Helping People Solve Their Own Problems


Old sayings rarely go stale. One that has stood the test of time is – ‘Give a man a fi sh and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fi sh and you feed him for a lifetime.’

Gururaj Deshpande has taken this mantra a notch higher – ‘Help people solve their problems instead of solving it for them.’ He is turning Hubli, his hometown, into an oasis of social innovation and social entrepreneurship with the belief that people can solve most of their problems with some support from the ecosystem.

Called ‘Desh’ by his friends and colleagues, apart from founding and mentoring many of his multi-billion dollar global ventures, Mr. Deshpande has been running a massive annual development dialogue (DD) since 2006 in Hubli. The DD turns into a vibrant congregation of social entrepreneurship ecosystem including NGOs, academia, social entrepreneurs, government and others from all over the world.

As India struggles to speed up its development efforts, dialogues play a crucial role in bridging knowledge and skills gaps and help create a vibrant community. Deshpande Foundation’s initiative is beginning to have widespread and deep impact because it also doubles up as a major networking platform for people in this domain.

Efforts are being made to expand DD’s reach through web technologies from the next edition. Apart from incubating dozens of social entrepreneurship projects through Hubli Sandbox, interestingly, his foundation has also started to incubate start-up foundations. The foundation also conducts regular dialogues in education and agriculture. The central belief is that dialogue, not debate helps achieve rapid progress. Mr. Deshpande chats up Benedict Paramanand at the end of this year’s DD and shares his grand vision for India

The Harvard Business Review wrote about Deshpande Foundation in 2011, what’s changed after that?

The journey has continued and there is a lot more reinforcement on the basic belief that the best way to do development is to enable people to solve their own problems as opposed to solving it for them. In the article they wonder if this could be duplicated in the US and its turning out that it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

I guess social entrepreneurs are the same everywhere…

In the economically depressed places in US and Canada, the best way to solve problems there is not through the old model. They went and built massive infrastructure, skilled people, and big companies went there and hired people. That is not happening anymore. So, getting people to solve their own problems is the best way to do development. The biggest issue India is facing today is scaling of everything. For example, in sanitation, we need 12 million toilets, we have the idea, the technology, but how can we do that in the next 5-10 years?

Make in India is about making things in India. I think we need a lot of makers in India who will make things in India and we have the people. In other countries there aren’t enough of people, so every time you think about scale in other countries you think about automation.

In India, to spread any good intervention, fi rst of all you have to educate people, make things happen and change behavior. The only way we are going to be able to do that is by having millions of people do it. We need innovation and a distribution channel.

Let’s say we need clean water for every 1000 people, then, we need one entrepreneur for every million, and we are talking of the need for 1000 entrepreneurs. So the number of people required is huge. If people make two rupees everyday and have to prioritize one rupee for clean water every day, somebody has to convince them that it’s worth diverting that much money to this intervention. It’s not just a question of technology, you need a distribution channel and you need innovation in the way people will think about entrepreneurship.

Is there something we can learn from CK Prahalad’s Bottom of Pyramid here?

It’s going a step further. People paid a premium for the same product that people get in a rich place, but it is a little bit more than that now. I think it was a very good concept. But the BOP need to make products for itself, there is enough innovation, technology, enough access to capital and that’s what we are trying to do here.

We have successful models in social entrepreneurship, yours is one but again the scale, what we need to achieve is so humungous, how can we scale social entrepreneurship?

Scaling is about policy. The mistake the world makes is, policy is made by smart people and they think it will solve the problem. What I have found is that it doesn’t happen. I am a strong believer that policy should be made by proof of concept. So you try something in one place, try in two or four places but once it becomes obvious that it is a good model then you do a policy to duplicate it.

Sandbox is one such experiment. Right now, it’s feeling good. So, I think, what we have to do is to make policy makers have a serious look at experiments like Sandbox and start paying more attention to innovative ways of solving problems. And then if it looks good, have a policy to duplicate a lot faster.

Running a foundation is an expertise which you have. When 100s of foundations are cropping up, can you incubate them some of them?

We are already doing it for Telangana (run by Raju Reddy and Phanindra Sama (of Red Bus fame). They are funding it and we are running it. Dilip Modi is funding one in Varanasi which we run. I think we know how to scale these things if other people can provide the resources. After a while it becomes more of a process than personality. It’s not like it will work only if I am there or Jaishree (wife of Mr. Gururaj Deshpande) or Naveen Jha (CEO of Deshpande Foundation, are there.

Considering the staggering poverty numbers in India the social sector is beginning to get some capacity only now.

How far are we from the tipping point?

I think we need the government to participate. The way it works in the private sector is that experiments are done with money of angel investors and venture capitalists. Very few among them become public and stand alone companies. A lot of times the companies get acquired by bigger companies.

The government is bigger than the biggest companies; they should not try to innovate. What they should do is get the philanthropic money, try different experiments but keep their eye on all experiments that are going on, just like mergers and acquisitions of big companies, and when they see good things, they should try to promote them. Then make it a public policy. I think it should be good public, private, nonprofi t and philanthropic combination because no one person can solve this problem.

I think the attitude that I saw in NGOs years ago was that the government cannot do it and therefore I am going to. I don’t see that anymore. In Sandbox here the amount of cooperation that we have from the government is enormous.

Previous articleHubli Sandbox’ Success Stories
Next articleListen to the Child Inside You


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here