As part of the new PCDN.global we are launching a new series, Social Change Career Profiles. These are short insightful interviews of leading changemakers where they share tips for advancing a career of impact, suggestions for skills development, their favorite resources, and more.
If you have a suggestion for someone we might feature in a future interview please get in contact.
Dr. Zelizer: To start can share a bit about your career and how did you move from pharmaceuticals to doing an MBA and subsequently becoming a serial social entrepreneur.
Lalit: I didn’t plan out my career. I come from a very decent family in India. In my country, there is often a specific hierarchy of careers in our culture and certain expected steps. These include do your schooling, then go to college for a technical degree, such as engineering or medicine, followed by a Master’s degree, then land a good job, marry, have kids and then die.
Every time I speak at a conference or as a mentor, I start by mentioning I have a particular privilege of having support from my family. They haven’t forced me or my siblings to follow the expected path. When I started college, my intention was not to become a doctor but have a useful specialized degree which is how I studied pharmaceutical science. During my studies, I learned a great deal regarding mixing chemicals, developing new products, and problem solving. As I approached my third year of studies I realized I didn’t want to be a pharmacist my whole life and wanted to do something different. I didn’t have a mentor and thus needed to do my own research.
After graduating, I worked on various projects as a junior scientist on stem cell research, drug development and intensive interaction with patients in numerous locations. It was interesting work and I developed a range of skills.
Unlike many of my colleagues I did a lot of direct engagement with patients (often people who suffered from various blood cancers) to know and understand the problem that people face who have various diseases.
I knew prior to graduating I wanted to do an MBA, but the reason I took the job is I didn’t want to go straight for my MBA as having practical work experience would be valuable and make me a much stronger candidate.
I applied to various MBA programs in Europe, the US and India. I was admitted to a very strong program in India, and joined the National Institute of Technology in Jaipur. As I advanced with my studies, I realized that the core curriculum was very outdated.
Dr. Zelizer: As it is many parts of the world.
Lalit: Yes, because the MBA was teaching more industrial content and often the professors teaching didn’t have direct business experience.
This was a setback for me, but I did finish the MBA as it wasn’t feasible to drop out (it isn’t common in India). I then then worked for almost two years in business development and analysis in various countries in Europe, and India. When I left my last job in 2014, I started traveling within India and Southeast Asia to learn as much as possible. I knew I needed to explore because I was sure I was going to build my own startup and wanted to also have a strong focus on social impact in addition to the business side. As an entrepreneur advising others I always stress one can be a social entrepreneur, one can have social impact, but it is essential to have a sustainable business model.
As I traveled (over 10,000 kilometers in India) I had these core principles and connected with the artisan craft industry which I had always been fond of in my country. It is one of the main economic engines in rural regions (after agriculture production).
Based on my experience I saw a key gap for many rural artisan producers. After a lot of exploration, relationship building, I started a simple platform Handscart in 2015 to develop a new approach to the industry. Instead of only producing traditional designs (in an saturated market which often didn’t receive much attention in India and other developing countries), I sought to bring together innovative global designers with local artisans for a new type of high-quality product. At the initial stage I received a number of awards including from the UN for sustainable development which helped a lot with the launch.
Dr. Zelizer: How do you measure the impact of the company? Is it in terms of volume of sales? People impacted? How do you tell the story?
Lalit: The platform started in 2014 or 2015. These days I am only on the board as I moved on from the CEO position when we achieved stability. We are working in 14 countries including India, Nepal, Philippines, Vietnam, Uganda, Kenya, and Poland. We’ve impacted more than 8,000 artisans, the majority of them women.
When I started my dad asked two key questions. How are you going to survive in this field filled with many big players? There are tons of traditional craft businesses in India that sell to wholesale stores. The second is how will being a social entrepreneur guide your work and life? These questions were powerful and helped me focus on the unique value proposition of Handscraft.
A central challenge regarding the handicraft industry in India and Asia, is that many people weren’t found of the products and a lack of innovation. For many in the region, if a product is imported from from Milan or New York, the assumption it is more desirable, of a higher quality and worthy of a higher cost. But for traditional crafts from our own region, many don't want to purchase or value the products.
What I did is change the model to bring innovation and leading design to handicrafts. We brought leading international designers from Paris, Milan and other key cities. We currently have 12 designers from diverse fields, including bags, accessories, and related sectors. The designers create designs with rural communities and work out the market, what materials will work and the quality control. We’ve expanded our work to start using machine learning and blockchain technologies to ensure we are 100% transparent on all aspects of the product sourcing.
There are four pillars to our work, the designers, the artisans, producing a high-quality product for customers and transparency. We have also done internal and external assessment to see our impact. We’ve explored how many days are we giving artisans work. For example, in one year, how many days are they employed with Handscraft and the average increase in their income. For example, if they were previously earning $10 a day, now they are earning $20 per day. Having worked with more than 8000 people, we’ve had a strong impact with over 80% of our artisans and we’re further scaling our work and impact.
Dr. Zelizer: It can be hard to scale but if you’re doing business to business (b2b) then you can reach a much higher volume.
Lalit: Exactly. Since this was my first startup, there were lots of ups and down. I could have bought products and worked with NGOs or wholesalers, which would have been easy. But this wasn’t my intention. I was dedicated to connecting with individual artisans and buying directly from them.
I’m sorry but I don’t believe in NGOs, because of all the things I’ve seen. They’ve been working with artisans for 30 to 40 years in India and for many their situation hasn’t improved during this time. Prior to fully launching I did a lot of hard work and also didn’t invest time or energy in sales and marketing. I had my brother who is an engineer build the backend of the platform marketplace. Then I learned coding to begin adding products to the site. Through my network and word of mouth sales grew.
Dr. Zelizer: If someone is interested, is there room for new artists or designers? How can others become engaged?
Lalit: We know we couldn’t effectively reach artisans in 14 countries and produce quality products from India. In each country we have a country coordinator who has a wide range of responsibilities including finding the right people, working with designers, being tech savvy, sourcing materials and ensuring quality.
Dr. Zelizer: Great let’s talk about Sensegrass and your work using new technology to increase agricultural yields. Obviously, Startup Chile (Sensegrass was selected for their startup accelerator is globally known and only picks the most promising companies. Can you talk about your experience and also how you’re growing Sensegrass?
Lalit: For the past few years I’ve mostly been based in Europe. I think I’m the only person from India who received three European startup visas from France, Italy and Spain. And more recently the Canadian Impact visa.
Receiving the visas and funding helped to grow HandsCart. Once we reached stability, I launched a new startup focused on the circular economy and fashion (MakeYou Green). Customers could use the clothing and then recycle it and we gave them some money back. It was a great idea, but in the end, we sold the company to a French Startup.
I then decided to focus on a key challenge in India (as well as many developing countries) of improving agricultural yields. As you may know we have a huge problem in India with farmers being trapped in debt and poverty, there are significant numbers even committing suicide each year out of desperation. I decided to focus on small and mid-size farmers given that agriculture is an industry that is always needed, unlikely to be hit by a recession and there as a lack of entrepreneurs engaging in the AgTech Space. Moreover, around the world 72% of farms belong to small and mid-size producers and in India the figure is close to 95% (less than two hectares). I started the company while in France and was accepted into a startup program that provided some funding. This was the very initial days and we did some pilot testing in the US in the state of Nebraska.
At that time, we used use drones to map and help improve output. But we realized as a precision farming company this wasn’t the right approach. Working with my colleagues we developed an innovative and patented new technology which is a soil sensor (Internet of things device) that provides real time data. It is the only device in the world that measures nitrate phosphorous levels and is an intelligent soil system that can guide farmers how to adjust their production and planning. In the past, no matter where one was based, in the US, Israel, UK, Europe, India, Africa or Latin America, there was only one conventional method for soil testing, to send it to the lab. This approach was both time consuming and expensive, thus we designed this device which goes directly into the soil and monitors a number of key components and helps farmers understand moisture needs, fertilizer guidelines and more. It is basically a smart farming device that provides real time actionable guidance for farmers.
Apart from the soil sensor, we also use data from nano satellites which is a powerful combination. The data from the satellites comes from the private and public sectors and using our AI tools, we can predict and guide farmers via an app and web-based dashboard.
For example, how much fertilizer should a farmer use in a particular area. While the farmers know how to farm, using our data they can radically improve their yield, reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers and increase their incomes.
Dr. Zelizer: It sounds like you’re beyond the pilot stage. Can you describe the impact you’re having to date? How many farmers are using the product and what are the results?
Lalit: We have done three pilots and now have paying customers. We have five b2b clients and almost 3000 farmers using the solution with an average crop yield increase of 38% and a 25% decrease in the use of fertilizers.
These two impacts are helping improve the financial situation for farmers. And we are continually working on developing new features for the product. We’ve already raised funding already and expanding our reach. For example, we are working with the Chilean government and getting a good response from larger region in Latin America. The product can be used for any type of crop in any part of the world including soy, bean, barley, fruits, tobacco.
Dr. Zelizer: What's the average price point for a small farmer?
Lalit: There is a one-time hardware cost of $799. While the software costs about $50 a year. If you work for a b2b company you can simply purchase it. If you’re a small farmer you can lease the device for a small monthly fee with a subscription mode plus a one-time down. It’s very affordable.
Dr. Zelizer: What do you think are the most important skills you need your work and how do you keep advancing your skills?
Lalit: I'm not just going to talk about the business tech skills, but focus more on the human skills. Empathy is essential. Many people talk about empathy, but for social impact it is critical. You have to wear the shoes of the population you're working with because otherwise you cannot help address the challenges they face. Basic human skills are key, but you also have to be focused and start small. You can get really excited and try to do too much at once in a complex problem which could cause you to fail.
Dr. Zelizer: What do you do to relax?
Lalit: I enjoy my work and often work 18 hours a day. But do other things as well. I connect with people on LinkedIn (as we did since I was following PCDN ) and get new ideas. In my opinion networking and social capital are often more important than financial capital in today’s world.
Dr. Zelizer: What is your career advice for people who are younger who seek a career in the social impact space?
Lalit: I always say one thing, no matter what you have learned in your life, in or out of school, it is going to be useful at one point of your life. What is important getting experience no matter the path. I started later around when I was 25. The newer generation is starting younger. I recently met someone who started a global youth organization at 14.
Having a backup plan is important as well as in Asia we often don’t have a strong social safety net. Being aware that many social enterprises fail (maybe 99%) can help a lot. If you fail having a degree or skills to fall back on is key if one is from a developing nation.
Dr. Zelizer: What platforms do you use to stay informed and inspired?
Lalit: I use Twitter a lot. One suggestion is every time you see an interesting website or article, subscribe to the org’s social media channels to stay informed. Even if you are not in the same field this is a valuable form of learning. Second if the organization is a competitor following them can give you strong insights regarding your own business.
I also use Medium and LinkedIn is key. When you connect with a stranger send a short message (similar to how I connected with you). Facebook and Facebook groups can also be great, despite the privacy concerns.
Dr. Zelizer: Any other suggestions as we conclude the interview
Lalit:If you really want to do something don’t wait. Even if you fail or pass give it a try and you will learn a lot.
Lalit is a dynamic and young entrepreneur, who founded his first startup at the age of 23 and bootstrap and now at the age of 29 He Founded four startups and three is funded with an Exit.
Lalit has shown his problem solving and analytical skills since his college days and started working on some global issues like climate change and textile waste. Lalit is more concern about social issues in India and developing nations and he believes Exponential Technology can be an important tool to solve such problems.
Since he started his entrepreneurial career Lalit helped more than 50 social impact startups and entrepreneurs as a mentor and start-up consultant and helped them to raised funds. Lalit is a public speaker as well and has spoken on varieties of topics from Future of SDG's to Civic education in the Arab world, unsustainable business model importance in startups to Human IQ vs Future of AI etc. at various platforms including UN HQ in Geneva.
Lalit is first and the only entrepreneur awarded by three European government with innovative startup visa and funds for his work and represented India and his work in the UN twice. Raised funds from angel to VC, grants to public funds.
Lalit has won multiple fellowships including Ashoka changemaker exchange, Bosch fellow, SOCAP, and he is part of much international youth organisation like world merit, make sense and mentor in the various incubator and Global shaper in World Economic Forum. Lalit is an Indo American youth leader for 2019 and ASEAN Youth leader for the year 2019 as well.
Lalit is writing two books on the topic of Startup- "How to win the hardest marathon- Startups" and "Life after the Arctic". Lalit is Robert Swan Arctic expedition fellow as well.