By Vikram Gandhi, Co-Founder, Asha Impact
Asha’ means ‘hope’ in Hindi and ‘life’ in Swahili. To me, it is a word that has long been associated with service or giving back to society. I first came across this word when I was a teenager in Bombay studying at the Cathedral School and several of my classmates and I used to volunteer at at an institution called Asha Daan, a charity set up by Mother Teresa in Mumbai.
Many years later, when I hung up my investment banking boots and decided to set up an impact investment and policy advocacy platform along with Pramod Bhasin, it was only natural to name this venture ‘Asha Impact’.
My Learnings from the Micro-finance Sector
Life has a funny way of connecting the dots. As an investment banker in New York in the 1990s, I found myself working mostly for large financial services companies. But this also brought me into close association with the work of the global micro-finance sector. In my early 40s, I was introduced to Mohammed Yunus and his revolutionary ideas about tackling socio-economic challenges through sustainable business models. I became closely associated with the Grameen Foundation as a member of its global board and, more recently, as an investor in Grameen Impact India, a lender to Indian social enterprises. I also became actively involved with Gawa Capital, a global micro-finance fund founded by a young Spanish banker who had worked with me at Credit Suisse.
While at Credit Suisse, I had the opportunity to manage the IPOs of two of the largest MFIs globally. The IPO of Comparatamos in Mexico in 2007 was a watershed event for the industry, demonstrating the high financial returns that could be made by investors. The SKS IPO in 2010, also led by my team, was the first major liquidity event for the nascent impact investing industry in India. In fact, the IPO was so successful, and the business model of Indian MFIs so profitable, that it soon attracted a knee-jerk regulatory response, creating the Andhra Pradesh crisis in late 2010.
The experience of these two IPOs on the opposite sides of the world taught me an essential lesson about how business model innovation can create substantial impact. It also highlighted the importance of having a holistic approach towards socio-economic development that values the needs of last mile consumers and proactively engages with the government.
Time is as Important as Money
To me, philanthropy is a mindset involving personal involvement and giving one’s time and energy, not just writing a cheque. Like my early years at Asha Daan, when I was studying at Harvard Business School, fellow students and I used to volunteer our time at community projects in the Boston Area. I took this view with me to Credit Suisse, where in addition to partnering with global microfinance funders like ResponsAbility and Accion, we participated in a program called ‘Bankers without Borders’ to get young banking professionals to volunteer their time to develop the capacity of various social organisations.
In today’s debates about CSR in India, I have often suggested to many businessmen that the best way to engage is not just by giving money but by giving one’s time.
After I moved on from investment banking and back to India, I was figuring out the best way to contribute or ‘give back’ to my country. I strongly believe that business principles can be applied to solve major social problems, which guided me to create Asha Impact in 2014. In addition to advising global financial institutions on bringing long-term capital to India, I felt that the best way to leverage my expertise, networks and capital towards solving social challenges was by directly investing in high-quality social enterprises and encouraging other like-minded business leaders to do the same. Moreover, given Pramod and my desire to not just fund innovative start-ups, but also create social impact at scale, we decided that in addition to investing, it was vital to engage with the government and share our learnings through an advocacy platform.
The Asha Impact Blog Series
Asha Impact is a young organisation, but in a short span of time, it has become an active player in the Indian impact investing industry. We have made ten equity investments in social enterprises, broadly focusing on the areas of affordable housing and urban development, digital and financial inclusion, education, skilling and employment and energy access and distribution. As we move ahead, we are actively looking at innovative businesses in sectors such as agriculture and supply chain as well as water, sanitation and healthcare.
Along with making investments, we have been engaging with policymakers at the central and state level in the areas of affordable housing and energy access. We are also active in developing the impact investing ecosystem through our leadership in initiatives like the Impact Investors Council and building the market for social impact bonds in India. Today, our platform comprises a multi-family office of eight business leaders working together to fund and scale the best impact models.
Through this Medium blog series, the team at Asha Impact will share the lessons from our interactions with innovative social enterprises and policy-makers with a focus on identifying critical insights from business models that generate financial returns while solving the major social problems facing our society.
We look forward to engaging with an intellectually curious community of readers who are interested in understanding impact investing and its various dimensions to evaluate the three interrelated issues of ‘Purpose, Profit and Policy’. I hope you enjoy reading the blog and look forward to your comments.