BY SUSANNAH HORTON
Susannah Horton is returning to finish her second year in the International Development (IDEV) program. She spent her summer with Athena Infonomics, a research and policy development firm based in Chennai, India. Athena is a recurring IDEV Practicum client.
Vijay Bhalaki is an entrepreneur on a mission to use technology and data science to push the frontiers of researching and solving development issues around the globe. He is a co-founder and director of Athena. Vijay’s interests include public-private partnerships (PPP's), public finance, and social infrastructure development. Susannah caught up with Vijay to discuss his experience as an entrepreneur and the importance of data to development. Here are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
The IDEV Summer Internship Series highlights the experiences of IDEV students participating in internships this past summer. Each year, IDEV students intern with various development organizations around the world. These internships are generously funded by SAIS donors, and offer valuable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience between their first and second years at SAIS. Susannah's internship with Athena Infonomics was sponsored by Bernard L. Schwartz.
Susannah Horton (SH): First, a couple of congratulations are in order. You recently marked Athena’s seventh anniversary, and shortly thereafter, you were one of three “impact entrepreneurs under 30” honored by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and the Global Steering Group. I imagine these milestones gave you reason to reflect on your journey thus far as Athena’s co-founder. Could you take a minute to walk me through what it was like to start the firm?
Vijay Bhalaki (VB): I wouldn’t say there was a sudden spark of enlightenment that drove me to start Athena. My co-founder, Deepa, and I met Dr. Narayan and found a wavelength match in terms of ideas and perspective on how things were evolving. Our views were mostly focused on the Indian context where the economic growth rate was sticking above eight percent. There was suddenly a new-found ambition for growth and development, which I don’t think my parents’ generation could have imagined. It was against this backdrop that we thought of setting up a small research center that looks at contemporary development issues.
The ambitious side of me saw a future in this proposition. However, we had to convince the people around us of what we were doing and why we were giving up pursuing PhD’s. People wondered why we wanted to study such subjects; “it’s all around you,” they would say. See, unlike in the U.S. where development is a specific stream, in India, everything you touch is development. So, our sell was, whatever we are trying to do, we are trying to make projects better. We finally convinced them, and, with Dr. Narayan as our angel investor, we were able to get off the ground.
In less than a month we landed our first set of projects. They were mostly quick and dirty research assignments for large companies that were within our reach and network. The good thing about the social enterprise journey is that it’s not capital-intensive; you can break-even quickly if you have a few good projects on hand.
In the beginning, what it took was a little bit of blind faith in this idea of building an institution that could potentially tilt policies and development decisions in a positive way.
SH: Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in the field of development?
VB: To be candid, you need to get used to hearing a lot of “no’s.” It is important to be grounded and to understand that just having an idea and being able to write the business plan is simply the start. It is a very humbling journey.
There are moments that you feel good about what you are doing, but they don’t happen every day and are actually not the awards and accolades. They are found in the little smile on a colleague’s face when he or she has achieved something. Or the moment when a client calls to tell you they sold an idea to their boss and thanks you for your support. Those are the moments that are truly gratifying and meaningful.
If you are in the game to make a real contribution to all of your stakeholders--clients, colleagues, family--then you’ll really enjoy entrepreneurship as a profession. But, if you are considering entrepreneurship simply because it sounds like a unique professional path, think harder before taking the plunge.
SH: As an intern at Athena this summer, I’ve been exposed to various projects, approaches, and people. Could you tell me about a project or area you are particularly passionate about?
VB: Let me talk about one of our flagship projects. When we were trying to win this it was like shooting for the moon. We were competing with a lot of big names in the field--McKinsey, Deloitte, PWC--to become full-time advisers on infrastructure development for the Tamil Nadu state government. It felt like a long shot for a small firm like us.
The journey towards winning the contract was very steep. However, I think the best part of the story is that we were scored as having the most technically rigorous proposal. This not only shows how much the team invested in creating the proposal, but also our ability to present Athena’s distinct value proposition.
After managing to win, the project changed from a two-year to a four-year contract and it became an important anchor project for Athena. Since then, we have had the opportunity to work with the Tamil Nadu government on at least 20 different projects ranging from as small as using a PPP model to set up a parking lot to get cars off the road to as complex as figuring out how to provide 24/7 water access to millions of people. Winning that first contract gave us access to such a wide gamut of projects--in education, health, hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, and more.
SH: In an article you wrote about a year ago you responded to the question, “what would you do if you were given a billion dollars?” by saying you would create a user-friendly, transparent development data system in India. Could you describe what this might look like? And, without the magic of a billion dollars, is this something you think is feasible?
VB: Honestly, the challenge in a country like India is not a lack of data. There is a lot of quality, reliable data available in the public system and that could be mined from private databases. However, the question is, how can we synthesize the data and provide it as a public good that can be used at multiple levels, including among national, state, and local governments for planning, measurement, monitoring, and evaluation; the private sector to monitor their investments; and academia for research? There is a lot of work you can do if you have a reliable, accessible, and usable data platform.
To create that has been my billion-dollar dream. But, given that I don’t have a billion dollars, I must find ways to raise money and then monetize and sustain the platform. I see it as a game-changing value proposition in the development context, particularly if public and private data can be married. The private sector has amazing data sets, which are all stored on impenetrable servers and not put to great use. We could access them, anonymize them, extract them, and blend them with other data to create something that is meaningful for everyone in the system.
SH: Why are you expanding to have a presence in the U.S.?
VB: I get asked this question a lot, why a young company that is so small would make moves in the U.S. I see the U.S. as an amazing ecosystem of innovation and thinking that is contributing value to the entire ecosystem of development. I think it’s important for a player like us to be seen and heard in and contribute to that ecosystem.
On the other side, when I meet partners in the U.S. market, I often see the subject of development over-professionalized and put into a box as something that one needs to do to uplift people’s lives and give them a sustainable economic path. Due to these types of stereotypical expectations about development, issues of misalignment arise. For example, why is skill development in India failing? Because it is not in sync with people’s aspirations. People don’t want blue-collar jobs and yet blue-collar jobs are thrust at them. People could be coming from the poorest of the poor, but their aspirations could be right up there with the top. When you are planning development initiatives, don’t expect the subjects to be stereotypical, welfare-maximizing people who are just out there to get three meals a day. It is important for development professionals not to enter the space with preconceived notions.
In such a dynamic space it is important to have as much exposure as possible. Here in India, we are able to work closely with other development professionals and build associations at various levels. We can facilitate exposure and interaction and connect with all of the associated topics. That is the give-and-take approach. We take out of the innovation ecosystem new thoughts and ideas and we want to give back by helping people stay rooted in the realities on the ground in various countries across the world.
Below, the author with Mr. Bhalaki at the Athena Infonomics office in Chennai, India.