“Where do you see the company 10 years from now?” -- this is a question which perhaps every corporate leader has heard and dedicated much of their time and energies in predicting and shaping.
It was 2016 and Mekin Maheshwari, then Chief-people-officer of Flipkart, the largest ecommerce company in India, sat in the board-room with few other leaders as this question was tabled.
He had joined Flipkart in 2009, just two years after humble beginnings of the company. Fast forward to this day 7 years later, Flipkart was a household name in India and had soared to a valuation of over 10Bn$. And Mekin had played a critical role in this massive growth story. From being President of Engineering for the company in its initial years and then heading the people function helping manage a team of over 30,000 employees.
Flipkart had emerged as a homegrown behemoth of India’s ecommerce space, yet most experts predicted that this was just a tip of the iceberg, in terms of the opportunity ahead.
It was in this backdrop, Mekin found himself reflecting “Where do you see the company 10 years from now?”. An unusual thought came to his mind “I realized I couldn't see myself in it. More so, I realized that I don’t know myself.”
Looking back now, he reflects “I was shocked. I realized I couldn’t even talk to my wife about such a thing, for the fear of hearing -- If you don't know yourself, then who did I marry?"
2-3 months of further holding those questions sincerely in his consciousness, and a little bit of serendipitous encouragement from the universe (as always tends to happen with such events) , gave him the courage to move on, and let go of his position. And began a deeper search for knowing himself and serving others became his pathway. Like Gandhi would have affirmed “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others”.
“I realised that there are more critical problems for people in India that stay unsolved, some of which can not be solved with a for-profit mindset.” Mekin says.
He realized that rather than optimizing profits, what he really cared for is to help others rise to their full potential, and he was drawn to the field of education to do that.
He took a gap year where travelled across the country, visiting schools which admitted more challenging student populations and he met 100s of social entrepreneurs in this space. That subsequently converged into him founding Udhyam Learning Foundation, a non-profit which aims to serve the potential in each child by developing entrepreneurial and leadership skills in them.
“Entrepreneurial people are able to solve more problems, operate with higher grit, try new things, and continuously understand and improve themselves.” explains Mekin. “Grit,” Independence”, “Self-awareness” and “Self-belief” are the 4 behavioural traits which Udhyam aims to nurture among students. To this effect, an “Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum” - an initiative of Delhi Government in partnership with Udhyam Shiksha and others is currently being implemented in over 1,000 schools in just in Delhi itself, in collaboration with the government. 750,000+ students in Delhi have been exposed to this program in last couple years, which also has included interactions with 1,500+ real life entrepreneurs. The program has seen many remarkable stories of youngsters break through outer and inner barriers and innovate and launch successful enterprises. In addition to Delhi, Udhyam is active in many other Indian states too.
The other significant part of Udhyam’s work is to support nano-entrepreneurs (“vyapaaris”) - informal, unorganized small businesses . Thanks to Udhyam Vyapaar’s one-on-one mentoring and group sessions, many street side chai wallahs (tea vendors), istri-valas (ironing services), etc have been able to improve their incomes by by better customer outreach, adding new product lines etc.
Apart from Udhyam, Mekin has also co-founded GAME (Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship), which has outlined an audacious vision of creating 10Million micro entrepreneurs in India by seeding a culture of entrepreneurship which can in turn create around 50Million new jobs.
In the past 15 months of Covid crisis in India, Mekin also played a pivotal role through ACT Grants in mobilizing the Indian start-up ecosystem to step-up their efforts to support the country to manage the pandemic. This has led to many companies and their leaders have come forward and generously contributed money, time and connections to incubate innovative solutions at scale to many pandemic related problems.
One of the signature traits in Mekin’s journey is his trust in people and his courage to let go the paths of predictable success, in search of and in surrender to a deeper unknown. He picked a lesser ranked engineering college - PESIT over RVCE, as he felt PESIT director had a more progressive mindset. He left a secure job and joined Flipkart, an obscure startup at that time, basis one conversation with the founders when none of the “experts” took the opportunity seriously. And when his career was starting to peak and shine, he left Flipkart to find his “true self” and also support underprivileged students across the country in this journey. As he started working with these children, a profound shift he went through is from seeing his role as a “teacher” to a “co-learner” along with those students. “Ya probably I understand how business works better than these children, but I am nobody to teach grit to these children. These children have far more grit than me or the people I know. And it allows me to be able to learn from them.” he shared after a powerful reflection circle with some of his students.
He lives in Bengaluru with his family, and loves playing sports especially Cricket and Tennis.
I feel most alive when I'm playing.
Outside the field, what really makes me come alive is just energetic conversations, which have a lot of possibilities and potential, mostly with young people.
Many. The most recent one is sitting in a boardroom and trying to imagine what would the world look like 10 years from today, what would Flipkart look like 10 years from today and what would I look like.
And then being aghast at "Oh I don't fit in Flipkart 10 years from now." It's a company I have helped build over last 7 years and then that realization that I don't belong here, which then made me ask very hard questions of myself to then figure about what should I be doing.
That led to me to do many things in terms of exploring education, starting Udhyam and possibly many more down the road.
It goes back to my wife. It was my first job interview at campus. Infosys was in campus. I didn't make it.
The result was out at 8pm. Her hostel curfew time was 7pm. She broke the hostel curfew rules and stayed back.
And this was even before we were seeing each other.
After the results are out, I am all dejected and broken. And she is like "Let's just go for a ride."
We had like a silent bike ride for about 45 minutes. No words exchanged.
I feel probably that was the biggest act of kindness I have experienced personally.
Solo back-packing for a couple of months in the Himalayas or South America.
Trust in people's potential.