Integrating learnings into toolkits for impactful outcomes

Ajaita Shah, Founder, Frontier Markets

Ajaita grew up surrounded by the love of her family in New York City. But she also had an eye outside of her close-knit religious community, determined to be successful in the secular world beyond. This she feels, shaped her life.

She started realizing that she had entrepreneurial mindsets, skills, and mentalities when she was working in India. India seemed to be a clear place where she saw the need for solar energy solutions. In India, she was able to leverage her Indian background, ability to speak the local language, read and write in Hindi, and learn to assimilate to understand the local culture in multiple states of the country.

Her passion lies in striving to make a difference, to understand people, to connect with their life, and try to understand ways to address challenges and she found this as the perfect place for Frontier Markets to launch.

She earned a Bachelors Degree in Arts in International Relations from Tufts University followed by several years working in microfinance in India with like SKS Microfinance, and Ujjivan Financial Services. She has also consulted with the World Bank about microfinance in South Asia and Latin America and was honoured to serve on the Committee of the Social Performance Task Force.

Ajaita shares more insights from her exciting journey, with team ABT in this interview.

What inspires you the most ? Why.
I’m inspired by using the tools of business to solve a problem in the world, which for Frontier Markets, its creating affordable access to energy. Early on the U.S. government sent me to learn the Indian perspective on political issues. I began to dive in deeply into this culture. I wanted to understand the people enough to develop solutions that would work for them. In the end, these people inspire me.

Our success means millions of last mile families will have an improved quality of life. Work will be more productive. Children will be better educated. And most importantly homes will be safe from the dangers of kerosene, fire and smoke.

What was the idea behind setting up Frontier Markets? Tell us more.
We believe that every household has a right to reliable, affordable, and high quality electricity. Our mission and business objective is to close the missing gap from mainstream Indian initiatives. Frontier Markets’ mission creates economic opportunity for our team of women sales agents and our investors alike by providing energy efficient solar products for rural India.

Initially, I did not understand what being a social entrepreneur was going to entail – I was merely focused on writing a business plan and then testing a pilot, and determining whether I was correct in my assumptions. I was lucky to have early mentors ready to help in the process and help me understand that in order to make FM work, I will need to invest my own money into the idea. Now, Frontier Markets is my baby, my story, my future.

How has technology influenced the services you provide?
Our clients are in rural communities that lack many of the basic things we take for granted, like power and/or access to technology. So we want to use technology that works for them. Our solar products are created in a way that brings immediate value at a price they can afford. But we are also exploring technological tools that use mobile technology to help our sales force operate more efficiently. Technology, used well, is a powerful tool that can empower the people that need it most.

What has been your valuable lesson so far since starting your business?
I learned you have to be willing to learn. Early on, like many young professionals, I was very optimistic. Maybe if I had known then how hard and humbling it would be to launch and grow a startup business like Frontier Markets, I may not have had the courage to try it. If I knew that I would struggle to find the right concept, make mistakes and how long it would take, I may have been discouraged.

But the lesson is that this hard work and determination is what is required. Without which, the solutions your business creates, won’t be as effective. Without really knowing your customers and their needs you won’t provide what they need. It is hard to do this work, and harder still to do it with a deep appreciation for the people you work with. I’m glad I didn’t know it all then, because I couldn’t imagine any other path for my life.

Tell us about your most Cherished Milestone.
There are many. When your sales model finally takes hold and you see it working, that’s a joy. When we hit our sales objectives in the last two years, we felt very fulfilled. Even this past year when our concept was honored as the grand champion it felt like the validation we needed. Perhaps the greatest joy has been visiting rural households that we engaged 5 years ago that are still using our solar solutions, that have helped others adopt the same, and our women entrepreneurs becoming the driving change in their village.

But I think my most cherished milestone is still to come. This company is making new inroads. We’ve built a strong foundation and offer a genuine energy solution for the 70% of rural Indians who suffer from unreliable access to electricity. I’m not sure what that milestone will be, but we will continue to pursue it.

What has been your most challenging assignment so far?
This past year, we had a very interesting dilemma, which was an existential moment for the company: India had announced demonetization which meant that rural communities would need to give up their cash deposits, switch currency notes, and also work on becoming a digital economy overnight. This was a very difficult moment for our rural farmers, who were not ready.

During this period, there was a high demand for our solar torches as it was the peak of their agriculture season requiring proper lighting to protect themselves and their crops at night. We knew these farmers did not have access to capital, however, we also knew their need – this was a big company risk, and we had to balance our connect to the rural farmer, vs. the financial security of the company.

I made the decision to help the farmer, taking on a large debt risk starting the new financial year, but it was required, because at the end of the day, I had to remember that we were committed to serving the rural farmer, we were committed to impacting lives, and I had to trust that the risk would be recovered in the future. It took us 6 months to recover, but in return, we gained a different respect in the communities we served. It was then, that I realized, it’s super important for us to keep our values in check, and be a powerful force standing side by side with our customers we aim to serve.

What advice would you give to aspiring Entrepreneurs?
Solve a problem, don’t create one. If it’s just about making money, then by all means make money. But your life is more than money. It should be fulfilling, it should feed your passions. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. But if you’re like me and you feel it in your bones–then launch a business that will be successful because it solves a real problem and provides real value. In the end, that will be sustainable and profitable and better fulfill your life.

Be ready to make mistakes, be ready for chaos, be ready for failures, and do not focus on the successes, do not focus on yourself – it’s a crazy ride, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you recognize that the people along the ride are your partners in the journey.

Where do you see yourself 3 years from now?’
I decided to explore India as a fellow over 12 years ago not knowing that it would lead to entire movement; it’s been an extraordinary journey, and I am appreciative of the unpredictability and the intensity of working on solving massive social injustices. I have set up a foundation in the U.S. that allows me to share my experiences from the field, continue to bridge gaps in the energy access space, and also now think even bigger – global

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. I have built an incredibly strong team whom I hope to see become the drivers of scale for the organization tomorrow. Three years from now, I look forward to seeing more impact and scale; we have a 2020 vision of reaching over 5,000 women entrepreneurs and impacting 1 million lives in multiple states of India; I hope to achieve that goal with my leadership team driving that movement, and hope to integrate our learnings into toolkits to help other startups achieve impact in other countries as well.