Ajaita Shah is the founder and CEO of Frontier Markets. Founded in 2011, Frontier Markets is a rural marketing, sales, and service distribution company focused on providing access to affordable and quality consumer durables to low-income households in emerging markets. In line with its mission to create “Saral Jeevan” or an “Easy Life” for rural customers, Frontier Markets has delivered a range of high social impact products including clean energy, agriculture, health, and water sanitation to 4.9M people and over 700,000 rural households in India. This has been facilitated through a unique distribution model where a network of over 3,500 digitized rural entrepreneurs help educate, relate, and reach these households. Prior to Frontier Markets, Ajaita worked in microfinance with Indian-based organizations including SKS Microfinance and Ujjivan Financial Services. She has worked on numerous development projects in 7 states in India and consulted under the World Bank on microfinance strategies for South Asia and Latin America. She is a Clinton Service Corp, Echoing Green, and Cordes Fellow and has been awarded many accolades including the Most Influential Leader in Microfinance Under 30, Business Week’s 30 Under 30 award, Forbes Top 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs award, and the United Nations Women Transforming India award. Ajaita has a BA in International Relations from Tufts University. Check out this interview to learn more about Ajaita!
Hi, Ajaita! On behalf of Young Jain Professionals (YJP), I would like to congratulate you for your selection as the Q4–2019 YJP Professional Spotlight Award Winner! To start out, please tell us a little about yourself and your upbringing.
My parents are originally from Jaipur, and I grew up in the Jaipur Jain jeweler community in New York. This is a very traditional and conservative community, where preserving our cultural and religious values has always been very important. I learned how to read, write, and speak in Hindi, dance kathak, and make chai. I had access to educational experiences in the US that my parents did not have back in India, and I believe this gave me the exposure that drove me to deeply consider what it truly means to be a global citizen.
You are now on a unique and purpose-driven career path. Can you tell us more about the formal education and experiences that have led you to this path?
I was on the debate team in high school where I participated in policy debates on a national level. This was a great atmosphere to form and ask critical questions about the world and our role within it. It was an open atmosphere to explore the challenges out there — issues such as world hunger and poverty. What always stood out to me was that I come from a place of privilege and opportunity yet the world around me is clearly unequal. This is an interesting notion given today’s commonly held ethos that everyone and every soul is equal and should have access to the same opportunities everywhere. As a Jain, we fundamentally believe in karma; I often questioned how if we come from a place of privilege, how can we help the world get to a more equal platform? These concepts have always resonated with me.
From here, I went on to study international relations at Tufts University. During my studies, I had the opportunity to work in mediation and conflict resolution. Through this work, I met people coming from a place of conflict for the first time. These were people exposed to genocide in Rwanda and people coming out of the aftermath of fights across Pakistan, India, and Kashmir. Hearing their personal stories, including their stories of resilience, influenced me in a very big way. I realized the reason we see terrorism and jihad in this world may not stem from hatred but rather from people being denied access to equal opportunities. I realized that the world cannot be a better place if we do not fight for better opportunities to create economic equality. Reflecting on this, I took a break to think through my personal mission and place in this world: Where will I make this type of change? How will I make it? And what will be my role in all this?
Taking a break is often easier said than done, even if it is the right and best course of action at the time. How did you and those around you approach the decision to take a full-stop break?
As any typical Indian parent would react, my parents encouraged me to go to grad school and move into a stable career. I told myself that I would take a year off and then go back to law school. During this time, I served as a Clinton Service Corp fellow and then went on to gain experience at India-based organizations doing work in microfinance. This was a very new concept at the time; Muhammad Yunus would not have won a Nobel Peace Prize had this not been significant! As part of the microfinance movement, we studied the opportunity that comes with investing in women in India from a true business lens for the first time. The idea that investing in women in poverty can lead to economic gain, backed by a solid thesis, was gaining traction. Through this work, I met so many powerful women. Though they were uneducated and lacked access to basic necessities such as water and electricity, they were real, humble, and hospitable. It was exciting to be part of a new industry bringing big investors such as JP Morgan and Citi into the picture. The World Bank and United Nations also took interest, looking for 20-something-year-olds looking to make a footprint for themselves.
What motivated you to move into social entrepreneurship?
When you put your skills in a place of impact, your impact can be exponential. Through my experiences, I found my calling. I wanted to take my work in microfinance to the next level. After living across many rural villages in India, I wanted to play a role in better delivering services to the poor. I wanted to invest and attract investment into the economic development of the poor. In 2011, I started my business, Frontier Markets, with 3 goals in mind.
First, I setup Frontier Markets as a for-profit company with the intention of growing it to be the market leader in delivering services to rural houses at scale. This involves providing access to everything a rural household would need to have a better life: clean energy, water, internet, and cell phones. Second, I wanted Frontier Markets to both serve as well as create opportunities for the poor. If my fundamental driving factor is to create a footprint in my impact, creating opportunities for the poor is just as important as the products I can serve them through my company. With this in mind, Frontier Markets hired locally, trained locally, and invested locally. We have built a network of 5,000 digital rural entrepreneurs who sell our products to rural households. Third, I wanted Frontier Markets to operate through a gender lens. As an Indian woman, we are often pushed into a stereotype of limitations. Rural women in India can be drivers of change and drive significant economic gain; when a rural women has money, she tends to invest into her children’s futures and her village differently from men.
Keeping these 3 principles in mind, Frontier Markets is now an established rural sales and marketing access company. We create impact and social value in a commercially viable way. What drives me everyday is that we have touched nearly 5 million people and 700,000 households. At this stage, we are looking to further accelerate our scale and impact. We want to evolve into a model that may be replicated in other parts of the world such as Africa.
When you put your skills in a place of impact, your impact can be exponential.
Have your Jain and personal values influenced your professional decisions and actions? If so, how?
I have always applied the values of purpose, humanity, and empathy in every decision I have ever made. There was a point in my company’s journey where we had to choose between making money and helping a community. We were working with farmers who were literally blocked from moving money by the Indian government. The Indian government was getting rid of cash, where many rural areas only function on cash. We had the choice to serve them the product they needed, yet were also faced with the risk of $400,000 in debt landing on our balance sheet should they not be able to pay us back. Do we save our money or serve our people? My Board held firm on the idea that money will come and go, yet serving our people is paramount, where Frontier Markets is fundamentally committed to service. We are often faced with such real scenarios and decisions that force us to balance our values, and applying these 3 principles is how I approach these.
Ajaita, you have had an incredible journey so far. In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?
I’ve thought about other paths. I could have been a banker. There were times I would be meeting investors in Silicon Valley who would ask me how much I make. I’d say, “I’m a social entrepreneur. I make like $10,000.” They would respond, “What if I gave you $300,000 to manage my fund?”
I had no idea I would go “all in” and do this. I really thought I’d take a year off, go to India to do some service work, come back to get a law degree, and eventually land a job at a law firm. This is the path I was expected to take, and I both surprised and scared myself. Sometimes, things just happen and you just go with the flow. This has been a very, very difficult journey. When you start a company and it doesn’t work out; you are forgiven, and the world is still okay. When you setup a company that is responsible for real people who are in a vulnerable place, you and your business are depended upon in a very different way where “hiccups” have real ramifications. There is no excuse to fail given the exponential negative outcomes that come with failure. This is where my passion comes from, and this is also where my fear comes from. On this path, you must be committed. You separate yourself from your purpose and your position in community. If my purpose is to drive impact, then there are times I need to be away from my family and in India, focused on my work. I have made sacrifices in terms of my own life and sanity. Finding a balance is something that I am not very good at and that I have struggled with. Yet, when you see what you have created, you kind of self-justify what you have done. If we start understanding that the achievements we have gained are not for ourselves but for others and what we are able to give others, this can help us exponentially make the world a better place.
If we start understanding that the achievements we have gained are not for ourselves but for others and what we are able to give others, this can help us exponentially make the world a better place.