Gautam John: Success is a Journey, Not a Destination


Haegwan Kim: First question is, your personal definition of success.

Gautum John: Success to me is a journey. It’s not a destination. I don’t think I can look back as where I am today and say, I’m successful. I think success is like all things, an ongoing process. It’s not a place you reach. I would not define success in terms of money. To me, success would be, it would be more external, like how many difficulties have you had to overcome to get where you have, where you are, and I think the biggest measure of success for me would be, what have you left behind for everyone else? Have you made the world a better place?

In that sense education is important to me, so have you helped one child study better, study harder? Have you made the world a better place for children, in terms of being able to give them access to education that they otherwise would not have. I think I’m too early in my journey to define success.

Success is something that takes time, and more important than where you’ve got and to say that you’re successful is to look back at the road you’ve taken to success, and look at the road as a metaphor for what it is you’ve done. Along the way, have you caused, have you created more happiness in the world?

Money to a lot of people could be a measure of success, and I’m fine with that. Success at the end of the day is something that’s very personal and is something that I have to be happy with. If I end up with a lot of money, people might consider me successful, but I would not necessarily be the happiest person.

Also, I think that success in many ways is a function of what it is you find meaning in doing. It’s also a function of time. What you consider important is different when you’re 20, 30, 40 and 50, and your definition of success will change, or rather how you measure your success will change over time, but to me, I’m very clear that to me success really is, have I made the world a better place? And, have I impacted people in a meaningful way?

HK: There are many ways to make the world a better place, and you pick up education as a way to change. Why?

GJ: It’s something that I’m passionate about. Some people are passionate about health, some people about the rights, about ecology, about environment. Everything is as important as the other. At the end of the day, one chooses to walk the path that one is most interested and one is most passionate about, and I really think that’s the only one you can, that’s the only way to really be effective and meaningful in your work.

I would hesitate to tell someone to choose a path of environmental sciences just because it’s really important and it’s something that everyone is talking about now. If what you’re passionate about is making the world a better place by having less cars on the road, or by helping children read better, or by creating more access for the visually, for the physically handicapped, those are equally important as well, and you need to choose to walk the path that you want to walk, not the path that people say you should walk.

HK: Then was education your personal choice?

GJ: Education is my very, very personal choice.

HK: So for you, it’s fine to create public benefits that started from personal emotion?

GJ: Yes, to me that’s the only way you can do it. There are two or three ways to approach the social sector. A lot of people grow up in an environment that’s conducive to them choosing to lead a life in the social sector.

There are people who decide to spend a short while in the social sector, because it looks good on your resume, because for whatever reason, which is as good a reason as any to do it, and there are people like me, who chose to come to the social sector, both to spend five or ten years…..

A) because I believe I have been fortunate enough to come to a place in my life where I can afford to do this and……

B) because it’s important to me, so the nature of the people working in the social sector, whether it be for profit, be it for profit social enterprises, or non-profit, non-governmental organisations, everyone has different motivations, and to me, any motivation is as good as the other, so what I think has changed in the last few years, is that has made it more possible, is that I think people have realised that governments can’t solve everyone’s problems, and that the for profit world of business also cannot solve everyone’s problems, and that’s led to a lot more visibility and some amount of funding and support for the ecosystem around non-profits and social enterprises, which has also made it at some level financially possible to walk that path, because otherwise the traditional thing was if you chose to work in a non-profit or the social enterprise sector, is that you were going to be subject to a great degree of financial uncertainty, and I think the last decade has changed that.

We’ve had examples of large non-profits and social enterprises that have actually made a difference, and I think that creates a vicious cycle of good, so to speak. People hear about non-profits and social enterprise doing good, because of which there’s an ecosystem of funders and donors, because of which more people are interested, because it becomes possible, and I think that’s an ecosystem that has now been built and it’s possible for people to come in and do that, though I still maintain that the only reason someone should come into the sector is because they want to, not because they’ve been told that they should.

HK: Since I came to India, I’ve been impressed by its diversity, and I love it, but on the other hand, it’s quite problematic to have huge gap between the rich and poor. As one of the most prominent social entrepreneurs, can you tell me your perspective on this financial problems or financial gap in India?

GJ: In the social sector, it’s still not very good. In the West, if you choose to leave your corporate job and go to the non-profit sector or to the social enterprise sector, you will give up somewhere between 20 and 30% of your salary, if you’re getting paid 100, you will get paid somewhere between 60 and 70 in the non-profit sector, or the social enterprise sector, whereas in India it’s actually reversed.

If you’re getting 100 in the for profit space, you will give up between 60 and 70% to come and join the social sector, so you will get between 20 and 30 as compared to 100.

Now, it has its own problem because it means that only a certain kind of or a certain class of people can come and work in the social sector, with some degree of comfort and certainty. It doesn’t make it available to a choice of hundreds of other people for whom, who have families to support and can’t really support them on 20 or 30% of their corporate salary.

India has a long way to go in bringing some amount of equality or at least less disparity between the for profit and the not for profit space. Though India is also slightly peculiar because we have the whole Ghandian philosophy, that you must do good for good’s sake, and giving up everything to do good is a good thing in itself.

Sacrifice is a good thing, which I don’t disagree with but realistically it makes it an option only for so many people, and we have so many different kinds of problems at such a large scale that we should be doing everything in our power to encourage more people into the social sector, and one way of easing the transition from the for profit to the non profit space is being able to make people at least, to give people some sort of comfort around the financial aspects.

While work is truly meaningful for myself, or for an individual, you need a base level of financial support to make it possible, because otherwise it’s just not a choice for a lot of people, and you can’t fault them for that. If they have family, they have commitments, they need to be able to honour that, and you can’t expect that degree of sacrifice for that many people, coming into this space.

So, India has a long way to go to make up that disparity, but like I said, we have these historical notions of what community service should be like, and Ghandian philosophies that make it harder, but we will get there.

HK: What’s the problem for social sectors in India at the moment?

GJ: There’s an interesting statistic that people talk about in India, where I think we have the most number of non-profits for any country in the world, but 95% of them are not really non-profits and just a way to steal money. The government and donors do fund, channel a lot of money into the non-profit sector, and sadly not all non-profits are created to meet the poor. A lot of non-profits are created either as entities to funnel money out, it could just be a front for something else, so there really is a problem of establishing the credentials for any non-profit, and by the same flip of coin, the problem is also how do you distinguish, how does anyone distinguish a good non-profit from a bad non-profit.

HK: You chose education as a solution for that. Could you tell me about details of your model? Especially how you make a sustainable and healthy nonprofit model.

GJ: The organisation I work with, called the Akshara Foundation, we work in preschools and in primary schools, only government preschools and primary schools, and we work exclusively in the state of Karnataka, but we decided not to replicate the government system of education, but we decided that when children leave school, they need to have basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills, so we designed programs that targeted only these. One, to substitute for government programs, could be delivered in 45 days, had very little material that you needed and was low cost and could be delivered by the government’s teachers themselves, because then what this has done is allowed the program to scale, because we didn’t need to scale along with the program.

The program could scale on its own, because the government system already existed. All you had to do was support that, and the model is scalable because of the way it’s designed. It’s also replicable, because there’s a base level of training and teaching that’s required, and it’s sustainable because we decided that we would prove our model using our own money, but then we would transition it into government, so a lot of our programmes are now run by the government themselves.

By definition, they’re replicable, scalable and sustainable. Our sustainability is that the government will run them over time, and we provide an external monitoring function, just to make sure that it is actually going well.

HK: A final question, what is your advice to achieve success for others?

GJ: I’m sure that everyone has told you this, but follow your heart. There’s no other way to achieve success. I think following your heart sometimes is hard, especially in India because you may not have the money, you might have obstacles, but what you should know is that there are other people who have walked that path before, and you can always rely on the support and advice of friends and family, and people who’ve done that work before.

The biggest thing about following your heart is that no matter how hard it gets, you go to sleep feeling good about what you’re doing, and I think that matters more than anything else .

Gautum John is a social entrepreneur and educationalist.

Haegwan Kim
Haegwan Kim is a writer who was born in Osaka, Japan in 1989 and grew up near Tokyo where went to a Korean school for 12 years.
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