Rob Katz

Shilpa Shah is Building Leaders for Indian Social Enterprises

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Shilpa Shah, founder of the Piramal Fellowship Program, for a short interview. The Fellowship, which places young professionals with social enterprises in India, is accepting applicants until September 15th. It’s not too late to apply!

Tell us about yourself – where you come from, your educational/professional background, etc.

I was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs – go Phillies! I attended Boston University, where I received an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. After graduating, I went on to the Vanguard Group for a few years, where I did some corporate strategy work. In late 2006, I moved to India to be with my husband Anand Shah, co-founder of Indicorps. I worked with the Indicorps staff for two years where I learned tremendous amounts about India’s development, leadership development and the NGO landscape in India.

Editor’s note: Read Rob Katz’s short story about Indicorps here.

I discovered that I was in a unique position to leverage my understanding of the social sector in India and my passion for business to create change in India. So, I decided to brush up on my business skills and better understand my new home, India, by attending the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. I was fortunate to develop a network of peers, many of whom I believe will be the future leaders of India, at ISB. Additionally, I was able to spend a semester at Wharton where I was able to learn more about the role of social enterprise in development from my professors and another strong network of peers.

Tell us about the Piramal Fellowship – who is it for, how does it benefit the Fellows, how does it benefit the partners, etc.?

The Piramal Fellowship is a unique opportunity for aspiring business and community leaders to engage at the intersection of business success and social impact. Fellows are placed in leadership roles with for-profit businesses whose missions maximize social and environmental change. The program encourages participants to channel their business experience towards solutions with some of India’s most cutting-edge social entrepreneurs.

The Fellowship builds on-the-job managerial and entrepreneurial skills. Participants emerge with a strong understanding of what it takes to successfully design and build triple-bottom line business. The Piramal Foundation hopes to significantly contribute to a culture of values-driven leaders who understand the power of business to do social good.

The program is designed to prepare fellows for a future in social-impact business. Post-fellowship, we provide a range of assistance: advice on getting into top business schools, support for business planning, and a vibrant network to enable fellows to meet other leaders.

On the enterprise side, Piramal Fellows represent hard to find talent, which enables a company to deepen its impact. In sum, the Piramal Fellowship serves two key purposes: first, to support growing organizations with critical human resources; and second, to nurture future business leaders that fundamentally believe in creating shared value.

When/where did you first hear about the idea of market-based approaches to poverty alleviation?

Interestingly, I saw it with my own eyes before I even read about the idea. While spending time in India in 2005, it was fascinating to watch the spread of mobile technology. With a low-cost phone and pre-paid plan, vegetable hawkers gained the ability to respond to daily demand by calling for more supplies; rickshaw drivers morphed into informal radio cabs, giving their number to satisfied customers; migrant workers connected more regularly with family back home. Mobile phones were everywhere. Five years later, they have completely transformed our society. Access to grain prices for farmers, weather alerts for fishermen, internet access via phone in rural villages…it’s amazing! I think that the idea of business was always to create solutions to meet the needs of a society. Unfortunately, the solutions we have been creating haven’t necessarily been focused on all levels of our society, but they have been adapted. There is a tremendous scope to return to the roots of business and expand the pool of beneficiaries of business innovation.

What did you think of CK Prahalad’s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid?

I think that the late CK Prahalad’s book brought much needed awareness to this expanding pool of potential business beneficiaries. In many ways he sparked a movement, or perhaps an evolution. However, there are definitely issues that come into play when working with an uneducated consumer base; I only hope that standard of business ethics improves as companies pursue the “fortune” at the bottom of the pyramid.

What continues to be your inspiration?

The people around me continue to be my inspiration. I am blessed to have cross paths with individuals who are incredibly passionate changemakers. I think that being surrounded by people who work hard for a purpose larger than themselves both humbles and drives you at the same time…I still have A LOT to learn.

What is the 1 thing you never would have expected when founding the Piramal Fellowship?

The strong response from young professionals around the world. Prior to founding the Fellowship, I worked mostly with individuals who come from a development or economics background; despite my academic background, I’ve had only a few colleagues with business experience want to focus on social-impact work. It is exciting and heartening to see how many young professionals are interested in working with programs like the Piramal Fellowship.

How is the Piramal Fellowship similar to – or different from – other social enterprise Fellowships?

There are great programs out there that do pieces of what we are attempting to do and we hope to work with them and learn from there in the future. I think that there are a few things that make our program unique. The Piramal family believes strongly in the potential of young people – and so do I. This program is largely designed to invest in young leaders whom we hope, twenty years from now, will continue to be innovators in market-based social impact. We are equally committed to our partner social enterprises. Unlike other Fellowships, we are open to working with any impact driven social enterprise that meets our criteria and help them reach their potential by helping them find talented, driven young professionals.

The Piramal Fellowship focuses on the power of business to do good and the global social enterprise landscape and is open to anyone from anywhere around the world.

What’s one piece of advice you have to someone looking to support social enterprises in India?

Look, listen and learn before attempting to create solutions…it is incredibly important to respect the communities you work with and understand their perspectives before attempting to create solutions. In the long run, the more you understand the communities and market segments you are working with, the better you will be able to serve their needs. The same solutions that may work in one corner of the world do not necessarily translate to another, so it is important to build relationships and understand the local context before attempting to create change.

What advice do you have for someone just graduating college and who’s feeling really inspired to get involved?

Think outside of the box and stay humble! Today, more than ever, there is an incredible opportunity to build a career out of what you love to do, don’t be confined by the traditional definitions of business or professions and don’t be afraid to take a risk and start your own venture. Stay humble by continuing to serve your local community. It is easy to get involved in development or social enterprises and get so wrapped up in your “work” that you become disconnected from what inspired you in the first place.

What’s the most important positive trend you see in the social sector today?

I get really excited when I see new and different approaches to development. I think that it is fantastic to see that there is a role for everyone if they want to participate in creating change. Whether it is innovative entrepreneurs creating sustainable solutions to social issues, successful businessmen like Nandan Nilekani working with the government to create large-scale programs, or private-public partnerships to address global health issues…the players and possibilities are limitless…I just hope everyone figures out a way to do their part.

What’s your biggest fear about the social sector today?

I am worried about the loss of culture and tradition that comes along with “development.” Unfortunately, the general approach to development is still very prescriptive and fails to take the local way of doing things into account…I fear this approach may have some serious consequences down the line.

Author’s note: BoP expert and NextBillion Advisory Board member Ted London shares Shilpa’s fear – he advocates “be patient, stay longer, come back.

What does the NextBillion reader need to do to support the Piramal Fellowship and the partners you’re working with?

Spread the word! The Piramal Fellowship is looking for talented, young professionals who are willing to work hard to make a real difference. Fellows’ costs will be covered, and will be provided a living stipend for the duration of the program. Applicants must have with at least two-years of work experience to participate in the program. The deadline to apply is September 15, 2010 for the inaugural program, which will complete in July 2012.

Visit to learn more about the Piramal Fellowship for Sustainable Business.