Meet the SHEROES - Ajaita Shah

Published on 8 Sep 2015 . 13 min read

Born abroad but her heart is still in India…

Today we share the entrepreneurial journey of Ajaita Shah, the founder of Frontier Markets.

Ajaita is known as a change maker and was listed in the Forbes 2014 “30 under 30” Social Entrepreneurs list too. Read on to know why,

Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born and raised in New York, USA, (my parents are originally from India). My family migrated from Jaipur, Rajasthan in 1981 where my father pursued the diamond industry (coming from a long chain of jewellers – we were a part of the Jaipur Jain Jewellery community that migrated to NY together, living in a conservative community that balanced living in a western world with very traditional cultural values) …

While in college, I had the opportunity to “learn by doing” – I traveled to Europe to study European Relations with the US during the Iraq War, I went through Mediation and Conflict Resolution training in the Hague, I studied abroad in Spain for 6 months and in Washington DC where I worked at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars with a Pakistani Scholar named Ayesh Siddiqa – I researched work for her relating to the Militarization of Pakistan’s Economy – learned a lot about Pakistan, India and the US – I realized that if I wanted to be a global citizen or a change maker, I would need to embrace my understanding of culture and history and focus on South Asia as my career.

I also interned in Congress with Gary Ackerman who was the co-chair of the India Caucus in the House of Representatives. I was lucky to work with him during the time of India’s Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) visiting the US to sign the Civilian Nuclear Energy Agreement with America. There was a lot of controversy and confusion regarding US-India understandings, and the future of India and it’s energy needs. I was sent to India to get feedback from counter-parts of the Indian government to understand what India’s energy needs were in 2003. I realized very quickly how complicated the answer was – India needs everything – but also, India’s future was being recorded by the top 5% of productivity. After meeting many NGOs and Research Institutes in India, I realized the problem was not so simple – India had a rural reality – 70% of India required the grid and better infrastructure. That struck me a lot.

 In 2006, I joined Ujjivan Financial Services – a start-up urban microfinance company based in Bangalore, India. I loved what Ujjivan was working on, and I realized that urban microfinance, start-ups, will give me an opportunity to get my hands really dirty. Those 15 months changed my life – I learned everything and anything about microfinance, I spent time in the field, in back end operations, built unique models in healthcare and microfinance, and credit-plus initiatives.

My parents got upset with my choices; they forced me to come back to NY and work from here. I also then meet Vikram Akula (again) – Vikram sees my interest in microfinance, has heard about my work with Ujjivan, and wants me to join SKS. He wants me to manage his operations in America through his foundation – SKS Foundation.

I find myself back in India, but this time, Hyderabad. We start an initiative called the Ultra Poor Program which would be in partnership with Ford Foundation and the World Bank. We formulate a model that focuses on financial literacy, asset training, and market linkages, our goal would be to graduate ultra-poor women who are widowed and isolated into “bankable” women who can launch their own businesses and feed their children.

How did the idea for Frontier Markets come about?

Between 2006 - 2010, I worked in over 5 Indian states covering over 25,000 villages to understand household needs and their challenges. It became quickly apparent that electricity and water are their biggest issues - even today, over 70% households in rural India do not have access to regular and reliable electricity. This has forced them to either live in darkness, not be productive, or use kerosene as their option which is ineffective and dangerous. The worst sufferers are women who are housebound in the evenings, have to cook in the dark until they light the sole kerosene lamp (which is highly polluting, and which often got kicked accidently or tended to overturn in a strong breeze, leading to countless fires, women's deaths by burning, and wiping out of whole huts), and somehow ensure that her children share the relatively dim light to study. Additionally, with women answering to the call of nature in the open, darkness and the fear of snakes, etc, can be scary.

Solar seemed the obvious scalable solution in India. I realized the challenges to change this, to bring in solar:

1) rural households did not understand the concept of solar;

2) they lacked access to solar products in their villages;

3) whatever solar products they had been exposed to, was of poor quality, broke down immediately, and since there was zero service, they lacked trust in solar;

4) solar was not affordable and given the lack of trust, not worth the investment. She tried bringing solar solutions into households through the microfinance channels that she was working with and realized new challenges - while they had access to households, field staff were not equipped to educate households about the products, did not have experience in picking the right kind of solution for the household, were not able to service the product, and had zero support from the manufacturers.

What were the initial challenges you faced when setting up your venture?

From 2011-2012 – I am launching Frontier Markets – in every way – marketing and selling solar solutions to rural households. Spending every day in the field; trying to crack this model. By 2012, I feel like I have achieved something – I grow the company, get more investors, suddenly FM is on the radar of many social impact investors – what we’re doing works. Our philosophy of building last mile retail for solar is working. We start growing, and suddenly, I am no longer an entrepreneur, but a CEO.

Managing a company in India is hard. Rules and regulations I do not understand; whom to hire, whom to trust? There are a lot of cultural barriers – though I am Indian, I can speak, read and write in Hindi – I am still very aware of not being a local. I make many mistakes, hire the wrong people, try things and fail – but with a supporting investor group, amazing advisors, and strong partners, I come on top.

I think I have transitioned from being an entrepreneur to becoming a CEO to becoming a leader; I am understanding the importance of my work and what It can do to help the sector - I am aware that my lessons and successes will help others improve their work, and it's important to start getting involved in that to achieve true scale. I know I need to move beyond operations and continue to inspire others, to work on new innovations, to scale our work. I want to be able to think beyond Rajasthan, beyond India, and come up with unique partnerships that truly allows us to replicate our work.

What future plans do you have for Frontier Markets in terms of expansion? Any new projects or ventures you'd like to start?

Frontier Markets and Frontier Innovations Foundation aims to alleviate 10 million households’ electricity inequity challenges by 2019 in 4 states of India and scaling through partners globally in 4 countries. We aim to create 10,000 solar sahelis, and 10,000 retail points. We believe that every household has a right to reliable, affordable, and high quality electricity and women are the center of making this happen.

5 years from now, I see myself focusing completely on the Foundation, getting involved in policy, and continuing to empower more women in the sector. Not just for solar, but for an overall strategy to build a dialogue amongst women leaders and our ways to reach out to young adolescent girls and help them find ways to follow their dreams. I see myself creating more policies and programs for women skills building, business training, and help others become strong leaders as well. I will remain the Chairperson and Board Member of Frontier Markets, but my role will be Director of the Foundation.

Can you explain to us in brief what Frontier Markets main objectives are?

This is when I created Frontier Markets (2011) to focus on all these factors - educate households about the value of solar (especially women, as they benefit the most from light), choose high quality solar solutions based on the needs of the households, build local access by converting retailers into solar points, focus strongly on training and after-sales service (through a band of women, the Solar Sahelis), become the link for the manufacturer and the community by connecting with households who purchased products and confirmed they knew how to use it, how they felt, and what was going to be next. I quickly realized I could fill a massive gap: 1. Increase access to better options for electricity; 2. create income generating opportunities for villagers, especially women; 3. educate them to become smarter customers demanding service and knowing the difference between low quality products and high quality; 4. drive pricing down in volume to make systems affordable; and 5. create a new standard for ensuring that electricity challenges were not okay, and households deserved to own a solution that lets them live again.

Frontier Markets (FM) is a sales, marketing and after-sales service distribution company in Rajasthan. Founded in 2011, Frontier Markets works with local channel partners and field staff to educate, relate, and reach households providing them access to high quality and affordable clean energy solutions. FM creates solar retail points in the last mile and support them with service centers and after-sales. FM works with manufacturers to get the right products to our rural customers. FM creates women entrepreneurs which is the solar saheli campaign; as FMll as working with local rural villagers to build presence of solar in Rajasthan. To date, FM have sold over 90,000 solar solutions and have created 800 retail points and 500 solar sahelis. Frontier Markets is an active partner with the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and other global development agencies. FM has worked with Tata Trust to think through ways to expand access to clean energy products including solar and clean cook stoves to its partners on the ground in Rajasthan, primarily, Centre for Microfinance and their NGO partners. FM have worked on creating a program to empower women through energy access called Solar Saheli where women are getting trained in marketing, sales, and after-sales service of energy solutions to earn income. Frontier Markets’ mission is to provide over 10 million products to 30 million households in India by 2018.

What is your typical work-day like?

Waking up at 6am, connecting on calls with the US (advisors, mentors, partners), finish US calls and then get ready for work; reach my office by 10am, meet with each department head, review their performance, think through new relationships, spend time with govt folks meeting them to educate them about our work, head into the field for a solar saheli training review, reach back in the evening, review the evening with my team and plans for the upcoming month and track them.

What are the top challenges you face as a social entrepreneur in India?

1. Balancing my role as a daughter in a conservative community and my dreams to become a powerful change maker (community expectations of marriage and my dreams of becoming a global citizen)

2. Being a women entrepreneur from the US with an India heritage and fitting into the local norms of running a business in India

3. Fundraising for an innovative concept as a social entrepreneur

4. Balancing two countries and two lives

I fundamentally believe that we have been trained to take on multiple roles at once, we are brilliant communicators, we have a really big heart, and we are resilient. As a woman, I was able to bond with rural women who taught me a lot; I was able to understand humility, and resilience in a very different way. I also saw that in my mother – I think my strength and reason for fighting comes from being a woman.

The challenge is clear – there are ample stereotypes that one must have to face being a woman – many times I had to hear the phrase “ tu ladka nahi hai” or “ladko jaise mat behave kar.” – because as a young Marwari jain woman, I was supposed to live and act a certain way, not have the dreams that I did, and so there were tons of struggles. Working in the business world, and working with rural retail also showed me my challenges – as a woman, it was hard for me to work late hours, travel by myself late at night, I had a fear for my security. Working in Rajasthan has been the toughest – the conservative culture makes it hard for many men to accept working for or with a powerful, aggressive and intelligent woman.

Both the challenges and the benefits have been equal motivators for my success. Its kept me focused on my journey and breaking the stereotypes becomes a mission.

From where do you get your daily dose of inspiration?

I have been so lucky to have a supportive family who has been there for me despite their confusion and fears about the decisions I have made. Today, I am strong because they are strong. We all need guidance in life – this path is definitely not an easy

I had ample guidance from mentors; ample guidance from teachers, my bosses, advisors that have been super strong women, my own investors – all guiding me on decisions, being a part of my challenges, and reminding me of my qualities as a leader and my abilities. IFC, ADB, UN Foundation, and others in the sector have super supportive.

I joined many social networks through fellowship programs like Echoing Green and Dasra which have been crucial – these networks bring collaboration, partnerships and most importantly a friend circle and support circle of like-minded people. Many times, it’s challenges to be able to explain your struggles, your doubts, your fears to your loved ones that are not with you in this journey daily – social networks provide that outlet. It’s been an important part of my ability to keep working, learn from others and find ways to succeed.

Paroma Sen
Paroma Sen is a professional content and creative writer.

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