It gives me immense pleasure and honor to share some life facts about the person, who is not only an entrepreneur but also a true Gem of a person. Yes the phrase perfectly drafts his work and nature.
Read on to know more about him
Venkat Krishnan grew up in what you would call an ‘ordinary middle class home’, the youngest of three children. His dad used to work in Godrej, and he had one of the best childhoods one could possibly have.
His Father is an engineer and he is one of those gizmo type guys, his house is a garage at all points in time.
When Venkat was about 10 years old, his dad worked with a company which manufactured speakers for export to Denmark. When they had to get a die or a mould made, he would take Venkat along. Few kids got exposed to what is grinding, what is turning in a lathe, what is oil hardened natural steel and what is mild.
Later, as a teen, Venkat recalls hanging out at Sakinaka, where there are many small scale industries. Accompanying his dad Venkat would watch, figure out things, and give ideas on how those people could improve productivity.
Going back to his schoolhood days, in class four, Venkat discovered the system for multiplying end digit by end digit numbers in one line without having to write down steps. Much later he found it was called the ‘Trachtenberg System’.
The bottom line is a spirit of curiosity and of ‘learning to think independently’ was aroused. And that's a critical characteristic you will find in most people who are entrepreneurial in nature - they will tend to not accept what is told to them at face value but take the available information and process it on their own. And then there was the impact of schooling.
Up to class five Venkat studied in what we call ‘good schools’. But when his dad switched jobs and shifted to Andheri, he ended up joining ‘Airport High School’ which is, by all standards, a very average kind of school.
Venkat recalls “I think that was the most life transforming experience for me. When you go to convent school, you actually don't see the whole spectrum of people. It will be middle class dominated.”
At Airport High, much of the school was from the ‘lower middle class’, Venkat was regarded as relatively ‘well off’. One day he would be playing at the house of a friend who lived in a two bedroom house. The next day, it would be a friend who lived in a slum.
Venkat says “It hits you very, very strongly when you see this first hand. Nothing shapes your future as much as the house in which you are born. That's the most significant predictor of your likelihood of success.”
“There will be exceptions. There will be the odd Dhirubhai Ambani who was born poor and went on to become a star. But those are extreme examples.”
No doubt something we all know, but don't feel for, because we have not personally experienced it.
By class seven, Venkat was clear there was something wrong with the way things were and wanted to do something about it. At this stage Venkat studied the ‘Communist Manifesto’ (he knew it by heart, word by word!).
Engineering would have been a logical career choice but by class 10 Venkat was clear this wasn't the thing for him.
Venkat says “I was quite fascinated by engineering, but felt very clearly that I didn't want to become an engineer. I wanted to do something that could make a difference.”
So Venkat decided to take up commerce. He believed that it would help in his ultimate goal - of making a difference. Unfortunately, even though he hardly studied, Venkat managed to secure a state merit rank in the SSC board exam.
His father wanted him to take up science and got him admitted to Parle college. As Venkat never liked biology, took up electronics.
Venkat refused to sit for engineering entrance exams and opted for a BSc in mathematics instead. Ironically, he coached several others and seven of his friends actually got through to engineering colleges. Meanwhile he essentially ‘freaked out’.
College was the place where he had his first Entrepreneurial experience in a sense as he had set up Rotaract club which made huge impact in terms of transforming the environment in the college, making it more cosmopolitan and encouraging young talent.
And at some point Venkat chose to take up management, although not for the usual reasons. Venkat took the CAT exam. Calls came from all four IIMs. At the IIM Ahmedabad interview, Prof GS Gupta was on interview panel. In those days, on Doordarshan, in weather forecasts, they used to give decimal temperatures of all cities. Gupta asked, “You are a stats graduate. Tell me, what the probability is that all eight decimals will be different. A guesstimate.”Venkat said, ‘“Less than five per cent.”
Gupta said, “I am delighted. You are through because this is the first time anybody has given the correct answer to this question.”
Finally, he opted to stay at IIMA.
A summer job with Khadi Village Industries followed. The project was to develop a model to market khadi without rebate. Soon enough he realized a similar project had been done by IIMA's Prof Vora and it was gathering dust in their library. What's more, working with the CEO of KVIC, an IAS officer, made Venkat realize how weak the bureaucracy was in terms of decision making. He realized that IAS was not his cup of tea. Then, LEM happened.
By this time he was quite confident about wanting to become an entrepreneur, at some stage in life. But it was also clear that even if he became an entrepreneur, it would not be something like IT, but about ‘making a difference’.
Birth of the Spark
Venkat recalls “I remember my first reflective note for the LEM class - I see myself as an instrument or tool that is available to society. And my choices should be guided by maximizing the returns that I will give to the society. So I will not do something just because I like it, but because that is the best use of my time for the society's benefit.”
Eventually he settled for TOI - a day six company - as media too is an opportunity to ‘make a difference’. And like every experience, he sought out and savored for its duration, this stint too was about learning, about growth, about invention.
Being EA to Mr. Arun Arora, a director on the board, Venkat interacted closely with Sameer Jain, Vineet Jain and Ashok Jain. He worked on IR problems faced by the company, drafting the letters sent to the Union during a strike.
Then Venkat's boss joined Sony Entertainment Television (SET) as CEO. The condition set by the Jains was that Mr. Arora could not take away more than one employee. The person he chose was Venkat. “I was not keen to leave but he had already asked for me. Plus SET paid me 40k a month which was big money in 1995. My brother and I had both taken student loans, plus dad had quit his job, tried a business and failed at it.”
But it was time to move on to something else. In a field much dearer to him, the field of education.
But once they got there, something happened.
Venkat recalls “I told Sunil that residential schools are cut off from real life. Even IIT and such places, you are so cut off from reality that you tend to live in islands. You don't know what it means to be a poor guy in India. You don't know what it means to live in slums. You don't know what it means to struggle to exist.”
Why not instead set up a day school? What's more, there would be a certain quota of students from the poorest of poor families. Sunil agreed and by the end of the meeting Venkat decided to quit job. This was in August 1995.
Venkat recalls “We spent about a year and a half researching education, figuring out what is a good school. So we traveled all over India. We spent three weeks in Europe also, doing some things together then branching off. Having conversations till three in the night on everything from what is the best method of education, to what should be the discipline policy of a school. Right down to how we should design our chairs.”
In March 1997, the day school was ready to launch. And it was an absolutely humbling experience.
Venkat says “All four of us were IIM grads, right! So we had this huge thing that the day we announce admissions, there is going to be a mile long line of people who want to get admission to our fantastic school. So 27th March 1997, we put ads in the paper and Sunil Handa came with a camera to video record the queue.”
A total of five people came to inquire. The team was shattered. Then they decided, come hell or high water, if we get even 10 kids, we are going to start our school. For two months after that, they did door to door sales-Sridhar, Sudhir, Venkat and their teachers.
“After two months of door to door calling, we closed the admission with 34 kids for class one, two and three.”
The goal had been to get 24 + 24 + 20 so getting 34 students that too with great difficulty, did not feel like an achievement.
Venkat says “If you ask me, this was my closest brush with ‘failure’ in life. But we saw through it - having each other for support was of huge value.”
Of course, this was just the beginning. The school started and a fascinating journey began.
It was all about teamwork. There was a great sense of togetherness, a team of teachers who were extraordinarily passionate. Some of them would work till two in the morning, and then leave their homes at 6.30 am to reach the school at 7.15 am. All bound by a sense of purpose, a commitment to something larger than themselves.
Parents were delighted with the experience. The following year when admissions opened, all 240 seats filled up. Some had to be turned away. Eklavya was the ‘coolest school of Ahmedabad’ within one year of existence.
Four years after getting into the Eklavya project, two and a half years as principal of Eklavya school, Venkat decided it was time to move on.
Venkat says “I am a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. And I guess I decided it was just time to move on.” Like every time he started a new chapter in life, Venkat had no clear plan of what next. But some thoughts were in his head. During the one and a half years of traveling for the Eklavya project, Venkat recalled meeting a lot of organizations including NGOs that were doing really good work. Very committed, very passionate people, yet somehow nobody had even heard of them. That bothered him.
Then in 1998, Venkat spent two months in the US, traveling all over.
On returning to India, Venkat did a lot of research.
“We need the best minds in the country to think, ‘What is the human ideal that we aspire towards?’ Rather than what is the next 30 crore flat that I can buy for myself, or whatever else that I can do for myself.”
He hastens to add, “Please have a 30 crore flat, but don't be blind to the world outside your window.”
The time was ripe. A growing number of Indians were beginning to do well for themselves. They were going to have everything that they could possibly want very early in life. Could we not then start building a culture that helps give back?
And thus was born ‘GiveIndia’, an organization dedicated to promoting and enabling a culture of ‘giving’. When Venkat quit Eklavya, a couple of things fell in place. He had just bought a home PC and was fascinated by the power of the internet.
Venkat realized that on one hand there were organizations and people who are passionate and doing amazing work, which nobody has heard of. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to give back.
Creating an organization that showcases NGOs doing good work and enables those who wish to ‘give’ a platform to connect with them. And thus, help create a culture of giving back.
He went back to The Times of India, they were not interested. He met Shekhar Gupta at The Indian Express. Shekhar loved the idea and said, “Come and help me run the paper and use Indian Express as a vehicle to build the idea of GiveIndia.” Venkat declined.
Gagan Sethi, who runs an NGO in Ahmedabad called ‘Jan Vikas’, was very encouraging and even offered to seedfund the idea with Rs 10-12 lakhs.
Through this network, Venkat met Nachiket Mor of ICICI. He said, “You know, we at ICICI have been thinking of doing something exactly like this. So why don't you set up the organization! We will fund you; give you all the support you need, help build it. We will give you the license to use our brand if you want it.”
Venkat says “And I would say I have been really lucky. The amount of support I have got in my life is mind boggling. ICICI and Nachiket in particular, hats off to the support they have given. Unquestioning support any time I need his help, he is available. Anytime we are going through a difficult patch, they are with us”. And they have never sat on our heads and said, “You have to do it this way and why aren't you doing this.”
With this support, GiveIndia formally started in April 2000, five months after the idea was born. GiveIndia is structured as a philanthropy exchange. Just as you have a stock exchange which connects companies with investors, Give connects worthy NGOs with donors.
The first version of GiveIndia was a simple website which listed five organizations doing good work. Using the ICICI network and online banner advertising Give started reaching out to potential donors.
The first eight months were a disaster. GiveIndia managed to raise Rs 1.31 lakhs in 34 transactions. On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat earthquake happened. The site crashed, after receiving three million hits in a single day. GiveIndia raised Rs 97 lakh in one week.
Venkat recalls “We set up an earthquake relief fund and at that time, we were the only online vehicle available to donate in India.” The sad truth is that when something happens, people give far more than is required. What they don't realize is that a country like India is a daily living disaster. Diarrhoea is a much bigger disaster than earthquake, tsunami, cyclone, the Orissa cyclone, all of them put together.”
Venkat says “You must keep in mind that the amount of money we will raise will always be insignificant. Even if GiveIndia becomes rapidly successful and raises Rs 1,000 crores a year, the Government of India gives Rs 18,000 crores every year to NGOs alone.”
So it's more about instituting a culture of giving.
“That is why GiveIndia insists that everybody has to choose where their money will go. Because even making the choice that I think education is more important than health, or livelihood is more important than education, means an individual has thought about and acknowledged the problem!”
Every individual donor gets a report describing how their money was used. This makes people realize that even a little contribution can make so much difference.
Backing all this passion and conviction is systems and management science. GiveIndia now certifies 120 voluntary organizations. It provides the due diligence and the platform. And Venkat believes that the market will correct everything else.
“If an NGO comes and gets listed on GiveIndia today, they typically start getting some amount of money every month. Somebody will get 1,000 rupees a month; somebody will get five lakh rupees a month. What they start seeing is the power of engaging individuals as against depending on one large donor (as charities have traditionally operated). They see the value in being transparent in their accounting.”
While earning a ‘profit’ is not crucial for Give, the goal was to ultimately become self sufficient. Today 94% of GiveIndia's revenues come through the transaction and service charges levied to donors. Only five per cent of the expenditure is borne from the seed grant that ICICI had initially provided.
In 2007-08, GiveIndia expects to channel roughly Rs 18.5 crores from 50,000 individual donors. Of these, 25,000 are ‘payroll giving’ donors. This is a program GiveIndia has been promoting to corporate where employees can choose to have a small fixed amount deducted from their salary and channeled to a cause of their choice.
Currently more than 20 companies including HSBC, HDFC, ICICI bank, YES bank, Deutsche bank and many others have signed on. But Venkat admits it was not an instant, runaway success. Few new ideas are!
In 2007, the Mumbai Marathon raised Rs 7 crores and the Delhi Marathon Rs 1.5 crores. 65% of this was through individuals, as that is GiveIndia's focus.
Venkat says “We don't want to focus on companies. See, companies don't change the nature of a country. It's individuals who change the nature of the country. So if you want to change the caring nature of the country, you have to work with individuals.”
And thus came the idea of raising pledges. Instead of an individual simply donating to charity, he or she would run for a cause. And raise money for this cause from other people. The best thing, exults Venkat, is that there is zero event organizing cost, so the total fund raising cost for GiveIndia is a mere 3.5-4% Which is an industry benchmark!
Lastly, around 5,000 people give purely through the online route, contributing 15-20% of GiveIndia's overall inflows. The big challenge now is scaling up, and this requires investment. “We are investing almost a crore in IT. Our payroll program has worked only because of technology. People sign on and sign off online. We process that and send the company a file which they upload into their payroll processing software, whichever software they are using.”
There are many high calibre professionals willing to work part time. Finding such people willing to work full time is the challenge.
“In many ways, what GiveIndia is today is thanks to people like Mathan Varkey (who was Triton's Media Head) and Pushpa Singh (Sr Mgr at Anagram) who gave up successful and lucrative careers to work for a cause,” says Venkat. There are at least 15 such people in GiveIndia who’ve said ‘no’ to megabucks for a chance to make a difference.
My advice for IIMA alumni - the IIMA qualification is the best possible ‘income insurance’ you can get in India today. So if at all there is anyone who can take risks with a low downside, it has to be you!
My advice to ‘would be’ entrepreneurs - nothing is perhaps a greater truism than the ‘3 year rule’ - if you are able to hang in and survive for 3 years, you'll be up and running and by the fourth year, you will be better off as an entrepreneur than you'd have been in a job. I've seen this happen in my own three efforts that I've been involved with as start ups, and with several friends I've seen build businesses as well.
For ‘4 yrs+ old entrepreneurs’ - I want advice from you on how to take yourself out of an institution and leave it better off without you than it is with you. And my advices for the world at large - Just try and experience the joy of ‘giving’ first hand. Give your time, money, skills to people who need it, and help improve their lives, and trust me, you will get far more joy out of it than anything else.