrepreneurship Sand Box" in India where NGOs can try out different ideas. We wanted to pick an area for the sandbox that is large enough to represent different types of problems in India, but small enough so that limited resources can make a difference. The Sandbox is head quartered in Hubli, about 200 miles to the north of Bangalore in Karnataka and includes an area that covers about 8 million people.

Our current activities in the Sandbox include the activities of about 50 NGOs. We fund these NGOs, help them share the best practices and inject new innovative ideas into their thinking. We also invite individuals, change agents, from other parts of India and outside of India to come and spend time in the Sandbox. We have established a Center for Social Entrepreneurship in the local Engineering Campus that will train new Social Entrepreneurs. Our hope is that this Sandbox will become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship and create a lot of excitement and new ideas. It will be very gratifying if during the course of next ten years this activity will generate a few ideas that can scale and make a big difference in India and other parts of the world.

A few years ago we funded a mid day lunch program for schools run by Akshaya Patra (literally 'inexhaustible vessel') Foundation. They built a large centralized kitchen in Hubli that now serves over 160,000 children everyday in the Sandbox. The process that has been perfected in Hubli is now spread out to other parts of India. Akshaya Patra now serves 800,000 children every day in over 2,000 government schools in ten locations across India. For less than $28 they can feed a child for the whole year.

The Partnership
India is a large country and for social programs to scale it is very important to have the government support. I am involved with two programs where Government is an active participant; Akshaya Patra Foundation and Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).

The Government provides the school lunch subsidy to Akshaya Patra. Typically the state government provides land for the Kitchen and welcomes the services of the Akshaya Patra participation.

I have been on the Board of the Public Health Foundation of India; an initiative lead by Rajat Gupta and Dr. Srinath Reddy. This is a public private partnership with the goal of setting up 7 IIPHs (Indian Institute of Public Health) institutes to train Public Health professionals.

I am impressed with the Government's participation and their eagerness to embrace the private participation. It may be hard to change the governance of old Institutions. But, I see a lot of promise and a desire on the part of Government to set up new institutions with good governance and active participation from both the private and the public sectors.

Call for action
Akshaya Patra is a testimonial for what Indian organizations can achieve when they use their new-found global perspective and experience to benefit their fellow human beings. By combining good management, an innovative use of technology and smart engineering, Akshaya Patra has built a model to deliver school lunch at a fraction of the cost of similar programs in other parts of the world. It is a model for how things can quickly change for the better with the right combination of ingenuity, dedication and smart people.

I call on all the successful and budding entrepreneurs to lend their ideas and resources to create opportunities for everyone in India to be a part of the global economy.