Social Start Ups Get Revved Up in the Valley
Ajaita Shah was raised in an affluent New York City suburb. She was an honors student, star of the debate team, competitive athlete, participated in a chorus and trained in classical dance. Now she lives in Rajasthan, India as the founder and CEO of Frontier Markets, a business that sells solar-energy powered products to rural communities.
You might wonder what interrupted a path that seemed destined for traditional success.
After graduating from renown Tufts University, Ajaita was working as an intern for United States Congressman Gary Ackerman, co-chair of the India Caucus. She was asked to go to India to help advance nuclear power policy in the region and began to see a serious gap in the power grid there. Often rural communities don’t have access to power so they rely on unsafe sources, like kerosene.
For the past 10 years, Ajaita has been living and working in India building Frontier Markets, a leader in solar energy distribution. In 2014, she was named one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30; her company has been widely recognized in social entrepreneurship circles. But Frontier Markets faces some critical challenges: scaling both its distribution and service operations, and capacity to educate rural families about the viability of solar energy.
Last month Ajaita, and eight other CEOs of social businesses in India and Africa, visited Silicon Valley for a fellowship designed to jump start their growth and social impact. This unique program was designed by the corporate social responsibility (CSR) team at SAP in collaboration with Acumen, a group that invests in companies and ideas aimed at tacking poverty.
So far, the fellowship has provided a breakthrough moments for CEOs facing some sticky problems.
“If anyone is going to crack last-mile energy distribution it’s Frontier Markets,” said Ajaita. “But we need technology to get there. No one understands rural customers like we do. We can use this data as a differentiator but need the technology to do it. The right technology can help us grow and touch more rural customers.”
Ajaita continued, “Sitting at the SAP offices in Silicon Valley has been a great learning opportunity for me. I’ve been craving this kind of collaborative energy. It’s inspiring to be in a place like this where I can have ideas and put them into products and realities. Here is a place where people just do it. I realize the value of coming here more often to think through ideas and bringing them back to Frontier Markets.”
Ajaita Shah, CEO of Frontier Markets, presents to potential investors
John Waibochi, CEO of Virtual City is another fellow. With a degree in electrical engineering and background in mobile sales, John has been a technology entrepreneur in Nairobi, Kenya for the past 15 years. His company created a mobile solution that ensures farmers’ produce is weighed accurately and they are compensated appropriately by everyone across the supply chain.
“Most food in East Africa is grown by small farmers, with one or two acres. They belong to farming cooperatives, each with their own buying center. We work with the buying centers, making sure when produce is weighed the weight is confirmed electronically and sent to all interested parties so no one can cheat the farmers.”
As an engineer, John built a very product-focused company. To continue growth, he wants to change the company to be more sales, marketing and services oriented.
“Quality is not just in the product but also in our interaction with customers, from the first time we touch them all the way to when they might have issues.”
Coming to Silicon Valley has helped John develop a plan that will help Virtual City “bring products to market in a more compelling way and manage service after products have been sold. Design thinking and those tools have helped me understand how to fix this.”
John Waibochi, CEO of Virtual City, during a design thinking workshop