"In spite of my quick success and excellent prospects, I realized I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. It was a quiet and uncertain feeling, but it was there and it grew stronger."
By Joanna and Wolfgang Hafenmeyer
This seventh profile in our CSRwire series based on the book, Future Makers, is about Ashok Khosla of New Delhi, India – physicist at Harvard University, United Nations functionary, sustainability expert and professional job creator.
We heard about Ashok Khosla for the first time in Berlin, when a then-member of the German parliament told us about a man who passed up high posts at Harvard and the United Nations (UN) to create one million jobs in India.
Four months later in 2005, we were traveling to the Qutab Institutional Area, where the office of Development Alternatives is situated. Everything here spoke of modesty – from the building and Ashok’s simply equipped office, to his character. We made ourselves comfortable in a small room and after a short time we were under the spell of this warm-hearted, humble and highly intelligent man.
A Prince from the Suburbs
Ashok studied physics at Harvard. Soon after his graduation, he was offered a position teaching physics and astronomy at Harvard. Additionally, he was asked to develop a new course of studies, “People, Resources and Environment,” from which Al Gore was one of the first graduates.
Carried away by the speed with which he built a career, Ashok initially savored the societal position that accompanied his job:
All these things offered me a life as a prince and so, at 31, after a few successful years at Harvard, I was in a place that most people could only dream of.
At that point we examined his room once again: aside from the full book shelves, not much there recalled his princely past. It must have been a long journey from the luxurious offices at Harvard to this one with its scratched desk and bare concrete walls.
Environmental Policy in India
In spite of my quick success and excellent prospects, I realized I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. It was a quiet and uncertain feeling, but it was there and it grew stronger.
Even if he didn’t exactly know what he was really looking for, Ashok did not believe that he would find it at Harvard.
Thus, in 1971 he decided to return to India. He received an offer from the Indian government to develop the environmental department of the ministry for science and technology, where he worked for four years. Soon the first successes came.
Yet, as the political and economic problems on the subcontinent became more intense, many civil liberties were limited. In this situation, Ashok could no longer pursue his work the way he envisioned it. So he went to Nairobi to develop the UN's newly planned environmental program.
Environmental Policy on a Global Scale
After a short time working for Infoterra, the predecessor to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Ashok set up Development Alternatives (DA) in 1983. The organization’s goal is to create opportunities for people in the rural areas of India to earn a living wage, with consideration given to a socially and ecologically meaningful framework.
In the last 25 years, Ashok and his team have devoted themselves to establishing models that have long-term positive social and ecological effects. These solutions are tailored to small businesspeople: they have to make it possible for individuals, families or small groups to build up a business. Through the small income gained, a family can earn enough to liberate itself from the poverty trap.
A Roofing Tile for a Better Life
In the city of Jhansi, four hours from Delhi, we saw some of DA’s initiatives.
We met workers learning to manufacture roofing tiles. In groups of five to ten, they learned which raw materials were necessary for the production of the tiles, how to store them and how to use simple tools.
They were also taught to build up a small, profitable factory around the production process. Even if the area made an inhospitable and hostile impression on us and the buildings in the town seemed makeshift – building materials are always needed.
We also saw two generators, operated to provide environmentally friendly power for the guest house, the paper factory and other small factories. The paper was made from crushed cotton leftovers, and indigenous fruits were made into stews and juices. In another factory, young people learned how to build small ovens newly designed by DA, which ensured that highly poisonous cooking smoke no longer lingered in the huts, but could be channeled outdoors.
All these technologies had been developed especially for local needs. This also meant that they had to be extremely low-priced in order to allow them to be developed into successful business models.
Women’s Networks and Satellite Dishes
We visited one of the many women’s groups organized by DA. Through their community-building character, the group we met helped rural women to gain self-reliance. Sooner or later they found themselves getting together in groups to develop businesses with the help of a small loan.
We also visited two of the 50 TARAhaats built up by DA: these are small schools where people learn English along with computer use. The building had no windows and no telephone, only a satellite antenna on the roof. The TARAhaat also offers services such as micro-insurance for poor harvests and market information on the price of manufactured wares.
Fighting Poverty as a Life Calling
If you look more closely at the DA world, a multifaceted spectrum of business initiatives is unfolded. The examples described briefly above are a small part of what Ashok has initiated in the last few years.
If you consider the fact that Ashok could have had a career at Harvard or the UN, his decision might seem like a sacrifice. But according to Ashok, nothing in the world could have made him happier or more satisfied than being able to see every day that his work finds a practical and long-term path out of poverty for more and more people. He says:
“I know that I will fail to meet my big goal – eradicating poverty – during my life time. So, my job is to set up the machine as long as I am here. With it, one can only hope that the world will succeed.”
About the Authors:
Joanna Stefanska Hafenmayer is the Managing Director of “MyImpact,” an organisation focusing on helping leaders to realize meaningful careers through coaching and seminars, as well as assessment tools and publications. An expert in the development of corporate responsible leadership programmes, Joanna is also a member of the Board of “Öbu” – the Swiss think-tank for business and sustainability – and leads the Responsible Corporate Leadership (RECOL) Forum, a group of innovative global enterprises in this area. Prior to 2012, she was a member of Microsoft Switzerland’s Executive Board as their Innovation & Sustainability Officer. Joanna was selected as a First Movers Fellow of the Aspen Institute.
Wolfgang Hafenmayer is the Managing Partner of LGT Venture Philanthropy, with a mission to improve the quality of life of less advantaged people. To realize this mission, Wolfgang built a team of 25 investment managers and philanthropy advisors on five continents to identify and support organizations with outstanding social and environmental impact currently improving the quality of life of 7.9 million less advantaged people. Wolfgang has been an Investment Manager with BonVenture, the first social venture fund in German-speaking Europe, and helped set up Forma Futura, a sustainable asset management company.