Coming home, for good
The development space in India is seeing an influx of NRIs, who choose to return to their home country and take almost 100 per cent pay cuts to work towards affordable healthcare, housing and set up rural enterprises. KAREENA N GIANANI finds out what they bring to the realm of social development, and why
Earlier this year, when 27 year-old Karan Moudgil quit his job as a private equity consultant at Goldman Sachs in New York, US, and decided to return to India — 17 years after he left Delhi in 1995 — his friends and family were quite baffled. After he told them he was going to work in the social development space, they chose to keep mum, sure that Moudgil would realise his folly and return in no time.
Two months ago, Moudgil landed up at TechnoServe, an organisation that helps entrepreneurial individuals in rural areas build businesses that create an income for their families and communities, to work as a consultant for six months, adding to a burgeoning list of NRIs who are returning to India to work in the development space. Rakesh Supkar, senior programme manager at TechnoServe, India, says the organisation started a volunteer consultant programme five years ago, where strategic consultants from companies such as the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, for instance, could apply their skills to make a social impact in rural areas here. “Since then, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of NRIs who leave their jobs and take huge pay cuts to return to India to solely work in the development space.”
Moudgil is quiet for a couple of seconds when asked about the reasons that brought him back. “I know it will sound great if I said I had dreamt of this all my life, or that I always had a philanthropic streak in me — but I don’t really have a storybook-worthy quote,” he admits and breaks into a grin. Corporate ennui had the largest role to play in his decision. Back in New York, Moudgil says he was quite lost amid the degrees he had to accumulate to climb the corporate ladder, and the money he earned by “being an invisible cog in the larger machine.” That’s when he heard about TechnoServe from one of his friends who flew from the US to Kenya to work at TechnoServe there, and decided to do the same in India — a country “whose development sector needs as much professionalism and expertise any other.” Living in a rented apartment in Bandra, which Moudgil shares with a roommate, commuting by trains and autorickshaws — something he says he really enjoys — Moudgil is happy that he finally knows what his calling is — working in private equity in the social development sector. He has also decided to extend his programme by six months, and then look for a job that fits in with his goals.
Last month, the sixth edition of Think Social, a social networking event that brings individuals working in the social development space together, saw more than 200 professionals coming together to discuss social change. “When I founded Think Social last August, barely 20 people attended the get-together. Last month, at least half of the professionals at the meeting were NRIs,” says the 27 year-old founder of Think Social, Vinay Taylor.
Taylor was born in London and was raised in Dubai until he returned to study economics at the University of Warwick. His sole connection to India was limited to a couple of visits to his mother’s relatives in Mumbai (his father is from East Africa). It was after an internship at a TV channel in Mumbai in 2006, that he gave some serious thought to coming to India to work in the development space. Taylor went on and worked in London and Qatar as a strategy consultant and, in 2010, returned to India to work at Dalberg, a strategy advisory firm that works at improving living standards in the country. The organisation works on projects related to accessible education, humanitarian aid, building expertise in local offices and so on. “While I was growing up, my ties were limited to having a cultural affinity towards India. But now, I want to write India’s growth story,” he says. For him, working in the development space after the corporate grind is surprisingly refreshing because the development sector, he says, is inherently collaborative. Taylor says he is here for a very long time, if not for good, because that’s the only way to make an impact in social development.
Taylor feels working in the development space in India is misunderstood to be as something that only NGOs can impact the most. “NGOs, of course, serve their own purpose, but building effective business models and strategy consultation are just as important. Every individual can make a social impact, and he / she is best equipped to do so when it is in line with his / her professional skills,” he explains.
According to Aditya Narayan Mishra, president, staffing and director, marketing, Ranstad, India, the social development sector is gaining from a definite influx of NRIs not because of their degrees, but their exposure and global perspective, “Over the last year, there’s a manifold increase in the number of NRIs returning to India to work in the development space — and they have gone beyond the usual sectors of healthcare and education. A company stands to gain from them because they bring innovative solutions and pre-empt larger problems because they are well-travelled and usually come with a work experience.”
In 2008, 27-year old Anish Thakkar, a US-born electrical engineer, founded Green Light Planet, a company that manufactures and now distributes low-cost solar lights to more than 3,20,000 villages in India and Africa. In his words, he has the best of all worlds. “It is cool to invent things. It is even cooler to see them change lives,” he says, putting it as simply as he can. He agrees with Taylor that it is time someone addressed business problems in development rather than only creating NGOs.
“You can ‘give’ all you want, but for development to be sustainable, you must make sure the business model sustains itself, because you can never keep giving forever. It was considered ‘inappropriate’ to tell 80 million rural homes that, ‘You have a problem, we have a cheap solution. Buy it from us’. But that’s the only way it will work,” says Thakkar.