Changemakers: Gaurav Mehta

Social enterprise founder bringing financial inclusion through entrepreneurship to millions across India

By Annette MacKenzie 24 May 2019

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In just 10 years, Gaurav Mehta MBA2010 has built a group of 15,000 entrepreneurs who are earning a livelihood and making their communities better at the same time. “It’s scary sometimes,” he says as he reflects on the expansion of Dharma Life, the Delhi-based social enterprise he founded in 2009 while doing his MBA at London Business School. “We’ve been growing it fast, but it’s taking its own course now.”

The company was born out of the realisation that there weren’t enough jobs for India’s 900 million people living in rural areas. Mehta’s idea was to create entrepreneurs selling socially impactful goods – from solar lights to sewing machines – to help improve village life and provide livelihoods for the entrepreneurs. Recruits had to be trained in the benefits of the products, such as switching from firewood to a clean-cooking device, so they could drive behaviour change.

The 15,000 Dharma Life Entrepreneurs (DLEs) work in more than 40,000 villages in 13 states across India to address various sustainable development goals. To date they have reached more than 10 million beneficiaries, including training more than five million women to use a smartphone, selling more than 156,000 solar lighting solutions, 134,000 mobile phones, 33,000 clean-cooking devices and 2.7 million sachets of fortified health drinks, among many other items. The entrepreneurs earn a regular monthly income that can rise depending on sales and marketing programmes.

The company’s growth has accelerated in the past few years as the model has been honed, training programmes have been certified and technology has taken off. More than three-quarters of the entrepreneurs operate online via smartphones, boosted by increasing 3G coverage and cheaper devices. They use them to order products, show villagers information and collect consumer and research data through purpose-built apps.

As the organisation approaches, its 10th anniversary it’s a satisfying state of affairs for 39-year-old, German- born Mehta. His grandparents moved from India to Frankfurt in the 1950s and he grew up in Düsseldorf. His only encounters with India were in the winter holidays, when he would travel to visit relatives there.

He remembers being struck by the poverty he saw and he went on to fundraise for Pratham, a non-profit organisation providing education to underprivileged children in India, which he first encountered as an undergraduate in London.

He took jobs in investment banking, then private equity until a serious illness forced him to take six months off, prompting a re-evaluation of his goals: “I just thought that if I do survive this health incident, I want to make it count. I realised I needed to change the balance, so I quit my job and decided to spend my time on making an impact.”

He decided to do an MBA to work out the best way he could make a contribution. At LBS he came up with the idea for his entrepreneurial venture and set up ‘Project Dharma’ with co-founders mostly from his MBA class. They ran a pilot in India with a batch of villagers provided by Pratham’s network of contacts, then launched the first programme.

“We trained 100 people and started to hire people to manage it,” Mehta recalls. “Then, over the final year of the MBA, a couple of us continued to oversee it via Skype and kept flying back to India every two weeks. We grew it to 450 people over the year and, after graduation, I moved to India to run it.”

‘I realised I needed to change the balance, so I quit my job and decided to spend my time on making an impact’

He attracted high-level support from the start, winning a grant from the Shell Foundation, which supports social enterprises. He has always believed that forming corporate, government and non-profit partnerships is the best way to make an impact; big-name supporters include India’s Tata Trusts, the UK Department for International Development, Germany’s Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Swiss-based elea Foundation and the World Bank, along with product partners such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Samsung.

He expects Dharma Life to be fully profitable for the first time this year, stressing that profitability could have been achieved earlier but the organisation prioritised growth and impact.

The evidence suggests that Mehta’s primary objective – to create a scalable, entrepreneurship-driven model to alleviate poverty by creating jobs and livelihoods – is being attained. What has also emerged is that you need to recruit women to drive social impact” “After a few years, we did an impact assessment to see what the entrepreneurs were spending their money on. We found that the men didn’t spend it on the family, while the small percentage of our entrepreneurs who were women did. So we went back to the drawing board and said we have to change this. We have to add more women.”

With some changes to the recruitment process, the training and the products for sale, Dharma Life rapidly flipped its gender balance, from 90% male to about 80% female today, creating a dedicated entrepreneurship programme for women called ‘Tejasvini’, which translates variously as ‘intelligent’, ‘brave,’ or ‘powerful’.

The organisation also makes increasing use of its team of women – and men – to drive social change on the ground. They talk to villagers about various health and development issues, from handwashing and menstrual hygiene to digital literacy. The behaviour-change work has helped Dharma Life reach another milestone: at the end of 2018 it passed the 10-million mark of people reached through sales and campaigns.

For Mehta, the reward is the entrepreneurs themselves. The time he spends in the field is what keeps him going – including joining Professor Rajesh Chandy as he led the latest week-long Global Business Experience for LBS MBA students on location with Dharma Life in Udaipur. And he points to stories of how the scheme has changed people’s lives.

There are young men who say the scheme gave them a role in society; widows who have thrived on meeting new people and making new contacts; and mothers who are grateful for the new things they’ve learned and the money they can spend on their children’s education.

“Initially we thought the main impact would be from giving people income,” says Mehta, “but what surprised us is that a greater impact has come from them getting respect in their own community and then becoming change-makers.

“This wasn’t planned – it came out of the work we were doing – and I’m now studying this with Rajesh to see what other impact areas we can measure.”

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After first experiencing some culture shock on moving to India – and some initial mutterings from home for being the only member of the third generation of the family in Germany to return – he has gotten used to his life there and his family is supportive and excited about his achievements.

He finds time for Spin classes, yoga and golf while enjoying music and taking time out for meditation. Being made a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum gave him the chance of a trip home before attending the Davos conference in 2019, but his plans for Dharma Life won’t let him shift his focus.

He now wants to extend the organisation’s reach in India and take the concept to other countries in Asia, South America and Africa by sharing the approach and working with local partners to implement it. It’s about sharing the ‘dharma’ – a big concept in Hinduism and Buddhism around duty, responsibility and the right way of living – and, in the case of Dharma Life, the idea that individuals and society should rise together.

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