Scaling sustainable social enterprises: The personal story of engageSPARK CEO and founder Ravi Agarwal

engageSPARK CEO and founder Ravi Agarwal is not your ordinary social entrepreneur. With several years of prior experience in management, business development, and innovation in the corporate and startup scene, Ravi has an extensive skillset and knowledge to offer. He is also an angel investor, investor at 500 Startups, and philanthropist. His goal is to create scalable social impact for poverty alleviation.

DLSU Center for Business Research and Development – Social Enterprise Research Network interviews Ravi about his personal journey in building his businesses, as well as the importance of leveraging business skills to create scalable social impact.

Where did this all come from? What is your vision-mission that led to a company like engageSPARK?

I was an entrepreneur from Boston, where I built three businesses. After the last one, I started becoming an investor for a whole bunch of startups. I realized that living in San Francisco is a great life, but the way I defined happiness and meaning felt very empty. From my early 20s I’ve always been passionate about poverty alleviation and volunteering. I felt it was time to move on to the next phase in my life and think about how I can have an impact through my field.

I left the United States six years ago, but I did not know what I was going to do. I have been a capitalist pig my whole life. I was trying to figure out how I will take this journey. I was still burnt out from my previous startup, so I was in a whim. I was thinking—should I do another startup that makes more money, or should I do things that give me meaning? I was ready to start something on the capitalist pig side again, but I decided to take some time off and think.

I went to Mongolia, because it is one of my dreams to go there. Six years ago, I started a roundtrip ticket to Mongolia for a month, and toured the whole country. Mongolia does not really have roads outside a couple of cities, and so it takes a very long time to travel between places. I had a lot of time to think. I became perceptive of what I wanted to do, and escaped my normal environment. It felt good, so I decided to extend by another month for a trip to Nepal to go hiking. That became a two-week trip to a six-week trip to Nepal.

It was about finding what I wanted to do and how I can leverage my skills. I talked to poor people in the cities, like a taxi driver who had a full college degree. From those travels my conclusion was–over the last few decades–development has done a really good job. More kids are now getting to primary school, secondary school, and college. At the bottom end, however, the economic opportunity of finding jobs and making a good living is not. I realized that is probably the part that I can have the most impact in, having been a business person.

That year, it was about understanding and talking to a lot of people, and then I decided it’s time to work on the ground. I wanted to work in an emerging market. We got a whole bunch of opportunities like digital data divide, and selecting one with the Grameen Foundation. I Volunteered in Ghana and Uganda.

When you said that you were leveraging your business skills, what particularly were you doing for Grameen Foundation?

In Ghana, there is a maternal health project developed for women living in rural areas to help them become more successful with pregnancy. It was to reduce the infant mortality rates. Information is very scarce, and so my job was to come up with a sustainability strategy for that project. At some point, the funding would end, so how could this project become self-sustainable? That was my first exposure to a real social enterprise.

There is another one I worked at when I was traveling for a year. As a social enterprise, this organization helped create crafts that they would sell in the markets on behalf of the youth. As for Grameen Foundation, it was much bigger. It focused on converting charitable projects into sustainable social enterprises. How do we build a business around that? That was my role, coming up with business models and implementing one of them. Volunteering was a great experience.

I also started getting involved in the startup community in Ghana. There is a great incubator called the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, which offers incubation, training programs, and seed funding. I got involved with the startup community there, as well as had conversations with other social entrepreneurs. Like this local social entrepreneur, I was talking to him about what they were doing, and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

We have a sense that all these previous experiences have an impact that led to the formation of engageSPARK. Can you tell me the connection?

When I was talking to all these social entrepreneurs, I was trying to figure out why are all these entrepreneurs who are talented and smart not scaling their businesses to have real impact? My goal was on finding out how to impact poverty alleviation on a large scale. I was talking to these people, asking them why they are building small businesses, and why they’re not going mid-size or large size. I could not find a single one that has crossed this chasm.

As I talked to them I realized there were two things that were missing—one was a lack of experience and skills. I saw that they were bright and had well intentions, but they did not have the skills. That was true not just for people with social enterprises, but also with NGOs. What is the difference here?

I realized there are two ways of learning management skills. One way is to have the training and having mentors, role models, and managers who you learn from directly and see them in action. At General Electric, there are tons of great managers. When I went to Africa, I did not see anybody working who had management training. They do not have mentors or experienced managers whom they can learn from. I realized those were two major gaps for NGOs and social enterprises. Due to those lack of skills, it is hard for an entrepreneur to scale up.

The second one I realized was that—and this is a personal commentary as I have interacted with social entrepreneurs across the world—for social entrepreneurs to scale seem like a kind of luxury.

By that I mean, you know most of the social entrepreneurs I’ve met, they were trying to do good, but they were also trying to do good for themselves and their families. As I was talking to them, I saw that they were generating profits as well as extracting all those profits for their families and communities. There is nothing wrong with that. However, they get in the way of building an enterprise at scale.

I realized that it might be for the rare one, but for majority of them, their goal is to have a good lifestyle, because they’re coming from somewhere where they haven’t had a good lifestyle for themselves, families, and communities. Just like here in the Philippines, they are paying for their families’ well-being, health, and education.

My vision that time was to build an incubator that will help local entrepreneurs become social entrepreneurs and help them scale, but I realized that those two things are difficult to overcome.

Having all those great discussions with people, local and international to create these models—how is the model then? How do we solve these challenges? How do we have social enterprises at scale that can have real impact on poverty?

The motto that I came up with while living in Ghana and Uganda was really a time to think. It did not happen overnight; it did not happen in a week. It happened over a year. I realized that those people who were building great things and looking at things on a different perspective—what can we build like GE, poverty alleviation?

I imagine a conglomerate of subsidiaries that all have businesses that are pro-poor. They build products that directly or indirectly affect the lives of the poor. It could be by creating jobs and building an inclusive business. It could be by selling a product that is already in the market, but maybe a bit lower or at a certain cost that is beneficial for the consumer.

That is basically the idea. Why can’t we build a General Electric that has lots of different businesses that will directly or indirectly affect the lives of the poor? Instead of the profits being extracted to the shareholders of the company like General Electric, why can’t we just recycle all those profits and then scale more businesses that are pro-poor? That was the conclusion of that journey.