'I was from Telangana, I didn't know English and was a reservation candidate at college.' How Venkat Maroju became leader of a global social enterprise
SourceTrace’s eServices Everywhere™ (ESE™) platform helps capture information regarding agriculture, financial services, and retail through existing mobile and wireless data networks in developing economies, up until remote areas. They target organizations working with smallholder farmers such as cooperatives, NGOs, commodity companies and government agencies.
SourceTrace is now active in rural areas of three different Continents (Asia, Africa, South America), and has offices in USA, India, Costa Rica and Bangladesh where technology experts and sustainable agriculture professionals work together. “We have deep expertise in mobile application development and started in this field much before the advent of smart phones such as Apple and Android,” says the CEO Venkat Maroju.
Yet the company has not flourised overnight, but has grwon parallel to the story of its leaders.
When Venkat joined SourceTrace, the company – founded by MIT and University of Berkeley Alumni – wasexperiencing hard times. “After five years and several burnt million dollars, it was not going anywhere. The lead investor, Gray Ghost Ventures, to whom I have been an adviser for their several investments in India, approached me for counselling and I suggested focusing on agriculture instead of financial Inclusion. They liked the strategy I proposed and asked me if I would beinterested in running the company,” recalls Venkat, who has now been heading the company for two and a half years.
But job proposals of this sort do not just come by chance. Venkat’s journey begun in rural Telangana where he grew up in the seventies and eighties. “I went to government schools and studied in Telugu medium until 12th grade. In those days when it rained, classes were cancelled, so I was surprised when I got into Osmania University Engineering College through state-wide common entrance exam. Anyway, with a bit of luck and affirmative action, I made it,” says Venkat.
He continues,“I was almost a celebrity when I got admission into one of the premier engineering colleges in the state, however when I entered Osmania University, I felt like I was nobody there. I faced three main disadvantages:I had a rural background, I lacked English communication skills (I could not speak one full sentence in English properly when I joined college) and I was a‘reservation candidate’.”
Initially, Venkat felt there was no way he could manage his way through the end of his degree, “I had absolutely no hope and my goal was to take up a government job,” he says, but what followed shows that our brain is often quicker to understand what we really want than our consciousness. “I ended up topping my classes and got a very good score in GATEand was able to joinIISc, Bangalore and thengo to the USA on a full scholarship for my PhDprogram.”
In 1994,Venkat started his career in the automotive industry and quickly joined the management sector. While working as a Divisional Information Officer for Global Automotive Division at Bose Corporation,his company sponsored him to do an MBA degree from the MIT Sloan Fellows Program. “Never in my wildest dreams had I thought of attending MIT while I was growing up. It had been a long journey and I felt every hardship and every achievement summing up in that MBA, but it was just the beginning.”
Throughout his career, at no point did Venkatforget his roots. “Coming from humble beginnings in Telangana, I was always passionate about grassroots development and social causes back in India. I became an activist for Telangana movement since 2000 especially because my state has experienced one of the worst farmer suicides in the world from 1991-2005 and that deeply moved me. I studied their distress and explored solutions to make agriculture more sustainable and empower the smallholder farmers. This is why I wrote a thesis on Microfinance in India as part of my MBA program,” he says.
Since then, he decided to combine his passion for social causes and rural development with his career. He quit his job in 2009 and went back to India to launch his own venture in Agriculture for empowering smallholder farmers. “I essentially wanted to develop a for-profit social enterprise along the lines of very successful farmers’ cooperative ‘Mulkanoor Cooperative’ in Karimnagar district. I started off with seeds production business, but, I must say, I was not very successful and faced a lot of challenges operating at the grass roots level without having any background in business or social capital,” he recalls.
Venkat set aside his venture, joined SourceTrace in 2012 and the rest is an ongoing venture. He takes a minute to consider his journey and comments, “Here I go after two and half years, we built a very strong product and signed up 30 customers in 10 countries including Cargill and Olam and are on a decent growth path now.
He adds that his successful career has not been sans challenges.“During the second year at SourceTrace, our business development slowed down. Most of the major customer contracts we expected fell through at the last minute and the general vibes were of discouragement. However, we managed to recapitalize with the support of existing investors who believed in what we weredoing and six months later, we signed up a few strategic and large customers which pushed us into becoming a very viable venture.”
He says, “Now we need to accelerate our pace of business development and garner as much market share as possible. In India/South Asia we have good sales machinery to execute. Africa is another major market for us and since it is so fragmented, we are finding it tough to execute at an accelerated pace, but things are promising and we have secured some very large customers there.” Dreaming big, especially for a social venture, is fundamental.“Your goal is to create the world’s largest farmer database. We have 200,000 farmer profiles right now in three continents and ten countries. We are planning to reach ten million farmers by 2017.”
Then Venkat smiles and says, “Failing sometimes is not bad as long as you can learn from the mistakes. Failures are the stepping stones for success. Follow your passion with sincerity and honesty and the material success will follow over a period of time.”