Entrepreneurship lies in harmonizing innovation with empathy

Sajju Jain, an entrepreneur and graduate of Harvard Business School, emphasizes the importance of equilibrium in entrepreneurship, balancing technology, human needs, and nature.

Aanchal Ghatak
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Sajju Jain, Member Board Of Directors, Rereeti

Embarking on a journey through the realms of entrepreneurship and societal impact, we delve into the rich insights and experiences of Sajju Jain, Member Board Of Directors, Rereeti. Armed with a robust background as an entrepreneur, mentor, and graduate of Harvard Business School, Jain stands as a beacon of inspiration for those seeking to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of business amidst global challenges. 


As we explore the intersections of technology, human needs, and environmental sustainability, Jain illuminates the path forward, advocating for equilibrium in entrepreneurial endeavors. Join us as we uncover the profound wisdom and forward-thinking strategies shared by this visionary leader, poised to shape the future of impact-driven innovation in the post-pandemic era.

Excerpts from an interview:

How has the pandemic influenced your approach to entrepreneurship and societal impact, particularly in the context of your diverse ventures?


We live in a world that is the most complex and interconnected in history. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that it is also fragile and easily disrupted. The most important entrepreneurial lesson I learned as a result of everything we endured was the concept of equilibrium. Successful entrepreneurship in the 21st century will require the creation of an equilibrium between the forces of technology, human needs, and nature.

In what ways do you anticipate the post-COVID normal impacting the strategies and operations of social ventures?

Now, there is greater emphasis on creating solutions that address the most pressing societal challenges exposed by the pandemic and the post-COVID normal, such as those in healthcare accessibility, social stability, geopolitical security, education quality, and climate change.


In strategy and operations, I anticipate social ventures will increasingly prioritize digital transformation and remote operations to enhance both resilience and scalability. Additionally, there will be a stronger focus on building partnerships across sectors to leverage collective strengths to address complex global issues.

With your extensive experience in innovative ventures, how do you perceive the role of new tools and methods in driving impactful solutions, especially in the post-pandemic era?

I'll go back to the concept of creating an equilibrium. In this case, it would be by combining old tools like design thinking with new tools like artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics. Such a combination can transform our approach to creating impactful solutions by understanding and addressing users' real needs. This method emphasizes empathy and user-centricity, ensuring that innovations are not only technologically advanced but also deeply relevant to those they aim to serve. For instance, in my work with Embrace, we developed an infant warmer to address the challenge of hypothermia in low-birth-weight and premature infants in under-resourced settings. Today, integrating AI and data analytics could significantly enhance this process, from design to deployment. AI could help in predicting healthcare needs and optimizing the warmer's design and usability based on real-world data, ensuring it meets the specific needs of different environments. Data analytics could further refine our understanding of usage patterns, enabling continuous improvement and more effective distribution strategies. This blend of empathy-driven design and technology not only leads to more innovative solutions but also ensures they are scalable, sustainable, and truly impactful in the post-pandemic era.


Can you share any insights into the adoption of technology and novel approaches within your organizations to address emerging societal challenges?

Combining technology with novel approaches is at the heart of developing solutions to societal challenges. In our work at Chirag Rural Development Foundation (CRDF) under Project Chirag, we initially focused on replacing kerosene lanterns with simple solar home lights in remote villages across India.

As we understand their needs better, our mission expanded to incorporate a broader range of solar-powered solutions, including street lighting, water filtration systems, school lighting and digitization, and solar irrigation systems.


We kept solar technology as our foundational energy source, which allowed us to leverage the benefits of a common supply chain, improvement in base technology, and the industry's economies of scale. Our deep understanding of user needs combined with this sustainable technology allowed us to achieve a comprehensive 360° development of villages.

What measures have you implemented to foster collaboration and maintain organizational culture amidst hybrid work environments?

In mentoring startups globally, I developed a best practice model based on three pillars to enhance collaboration and culture in hybrid settings. The first pillar is technology and using digital platforms for seamless communication with geographically dispersed teams. It is essential here to thoroughly experiment with multiple platforms before selecting one that works best for your teams.


The next pillar is collaboration through activities, like virtual team-building exercises and in-person retreats. It is through consciously organized shared experiences that we foster both enhanced collaboration and a unified organizational culture.

The last pillar is flexibility. A successful hybrid organization does not confront but instead embraces factors such as diverse time zones and personal commitments of its team members. Building a system using these pillars ensures our teams remain connected, collaborative, and culturally aligned, regardless of their physical location.

Drawing from your experiences, how do you see the potential for collaboration between impact-driven ventures and academic institutions in driving societal change.


I've seen both sides of the coin when it comes to the potential for collaboration between impact-driven ventures and academic institutions aiming for societal change. During my work with Embrace we successfully collaborated with Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) combining a startup’s drive and energy with their academic and medical research to enhance the effectiveness of our infant warmer, demonstrating the positive outcomes of such partnerships.

However, at Sisu Global Health, we attempted to collaborate with a leading medical college in South India to leverage their academic rigor and our startup’s innovation. Despite the obvious potential, bureaucratic systems within the institution and differing timelines between our fast-paced startup environment presented challenges, making it difficult to align our schedules. They weren't at fault. Both their and our systems weren't designed for alignment.

These experiences show that although there's vast opportunity for meaningful work together, existing frameworks often fall short in meeting the needs and operational pace of both startups and academic institutions. For these collaborations to succeed and make a difference in society, we must innovate on how we work together. We need new methods that honor startups' speed and focus on growth, as well as the thorough research required at academic institutions. While I've had some success here, I haven't yet found the best ways to create effective systems to enable this at scale.

Have you explored partnerships with academia to advance R&D efforts or enhance skill development initiatives within your organizations?

When founding Standard Skills Development, our mission was to address the skill development challenges within India's entrepreneurship ecosystem.

We faced challenges when exploring partnerships with academia, notably the lack of connections between the startup ecosystem and academic institutions, especially outside elite and metropolitan institutions. The training quality and its relevance to rapidly evolving startup worlds are also major concerns. The curriculum often fails to keep pace with technological advancements. This is something we all see with the emergence of generative AI.

Addressing infrastructure and resource challenges is another area that needs focus. While the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) is a step in the right direction, the scale and quality of such programs must expand to meet the needs of India’s vast youth demographic. Moreover, attracting high-quality trainers remains a pivotal issue. The discrepancy in earnings between professional trainers in the private sector and academic teachers hinders our ability to attract the necessary talent to build a strong entrepreneurial foundation through our academic institutions.

The solution may rest in creating a formal trilateral strategic partnership between key stakeholders in the startup ecosystem, our academic institutions, and the government through a special purpose vehicle (SPV). Such a macro-level collaboration could create a dynamic, responsive, and innovative ecosystem crucial for fostering a robust skill development framework within India.

Considering your involvement in ventures, how do you prioritize and approach tech research and development to address pressing societal needs?

Two impact ventures that I was part of, D.light and Embrace, were founded in the at Stanford University. Their ethos and the worldwide impact of these ventures informs my approach and priority towards tech R&D.

The key is to understand a challenge thoroughly from the viewpoint of those who endure it. In the case of D.light, our team spent months visiting villages and towns across India to spend time with those using kerosene lanterns. It was this deep understanding of the users that enabled us to build a product range that over a decade has impacted over 100 million people worldwide. I repeat myself, if you want to solve pressing societal needs, your research and development must prioritize your understanding of the people it will serve.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is also essential. You need to bring together specialists from across multiple domains. We brought dozens of domain experts together early on. We had product designers and engineers across multiple specializations as well as those who understood component sourcing, manufacturing, and even marketing specialists at the table. This ensures our R&D is informed by the latest scientific, technological, and business advancements.

Finally, we embraced continuous improvement, leveraging user feedback to refine our products, ensuring they remain relevant and impactful. This responsive approach to R&D allowed us to develop innovative solutions that truly address pressing societal needs effectively.

Can you share any insights into the challenges and opportunities you've encountered while leveraging technology for social impact, particularly in resource-constrained environments?

Using technology to create social impact in resource-constrained environments involves navigating challenges like accessibility, affordability, and infrastructure limitations. For instance, developing D.light's affordable solar lighting required innovative approaches to overcome cost and durability barriers.

It took tremendous efforts to find the right component and manufacturing partners. Both the co-founders of D.light moved from the US to India and China to set up the business in a lower cost ecosystem. It takes that level of commitment to create societal impact.

When it came to durability, we faced challenges with battery technology, with the efficiency of solar panels, and polymer technology. We are accustomed to thinking the technology is only software. However, after almost thirty years as an entrepreneur, I find technology is everywhere.

The most opportunities lie where few are looking. India can leapfrog development hurdles through technology. AI combined with wireless communication, solar energy, and new-age batteries can enable new solutions in education, healthcare, and agriculture. What we have done with Chirag Rural Development Foundation so far is only a trailer to the potential revolution that's possible if we can start combining diverse technologies together.

How do you envision the role of startups in shaping the future of placements and career opportunities, particularly in driving social impact and fostering sustainable growth?

With India poised to have one of the youngest populations globally until 2030, startups can play a crucial role in leveraging this "youth bulge" for societal impact and sustainable growth.

We face challenges like low formal employment (10% of the working population) and a significant skills gap - with only 2.5% receiving vocational training compared to 60-70% in developed countries. Startups can act as a catalyst to drive necessary reforms in education and skill development.

By offering innovative job roles, partnering with educational institutions, and creating placement opportunities in future-based sectors like climate solutions, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, startups have the potential to address both the employment and skills divide.