According to the World Poverty Clock, five percent of India’s total population (1.3 billion people) face extreme poverty, with each person living on at most $1.90 per day. With such huge numbers, Upaya invests in India to provide stable jobs and steady income to the poor.
Upaya Investing in India
Derived from a Sanskrit word, Upaya means “Skillful means” or “method,” meaning any activity, skill, experience or practice that helps one toward the realization of a goal. With similar intentions, Upaya is tirelessly providing long-term solutions for people living in extremely poor conditions across India.
Seattle-based Upaya invests in India to create employment for the poorest of the poor through its accelerator program and investments in partner enterprises across regions that face extreme poverty. The firm supports early stage enterprises that ensure people in extreme poverty have a stable job and steady income, making them more self-reliant. So far, its 14 partner enterprises have already created over 8,500 sustainable jobs, effectively lifting many job seekers out of extreme poverty.
An Interview Between The Borgen Project and Upaya
The Borgen Project spoke to Upaya CEO, Kate Cochran, to get deeper insights into the firm’s accelerator program and how Upaya invests in India:
The Borgen Project (TBP): Tell us something about Upaya and how it all started?
Kate Cochran (KC): Upaya was originally inspired by a research project which was led by our co-founder Sachi Shenoy to answer the question – how do you scalably serve the extreme poor? We use the World Bank definition of people living on $1.90 or less a day. Our model is to invest in social entrepreneurs who are creating businesses that can create the jobs that employ the poor.
TBP: Can you talk a little about Upaya’s accelerator program?
KC: In 2017, we took our learnings from our first five years and created a program which allowed us to work with more companies at one time and more companies that we can afford to invest in. We bring them together for workshops. We connect them with mentors and experts in the field. We get to know them and we do field visits and at end of the period. We select one to three of those companies for equity investments from Upaya.
TBP: Is there a different focus sector every year that Upaya invests in India?
KC: It is a different theme each year. We select segments in industries that we focus on because we find that by grouping companies, probably in the same industry but not so narrowly that they feel competitive with each other, we can put together a curriculum that is more valuable to them. This is not only because each industry has its particular needs but also it’s easier for us to compare the companies. In 2017, it was the skills gap, this year it is agribusiness and we are in the middle of that accelerator. Next year, our accelerator will be in rural manufacturing.
TBP: Which countries are currently benefitting from Upaya’s accelerator program?
KC: India currently is our main focus, but we will be moving to other countries in the future.
TBP: What kind of jobs are generated when Upaya invests in India?
KC: We have made 14 investments that have created just under 9000 jobs. The jobs are quite varied across our portfolio.
For example, we have an investment in a waste management company in Bangalore that has built a model of forming teams to separate recycled old material from landfill waste in a very efficient way. These teams are located on corporate campuses, and so people who are employed in doing this have a full time 40-hour week, traditional wage jobs. At the same time, the company also provides reliable income for rag pickers, who have worked highly exploitative and dangerous environments in the past. The firm provides reliable, formal employment and also trains them on how to collect this material in a safe way. Such jobs are reliable jobs and help in creating a reliable living.
And this is just one company. There is a lot of diversity in the jobs created. But what we look at to be called a job – we want to know that the individual who is doing this is able to earn an income, at least a minimum of six months a year, that is high enough to move them beyond extreme poverty.
TBP: How do you measure the success of your partner enterprises at ground level?
KC: Sachi Shenoy, our co-founder, leads a practice to get to the job holder level and conduct surveys to see whether their income level is changing. We track household income, living standards, quality of their house, whether their children are going to school and other things.
TBP: What are the challenges that you face in countries like India that has a large population living in poverty?
KC: We face the same challenges really that our partners face since we are very invested in their success. Challenges would be like the changes in the central government policies, like when the GST came out or the demonetization happened. But even with the challenges, the good part of working in India is that it remains a huge market that can grow very quickly.
– Deena Zaidi