At a time when many of us were anxious about the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it, Ashish Aggarwal has found a way to make an impact by joining with London Business School alumni and others to work on a fundraising campaign for migrant workers suddenly left without a wage in his native India.
“We had a group of 10 people coming together focused on a common cause and it definitely helped take our minds off the negativity that’s happening in the world and focus on hope,” says Aggarwal, who works for a venture capital firm in the San Francisco Bay area and has been living in the US since 2011.
“It was also a great validation as we found that everyone was trying to help their communities, their countries and causes they care about. It was very helpful to know that so many people are gearing towards making an impact.”
The idea to set up the Covid-19 India Fund came while chatting to Charu Sharma, a tech entrepreneur also based in San Francisco and also originally from India. They had read about the impact that the lockdown in India was having on many migrant workers, who have virtually no savings and need their daily earnings to buy food for their families. They wanted to do more to help than just making individual donations, so that night they both reached out to their networks to gauge support.
Aggarwal contacted two fellow LBS alumni based in Hong Kong whom he had known since he was an information science undergraduate at RV College of Engineering in Bangalore. Within 12 hours Pritish Sanyal MBA2012 and Syed Musheer Ahmed MBA 2015 were part of the team. Others also asked to join the taskforce, which reached 10 in total. They decided to raise money and donate it to an existing non-profit organisation – the American India Foundation (AIF) – which has nearly 20 years of experience on the ground in India and would be best at getting help to the people who needed it.
They set up a GoFundMe page and worked on their messaging to make their purpose clear. “We wanted to be able to create an immediate impact and show that the money we were raising could be used in a meaningful way,” says Aggarwal. “A simple statistic like ‘$30 can feed a family of five people for one month’ goes a long way in showing that whatever we can raise can have a direct impact. And in partnering with AIF we could apply these donations on the ground immediately.”
Everyone in the team contacted their networks using social media to spread awareness and ask for donations, as well as sending direct emails. They also tweeted to leading figures they thought might be able to help and were delighted that people including filmmaker Mira Nair, actor and director Shekhar Kapur, businesswoman Padmasree Warrior (a board member at both Microsoft and Spotify) and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark shared the appeal with their followers.
Within three weeks they had raised $26,828 – enough to support 1,000 families with dry ration kits for a month. And although they have now closed the fund, they are eager to help any individuals or corporations looking to support people in India in any way – whether by donating personal protective equipment or seeking to hire workers, for example. They are also working with AIF on a report to share with donors showing how their money was deployed and the impact it had.
In Hong Kong, Sanyal acknowledges there is more to be done: “Our appeal to all is to contribute and help in any way they can.”
Ahmed echoes this, saying that witnessing the response of people donating generously and contributing their time has whet his appetite to do more.
The team – most of whom have experience of working for or helping non-profits – learnt several fundraising lessons along the way. The first is to be very specific about your goal and transparent in how the money will be used. The second is to use existing and readily available tools, such as making a fundraising page and partnering with an existing non-profit with strong credentials. Third is to flow money directly from the fundraising platform to the non-profit, allowing the team to concentrate on raising awareness.
For Aggarwal, the fundraising was an interesting learning experience and an opportunity to work with a diverse group of people, some of whom he had never met in person. “We did everything through our WhatsApp group, but we did have a Zoom hangout call after the campaign ended just to say hi to each other,” he says.
It was also a great demonstration of the power of networks – something he had learned while at business school when he took a dual degree programme of Masters in Business Management at Kellogg School of Management and Masters in Engineering Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, with a four-month spell at LBS under the International Exchange Programme in 2013. He had first encountered LBS in 2008 when he attended a five-day residential programme for young social entrepreneurs arranged by leadership organisation StartingBloc and returned to India determined to go to an international business school.
“LBS helped me understand the power of networks, where you start realising that a small group of people can create a lot of change. The LBS network is very strong in certain geographies like India, Southeast Asia and Europe, and it comes with a strong pedigree and many successful alumni who have gone on to create change and impact in their communities.”
Being in touch with his friends in Hong Kong also gave Aggarwal a sense of hope, because much of East Asia is now ahead of the pandemic curve. Sanyal reports that, while some restrictions have been in place, Hong Kong was never under a lockdown and the situation continues to improve.
“The reason we have been able to handle and recover from the situation is because of the discipline and restraint that people in Hong Kong have shown,” he says. “Also, the experience of SARS in 2003 made us more vigilant. Presently, the only way to beat the virus is self-discipline and hygiene.”
Back in San Francisco, Aggarwal is on the board of the LBS Bay Area chapter and has found the wisdom of some of its older members – several of whom have stayed connected for over 30 years – particularly useful at this time. “A lot of them have been through dotcom busts and periods of recession and it’s wonderful to hear from them and learn from them,” he says, adding that the chapter is working to put future events online.
“It’s a very stressful time for startups, and entrepreneurs and companies that started in the last decade have never seen a downturn. Their mindset has gone from being growth-oriented to surviving this downturn, because if you can survive you can come out stronger on the other side.”
Aggarwal has also enjoyed LBS’s pandemic webinar series since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, covering topics such as virtual working, resilient supply chains and the global economic impact. “These have been incredible and are an example of how the amazing professors and faculty at LBS are putting together such high-quality content – not just for current students but as part of a lifelong learning experience,” he says.
“We all need guidance on what leadership should be in the future, and how people should think about navigating the complexity and uncertainty in these challenging times. All of us are trying to figure out what’s going to be the new normal.”