Leadership

The Power of "Spiritual Capitalism"

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On a recent business trip to India, a fellow Silicon Valley business executive was impressed by the management philosophy of the companies we visited. “The founders stay long after the companies become successful…. They bring in family members to take part Social causes and philanthropy are a key part of everyday business”

This socially-responsible management style which I call, “Spiritual Capitalism” is not unique to India. However the country’s dramatic social challenges do tend to spur a significant amount of philanthropic action by its countrymen and women.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, SandHill.com spoke with two of IT’s business leaders – and active philanthropists – Infosys Technologies co-founder Narayana Murthy and Sycamore Networks co-founder and chairman Desh Deshpande – about their success with the Akshaya Patra Foundation, a non-profit devoted to feeding and educating underprivileged children. The leaders explain the success of Akshaya Patra, how they became involved in their philanthropic efforts and how other technology executives can find a way to increase their practice of social capitalism.

Desh Deshpande and Narayana Murthy

Find the Right Cause

Passion drives successful individuals to become intensely involved with a philanthropic cause. Akshaya Patra became a labor of love for Desh Deshpande, the group’s USA Board Chair, and Narayana Murthy, a key supporter of Akshaya Patra since its inception. By applying their considerable professional skills and passion for change, these tech industry leaders helped create a social organization that aims to feed 5 million poor school children by 2020.

The philanthropic community has applauded Akshaya Patra’s work. Last week, the organization was honored with a 2009 Tech Award which recognizes technical solutions that benefit humanity and address the most critical issues facing our planet and its people. In fact, the commendation was accompanied by a $50,000 cash prize.

Akshaya Patra also received a $10,000 grant from the SHG Foundation for developing innovative ways to help underprivileged youth. (Click here to read more about my recent visit to Akshaya Patra’s operations in India.)

In October, legendary Indian business leader Narayana Murthy delivered the keynote address at the organization’s “One Million Mark Celebration” in the Silicon Valley. The event recognized the achievement of feeding 1 million schoolchildren each day.

Murthy explained the urgency of the Akshaya Patra’s mission and the potential for spiritual capitalism to impact young lives.

Narayana Murthy: There is a section of the Indian population that does not have enough income to obtain basic education, health care, nutrition and shelter. This population plays an important role for the future of India if we hope to consolidate and build on the positive economic moves that have been made so far.

In order to ensure that this happens, we have to make sure that every child goes to school and gets a basic education. But nutrition is critical to the learning process: In order for children to absorb new information, their stomachs must be full.

Akshaya Patra began to offer hot meals at school as an incentive for less-fortunate children to attend. Now, Akshaya Patra feeds 1 million children in seven states of India. Feeding a million children has not happened anywhere else in the history of the world. Therefore, liberating the power of technology and ideas has been extremely important to achieving this level of assistance.

The results have been extremely positive. We have many case studies of how the children have grown taller, gained weight, and performed better in school and business – and many students have gone on to become experts in engineering, banking and other professional fields.

Applying the Spirit of Entrepreneurship

SandHill.com has interviewed many successful social entrepreneurs who began their careers in the technology field. All of these talented leaders underscore the potential for businesspeople to apply their knowledge to social causes. Deshpande and Murthy agree.

Deshpande:

We’re all entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs get a big kick out of figuring out how to make something better. What’s exciting about Akshaya Patra is to witness what entrepreneurial energy combined with technology and management skills can bring to a big problem. In a short period of seven or eight years, we have been able to scale our operations to feed 1 million children.

In the past, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the “bottom of the pyramid” rarely intersected. But there are an increasing number of examples of this happening today – and the results have been impressive.

When you launch a startup, you have big, naïve dreams. The same thing happens with a non-profit. The key is to stick with your dreams and very often, you can make them reality. With Akshaya Patra, we want be a role model for other social endeavors in the world.

Murthy: Indeed, the success of an endeavor like Akshaya Patra comes when influential, career professionals contribute their ideas, apply their management expertise and leverage their interpersonal connections to get things done. Directing this level of professionalism and resources at a social problem, and combining it with the contributions of hundreds of thousands of well-meaning, philanthropic individuals produces positive results – this is the essential lesson of Akshaya Patra.

Akshaya Patra brought very high quality engineers to the process of creating automated kitchens. They have well-accomplished accounting and finance executives who have created a solid, transparent financial system to run the organization. They involved executives from large companies to enable the organization to scale. They even brought in people like Desh and I to advance Akshaya Patra’s ability to connect with other philanthropists and specific individuals who can add value in a particular area of expertise.

The Power of Spiritual Capitalism

Many executives describe their non-profit involvement as a way to “give back” to society and show thanks for their good fortune. And although life is busy, John Wood, former Microsoft executive and founder of Room to Read, reminds us that philanthropic efforts can start small:

“Many executives have philanthropic and community interests but get so caught up in their hectic day-to-day schedules that they feel they can’t stop to do anything. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I wish I could quit my job and do what you are doing.’ But that’s just not necessary. You don’t need to change the world. You can write a check to a needy cause, start a small side project … It’s that simple. Let me tell you, you never know what can come from something small”

Murthy and Deshpande explain several ways for technology business leaders to practice spiritual capitalism, and describe the significant benefits of social entrepreneurship.

Murthy: Infosys was founded in 1981 and went public in 1993. We all came from the middle class in India. We saw the realities of poverty around us and it shaped our minds. As our company became bigger, we realized that the only way we could survive and succeed is to create goodwill and live in harmony with society.

For any corporation to be a viable and long-term entity, it must earn the respect of society – including community members, customers, employees, investors, politicians and bureaucrats. In 1995, we launched the Infosys Foundation to address the needs of the poorest of the poor. Infosys now contributes 0.7 percent of its profits to fund the foundation which supports a variety of projects including housing, rural libraries, scholarships.

Deshpande: Again, I’m an entrepreneur. I was fortunate to build several successful companies and I wanted to bring that energy to social initiatives.

To me, building a successful philanthropic organization is no different than doing a startup. Both efforts are challenging and continually under-resourced. The dream is very big and the job is always a lot bigger than you think. But when you achieve your first goals, the sense of accomplishment is extremely satisfying.

That said, I think building a non-profit is even more challenging than building a tech startup. I believe social entrepreneurs have to be extremely creative if they want to succeed.

There are many options for tech executives who are interested in starting a non-profit or becoming more involved in philanthropy. Depending on the stage of their career, executives can commit to one hour per week, one hour per month, or one week per year of philanthropic involvement. As individuals become more senior in an organization, it becomes easier to pick the right level of contribution – be it time or money.

Several years ago, I began the habit of starting a non-profit every time I launched a for-profit venture. Now I’ve got six non-profit startups under my belt. You can’t learn to be a social entrepreneur in one day. Find a way to get involved slowly as a young businessperson, make mistakes, learn and keep moving.

The important thing is to start somewhere. Everyone has something they can bring to the table – money, connections, business advice, energy – and have a genuine impact on the causes they are passionate about.

Murthy: I was once asked to define success. I believe success is the ability to bring a smile to people’s faces when you enter the room. Whether in business, at home or in society, that means being fair and courteous.

In that context, if you can bring a smile to the face of poor children, you are that much more of an all around success.

This is what I want all successful entrepreneurs to know: You must do more than be extraordinary in your own area of work. At the end of the day, we are all part of a global society and we should aim to bring a smile to everyone’s face.

M.R. Rangaswami is publisher of SandHill.com, co-founder of the Sand Hill Group and the SHG Foundation and founder of the Corporate Eco Forum.

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