People love a rags to riches story where the protagonist starts from nothing and then fights against all odds to create something of immense value. Well, this story is a little different. It is about a man who had all the luxury of the world but gave up all that to start a high-impact venture from scratch. 5 years later he is a rich man again. Introducing Rustam Sengupta, the hero of our riches-rags-riches story.
Rustam graduated from INSEAD and he has been a banker for Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, a consultant for Deloitte Consulting in US and a researcher for ICOS Vision Systems in Belgium, having lived and worked in five countries across the globe. He also holds a Masters in Electrical Engineering from University of California, Irvine besides the MBA from INSEAD.
After a trip to his village in 2009, he was confronted with an ugly problem : no access to electricity or clean drinking water in and around his village. He soon realized it wasn’t an isolated problem but the situation in nearly 25% of India (or of nearly 300 million people).
Rustam quit his high paying finance job in September 2009 and started BOOND, a social enterprise solving some of the biggest global challenges – adequate lighting, access to clean drinking water and pest control affecting the remote areas of the world.
Let’s hear more about his adventure from Rustam himself.
Hi Rustam. Can you tell me in details about what Boond does?
We provide energy solutions in off grid areas. Our products include solar lighting solutions, eco-friendly stoves and drinking water purifiers. We get our parts from different vendors. We do the assembling and carry out the last mile sales. We also provide people with access to bank loans for purchasing these products. You can compare our work to that of an Indian automobile company that assembles parts procured from across the world to create a final product and thereafter offer finance options to its customers to buy their cars. We earn profits from the sales and servicing of our products.
Your background is completely different from what you are currently doing. How difficult was it for you to convert your idea to reality?
Yes it is different from what I have done before. I spent a considerable amount of time to understand the market. However, the biggest problem was to attract capital and quality talent. Experienced and better qualified people don’t prefer a job with a social enterprise because of the low remuneration in the sector. Also in our case working in rural areas was another undesirable feature. Though it took time and effort, finally we now have a good team with us. Attracting funding wasn’t easy. We also needed to come up with a sustainable business model. Fortunately we got support from organizations like CII and Center for innovation, incubation and entrepreneurship, IIM A.
Apart from the financial aspects, naysayers are bound to be a problem if you leave your job and start out on your own, especially if it is a social venture. There will be people ready to discourage you from taking this risky step.
What have been your best and worst experiences?
Well, you see I have been working since quite a few years now. My contribution mattered to the company I worked for, but there wasn’t any visible impact. Now, I can see my efforts translate into tangible impact. Sometimes we have to travel long distances to put up just one solar bulb in a house. But the smile on the face of our customer when the bulb lights up his house, creates an immense feeling of exhilaration and rewards our hard work.
The worst experience would be having to face the lack of infrastructure in so many places of India and the apathy of policy makers who don’t realize the value of a social enterprise. While currently there is a lot of buzz about social entrepreneurship and ecology to support social ventures seems to be existing , these are all at a very rudimentary stage. A lot has to be done to encourage and support social enterprises.
What according to you can ordinary citizens do to solve the problems of India?
There are four things that I feel people can do for the country.
Firstly, people should be more sensitive to saving energy. Every small effort counts in reducing the energy consumption of the country.
Secondly , the education system in India needs to be revamped. Our educations caters to the needs of the West. Students are not aware of the real India. If you ask them about the latest specifications of iPhone, many hands will go up. But if you question them on the number of units of energy consumed by India every year, they will draw a blank. Everything that we learn in school and college considers a very ideal situation.
Thirdly, most of the rich Indians are very stingy. They might own a fleet of cars, but they will not want to spend a meagre 2k rupees on purchasing a solar lighting kit for a deprived family in a remote village.
Not only the uber rich, but also the middle and upper middle class need a change in their mindset. Let’s take students of an IIM. What will they lose if they join their jobs 6 months after they are supposed to and spend that time on helping solve a real world problem? I am sure employers could let them have those 6 months for developmental work. All the students will lose is their salary for 6 months. Can’t anyone do even this small bit?
I think I have been very blunt while talking about this question. I am sorry if it sounded rude, but I am speaking my heart out here. There is a lot to be done and Indians have the capability to do it. The only question that remains is, are people willing to do their share of the work?
Rustam Sengupta is a wealthy man endowed with the richness that comes with a successful social enterprise – high societal impact with Boond having touched the lives of over 50 thousand individuals since its inception. Though he claims he has miles to go from here, he has created significant impact in mere 5 years. We wish him all the best in his journey and for being a finalist at the Artha Venture Challenge 2013.
Talking to Mr. Sengupta was a wonderful experience and it reiterated the fact that successful people are always humble. A big thanks to him for talking to I See India.