Haegwan Kim: Define your personal definition of success.
Sreekanth Rameshaiah: It’s a very interesting question. It’s a simple question, but the answer is not so simple, but personally I feel success is… the change that you imagine, when you get it to happen, I will call it a success particularly. It may not be financial, it may not be just socially, it may not be personal wealth. If you work towards a goal and if you put in enough effort and if you see the end result coming closer to the goal that’s impossible, your goal, and you as achievement, that is success.
HK: You have an interesting background as once a programmer and the CEO of the non-profit, Mahiti. Can you tell me why this happens?
SR: It’s a personal story. Actually I was using computers as early as 1985 and in India that’s a very early stage for someone to have his computer, so I was a programmer from a very early age. I was ten years and because my father was a scientist I had access to computer at home. I always grew up thinking I would become an engineer one day, working for Philips research labs, working on an exhibition, fancy stuffs. I know it’s stupid but when I was 32 I thanked God that I did not go on that path. At the time I came across Sunil, and then we two together set up Mahiti. We started providing technology to other non-profits, so it’s now really natural we are, slowly we grew, and when the bank came to spin off on some of our works. We wanted to set it up as a social enterprise so that we continued to do cutting edge work, but primarily our focus should be on social sector and our profit should go back to the social sector.
HK: Why are you focussing on social sector and not on private sector?
SR: See, you would be surprised, there are families in night after night journey from Bangalore where $2 is enough money a the week. India’s a very contrasting country that way. In Bangalore, $2 won’t get you a cup of coffee so the comparisons are very different. Bangalore is highly evolved, but if you go a little further away you will see people who are really far behind in terms of development. Many people don’t even have a well roofed house so we learnt a lot about the social life working in some of our projects. So at that time it was somehow becoming very clear to us that we had to be a social enterprise which focuses on technology for society, technology for the social sector.
And one of the key things that we had in mind was we did not want to go through the donor route for doing our projects, and some of our learnings assurance that when we get funds from donors, then we’ll have to implement their ideas and their wishes. So many times we end up doing things which is not correct but that’s what the donor wants. And we saw it happening, so we were really upset about it, so that’s why we thought we’d set up Mahiti as a social enterprise. It would do commercial work but it will use its profits to do social work that increases character and use it for the people.
HK: How do you measure your success as a social entrepreneur?
SR: When we started, we were three-people company, less than one third of this room, providing services to very few non-profits. Today, we have a working relationship with more than thousand non-profits. We must have Indian more than 3,000 non-profits inside India. In the last year, alone, we brought more than 1,200 non-profits on user of IT in their work, and in the last one here we have engaged with more than a thousand students across the country. We have projects in Burma, we have projects in South America, Africa, we have commercial plans in Europe and testing. We have worked in social projects in Mongolia.
Today Mahiti has its businesses spread out across all the five continents and we are a team of about 80 people now and we have our own premises. We have our own recognition, we are globally distinct, so I feel we have grown quite a bit. One of the key things that we decided when we started the company was not to grow in comparison to someone else. For Mahiti the competition is Mahiti. We don’t look at someone else to figure out whether we have performed our part. We set our own performance benchmarks, and we achieve them and we move out.
HK: What’s your perspective on how technology can help the people mostly in India, but in the world as well?
SR: Technology can change people’s life in a dramatic way, in an unprecedented way. See, I can give a very good example; when I was working in Samopan, then we were working in villages and in one of the places the nearest telephone line was 16 kilometres away, and sometimes in the late evenings or in the night if you wanted to communicate with someone, there was no way you could call people.
Today, if you go to any village in India, almost every family has access to the mobile phone. That has changed the way they live. It has really transformed it because today for the 1% are missing mobiles phone has communication device, but for the average poor person in India who comes from a very poor family, mobile phone is their value, mobile phone is their camera, mobile phone is identity.
I think four years before, less than 1% of the poor people in India had access to camera. Today at least 50% of them have access to the camera thanks to mobile phone. They’re able to capture photographs of the children growing, of the family. For them it’s a very big improvement for families, for which taking photo was a very, very, very expensive big thing; today it’s in their hands.
It has changed the way they add value with the rest of the world. Slowly and steadily mobile phone is becoming a very important tool. This is helping the aims for girl children in the villages to encourage their parents to let them go to schools and colleges far away because parents now know that their children are just one phone call away so it’s okay to send them to a college which is 12 kilometres, 15 kilometres away from their house. This is a very big movement. Technology will bring a lot of change to this country. It will increase transparency. It will make paying accountable. It will give power to the poor people.
HK: I feel like a huge wave is coming to India. Final question, I want to ask you about your general advice to be successful?
SR: I think it’s important to take the road that is not taken before. If you’re afraid of experimenting, if you’re afraid of pushing yourself to the limits you cannot really be successful, so and anybody has to be successful, they should dream the innovation and then work towards that even and do not be afraid of going beyond the traditional limits, then I think success will particularly come.
Sreekanth Rameshaiah is the CEO of Mahiti.