It was November 2012. Life was good. I had just turned 50 in May and Persistent was doing well. My wife, Sonali, and I have had casual conversations about ideas on how we could contribute to community development and social programms for many years. My friend, Sridhar Jagannathan, was visiting us during one such conversation and gave the wise advice of dividing life into three parts – Learn, Earn, and Return. Call it the itch to do something more or you may call it mid-life crisis. It was time to move beyond coffee conversations to real action.
Anand Deshpande is from the league of extraordinary entrepreneurs. For the uninitiated, Anand is the Founder, Chairman and Managing Director of Persistent Systems Pvt. Ltd. He looks after the overall leadership, strategy, and management of Persistent Systems.“Our population continues to grow and is nearly 1.3 billion and it will exceed that of China by the year 2030. As of 2015, more than half of our population is under the age of 25. Think about it, we have more than 25 million people at every age from 0 to 25; that’s a lot of people! Having spent 25 years in the technology industry, I wanted to find a problem where I could apply what I have learnt – technology and scale. I also wanted to focus on a problem that could keep me going for many years,” says Anand.
And thus, was born, ‘deAsra.’
Anand has always found inspiration in Bill Gates. Anand adds, “Microsoft has been one of Persistent’s earliest customers and I have been a regular visitor to the Microsoft campus since 1992. I have always been very impressed by Bill Gates’ ability to define a big vision and then passionately drive the organisation to make it happen. Naturally, I have been a keen follower of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation from the time they started in 2000. Like Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has defined an ambitious vision to solve large problems in global health and education. The Gates Foundation website quotes Warren Buffett’s great 2 advice about philanthropy – Don’t just go for safe projects, take on the really tough problems.”
Anand conceptualised deAsra Foundation with a mission to find and solve some hard problem in India that would benefit the masses. deAsra primary focus is to tackle the tough problem of ‘job creation’ with entrepreneurship. The target audience is any and every person who wants to start his or her own business with a project investment cost in the small to medium enterprise range.
The team carried out ground research on the problems faced by those wanting to startup or grow their businesses, by engaging in discussions with people from the entrepreneur ecosystem – the entrepreneurs themselves, government officials, banks, training institutes, etc. Pradnya shares, “We quickly realised that while a lot of work was being done by various agencies, it was disconnected and being done in silos. Also knowledge of resources available for the entrepreneur was not available easily, and even if it was, it was difficult to understand by a common person. The biggest concern we found was that there was no guidance or support provided to the entrepreneur through execution – there are a lot of unforeseen situations that an entrepreneur must face, and without a mentor, many a time the entrepreneur struggles.” Through this they understood the gaps in the ecosystem required to support an entrepreneur through the entire journey from idea to execution. The deAsra team went about conceptualising and designing methods to address these gaps.
There is a team of experts at deAsra who guide the budding entrepreneurs. This panel of experts include retired personnel’s regional heads of various nationalised banks. deAsra charges a Rs 1,000 as membership fee which is to be paid at the time of the first meeting. As a part of the membership, the member gets a complimentary annual subscription to their monthly magazine – Yashaswi Udyojak.
At the time of project commencement, they charge 2% of the project investment cost as annual charges to cover their services through the year of onsite inspections, monitoring, tracking, and helping with corrective actions to ensure positive business health. deAsra handholds the entrepreneur till the business becomes profitable.
Anand talks about a resource that entrepreneurs often look for, “Apart from this face-to-face candidate engagement, we also help entrepreneurs through our website. Any registered user can access detailed templates that guide the entrepreneur on how to start and run a business.”
The templates are based on a six-by-six grid. The process is divided into six stages – Plan, Start, Fund, Setup, Market, and Run and each stage is further divided into six steps. Anand adds, “We are focussing on providing complete and detailed templates on all aspects of starting and running a business from an individual entrepreneur’s point of view. We have about 60 such templates ready and are able to create about six to eight every month.”
Anand says that a lot of the entrepreneurs he and the team met were not comfortable with English and that gave birth to the idea of making these templates available in other languages as well. deAsra being Pune based, templates are now available in the local language, that is, Marathi.
deAsra Foundation is a not for profit company. Currently, all seed funding is being done by Anand and his family members through their personal finances. Pradnya says, “We hope to be a self-sustaining company in the years to come; however, the focus right now is not on revenue but on accelerated research and enabling as many businesses as possible.”
The core team consists of 25 employees working in different functions related to research and consulting. This includes a senior experts’ panel and all the Udyog Mitras (A deAsra concept) who are the friend, philosopher, and guide to the entrepreneur. Anand says, “In addition, we work with various partners who form our extended team, in the areas of legal, compliances, accounting, marketing who provide the required expertise and guidance to our candidates. So, all in all, we are a team of 50 all focused on entrepreneur enablement.”
Collaborations, impact, and challenges
deAsra has a MoU’s with various nationalised as well as co-operative banks such as Bank of Maharashtra, Janata Sahakari Bank, etc. This increases the probability of candidates referred by deAsra to get funding since their processes are aligned with the bank’s processes. Apart from this, they are associated with 50+ training institutes, and other organisations in the field of entrepreneurship development, social organisations, funding scheme implementation agencies, and entrepreneur forums.
In its nine months of operations, deAsra has had an extremely healthy interaction with about 582 budding entrepreneurs. They’ve also engaged with close to 300 entrepreneurs in the various stages of business, and have helped make a difference to 13 enterprises so far.
Talking about challenges, Pradnya says that deAsra Foundation wants to make use of corporate methodologies for technology application, scaling and process orientation to enable 25,000 businesses over the next five years. She highlights the issue, “The use of such a combination to achieve this high target is an innovative idea, with no current model in place to act as a guiding light. As with any innovation, we need to be ready to experiment, stay agile, and quickly adapt to changing requirements.”
Anand adds to the conversation about challenges, “Since we are dealing with the very sensitive topic of livelihood of our customers, we need to be emotionally connected with them to understand their perspective and provide appropriate guidance and counselling. Bringing all these attributes together is a challenge that our organisation finds different ways to solve on a daily basis.”
deAsra got its name from the initials of Anand’s family. ‘Asra’ came from Anand, Sonali (his wife), and kids Ria and Arul. ‘de’ came from the family name ‘Deshpande’.But the name is much more than that.
In Hindi, ‘de’ means ‘to give’ and ‘asra’ translates to ‘support’ and this is exactly what the genesis of deAsra is. Anand wants deAsra to be the support system that people look up to. He wants to demystify entrepreneurship for the common man and make him think of entrepreneurship as a preferable and viable career option.
Steady income can have a very significant impact on individual families and ultimately on the society. As they say, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ So it’s our dream that we help enable maximum number of entrepreneurs.
Anand’s vision and deAsra’s mission is in perfect harmony with ‘Startup India, Standup India’.