04 Nov ‘When you’re doing work that’s selfless, the risks you can take are infinite’: Akshaya Patra CEO Shridhar Venkat
Shridhar Venkat talks about his transition from a corporate job to the social sector and running Akshaya Patra as an organization with the mind of a corporate and the heart of an NPO.
Change. What successfully brings about change? Can anyone become a change-maker? What drives change? Who better to ask than a man who helps run the world’s largest school meal program. Mr. Shridhar Venkat is the CEO of Akshaya Patra who works towards making the vision of ‘no child should go hungry’ come true.
Through Akshaya Patra, he has embodied the cause and strongly believes that selflessness is what drives change for him on a personal level. “Everyday, I do God’s work. I’m part of God’s mission and this is my drive. I work for missionaries and monks and see selflessness in them with a strong drive to help humanity. This inspires me and keeps me motivated.”
Working with an organization run under the flag of selflessness, which is focused on positive change, Shridhar says, “When you’re doing work that’s selfless, the risks you can take are infinite. There’s nothing holding you back. I look up to serving God’s children.”
His story starts with him working for the corporate sector for 16 years. Mr. Venkat had one goal- he wanted to become a CEO by the time he turned 40. During this time, he was also volunteering for Akshaya Patra. He got an opportunity at the age of 36 to achieve his goals but he wasn’t happy with the work he was supposed to do. The Chairman of Akshaya Patra, Madhu Pandit Dasa, who he looked upon as his mentor, called Mr. Shridhar while he was staying at their guest house. They had a conversation about where Mr. Shridhar was headed in his life career-vise. What his mentor said after listening to him, completely altered the way Mr. Shridhar was thinking at that point of time- “Why are you building empires for others, when you can build an empire for these children?”
This was a moment of calling for him and he decided to quit corporates and move into the social sector “and since then it has been a fantastic journey! Very gratifying and satisfying. You see positive changes all around you, everyday.” There has been no looking back for him while working for this noble cause since then.
Apart from the cause itself that keeps Mr. Shridhar going, he witnesses many transformation stories on a regular basis as fruits of their hard-work. He tells us just a few days back, a young boy who was an Akshaya Patra beneficiary since the past 8 years came to give him sweets in his office. He used to score around 40% in his initial years but had just graduated with 93% and a gold medal in Kannada literature post getting an Akshaya Patra scholarship. His father works as an electrician and it’s always been a struggle to make ends meet in his household which automatically makes it hard for him to focus. There are multiple stories like this where the beneficiary’s low socio-economic background are no longer a distraction to them reaching their ultimate potential because of the drive that keeps Mr. Shridhar and the entire organization motivated- “These deserving children should not be deprived of a chance to live their dreams, no matter where they come from. Every dream should be given a chance,”
With a goal to feed over 5 million children everyday, Akshaya Patra aims to eliminate the choice between food or education for every child. To take their mission forward, and provide them the opportunity to get both, Mr. Shridhar focuses on running the organization in a smooth and strategic manner. Does his corporate experience come into play while strategizing and maximizing their output to reach the maximum number of beneficiaries they can?
“You can’t straitjacket a corporate strategy into a social sector strategy- it has to be modified. A lot of people make this mistake”. He explains that even though NPOs are limited in budgets, they more than make up for it in passion. Corporate strategies keep the organization running in terms of processes and systems but staying true to their mission is what keeps them motivated and stay the course- this is where the strategy adaptation comes into play.
“We have tried to keep things simple. I believe that simplicity is the key to scaling up.” Mr. Shridhar strongly believes that simplicity and focus is key to reaching their goals as an organization as opposed to diversifying and diluting their mission. Akshaya Patra has stayed true to its mission to provide ‘hot, nutritious and safe food to children’. Akshaya Patra is a story of compassion. “We are a compassionate organization which adapts corporate strategies to function smoothly but never forgets that we run on com- passion. The DNA of Akshaya Patra is a confluence of missionary spirit and professionalism. You can say we have a mind of a corporate with a heart of a NPO”
At a very fundamental level, Mr. Shridhar believes there’s not much difference between the corporate and social sectors. The difference comes at a more personal level- purpose. “If you’re working for a corporate, or in social sector, it’s very important to have an existential purpose of life. Without a purpose, there’s no difference between us and animals.
While operating at such a large scale, the one thing Akshaya Patra has figured out the secret sauce to, is scaling up. With such a large population who need to be reached by the organization and get affected on an everyday basis, scaling up is imperative and not just a tool in business strategy. Mr. Shridhar shares the secret sauce and sums it up in two words- Simplicity and Focus. Staying simple and thinking simple with a clear goal in mind- “All 7000 of us at Akshaya Patra get up in the morning and think about how to provide hot, nutritious food to as many children as we can”; and staying focused without diluting the cause in diversification is how Akshaya Patra has been able to reach the masses at a scale that’s made them the world’s largest school meal program.
Mr. Shridhar has a very dedicated, young team of people working under him who have the same drive and motivation as him to take the cause forward. He believes that leaders help others grow into leaders and has taken upon himself to train at least 100 of his young team members to grow into Akshaya patra’s leaders of tomorrow and take their movement forward. With an average age of just a young 30, fresh ideas keep brew- ing under his experienced leadership. He believes, “it’s all about empowering the team and believing in them.”
In his many years while running a value-driven organization like Akshaya Patra, Mr Shridhar has learned a lot. When asked about the one core learning that has been key to his role as a CEO, Mr. Shridhar says, “once you start doing god’s work and strive to do better, you will get enough supply of knowledge, strength and the ability to act in the right path. This requires us to identify and align our interests in the correct direction.” He strongly believes that Empathy, Transparency and having a Purpose is a must while trying to succeed in life, no matter the field. “Ideas create, values protect”.
What does it take to drive change? “Have a purpose in life- Take time to identify what you’re passionate about and never lose focus. Build something that you can scale up to make a noticeable difference- take simplistic but innovative measures to solve problems our society faces.”
Akshaya Patra has collaborated with Agastya to come up with a kitchen at our Campus Creativity Lab in Gudivanka. While Agastya sparks curiosity, nurtures creativity and instill confidence in government school children, Akshaya Patra makes sure that their minds are at full capacity to absorb with a full stomach. Mr. Shridhar says, “We are looking forward to serving the children in the Kuppam Campus. I have great regard for Ramji and what he has done- kindling scientific temperament of a child or making the kid think, is amazing and the way Ramji has gone about it is phenomenal. I draw a lot of inspiration from people like him and this gives us an opportunity to work together. Collaboration is the way forward- and we have government school children binding us together in cause.”