Marginalia: The Akshaya Patra Foundation was started 19 years ago. What has been the inspiration behind starting Akshaya Patra? How did a thought become a movement?
Shridhar: We started our school lunch programme in the year 2000. Our inspiration was Srila Prabhupada who wished for a hunger-free world. When the Government of India’s flagship programme, the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme was launched, we collaborated with the State Governments as the implementing partner for the initiative. It served as an opportunity for us to reach out to more children in the pursuit of our vision No children in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger.
Marginalia: Akshaya Patra is the largest school meal program run by a not-for-profit. Can you tell us the journey so far?
Shridhar: We started with the feeding of 1,500 children of five schools in Bengaluru, Karnataka. As the word spread, more schools wrote to us, asking us to serve meals to their children. With the support of like-minded people, such as TV Mohandas Pai, who offered to donate delivery vehicles, and Abhay Jain, who brought on board more donors, we were able to grow from strength to strength.
When the Government of India’s flagship programme, the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme was launched in 2001, we collaborated with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India, and State Governments to implement the programme. The opportunity helped us reach more children in the pursuit of our mission to reach 5 million children by 2025.
Earlier this year, we reached the milestone of serving cumulative 3 Billion meals, which was commemorated in the presence of the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi.
Marginalia: Akshaya Patra has been a keen area of interest and case studies in business schools and professional colleges around the world. Tell us what is behind this growing interest in Akshaya Patra.
Shridhar: Working closely with the Government and donors, we have been able to create a strong system to feed the children of our country and bring them closer to education. With the high prevalence of hunger and illiteracy in many parts of the world, the relevance of an efficient school lunch initiative cannot be highlighted enough. In our attempt to address these two issues with our school lunch programme, we are glad that we have developed a template which is sustainable and replicable. We have students from business schools and professional colleges around the world visiting us. Our programme was included as a case study at the Harvard Business School. Similarly, we have Government officials from various countries coming to see our programme and take learnings from the same.
Marginalia: How Akshaya Patra used corporate expertise to scale up mid-day meal scheme?
Shridhar: If you see our organisational structure, you will notice that it replicates that of a corporate. We have departments ranging from operations, projects & infrastructure, finance & accounts to resource mobilization, communications, and research & advocacy. Each of these departments is helmed by a person with expertise in the field. These individuals report to the Vice-chairman and are accountable to the Chairman and the Board of Trustees. Even the Board of Trustees comprises of people from different walks of life and follows a systematic method of governance within the organisation.
Marginalia: Beyond the mid-day meal schemes, what are other initiatives of Akshaya Patra? What are some of the recent initiatives?
Shridhar: The Mid-Day Meal Programme was started to bring children to school and it has been successful in doing that, with the assurance of a wholesome meal prompting many children to come to school, and more importantly, prompting many parents to send their children to school. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, what next? How do we enhance their school experience and provide them the exposure that will help them in the future?
With this in mind, we started the National Endeavour for School Transformation (NEST), our school rejuvenation programme based on the Government’s model school concept. We also started the Giving Every Dream a Chance initiative, our mentorship programme to identify and nurture the talents of our beneficiary children, and a scholarship programme to provide financial aid to deserving children and putting them on a bright path.
While these initiatives are over and above our MDM Programme, they have a crucial role to play in enhancing the overall impact of the programme.
Marginalia: What kind of support do you have from the corporate world? In what ways do businesses contribute to the foundation?
Shridhar: While the Government provides grain and cash subsidies to implement the programme, we have to collect donations from corporate and individual donors within the country and abroad to enhance the programme. We use these funds to provide children a nutritious, multi-item menu cooked in our state-of-the-art kitchens where proper hygiene is given utmost importance.
We have been working closely with various corporates and their philanthropic arms as our implementing partners. We have kitchens that are being constructed and operated in partnership with organisations such as Tata Trusts, Infosys Foundation, MUFG, etc. We have also partnered with companies such as CISCO and Accenture for leveraging technology and digitization of kitchens.
Marginalia: In India, every company is supposed to set aside compulsorily a portion of their profits towards CSR initiative. However, many companies are still clueless as to how to spend this money. Does Akshaya Patra plan to tap into the CSR funds to further strengthen the foundation’s initiative?
Shridhar: Any new intervention takes time; the CSR intervention is not an exception. More companies are slowly opening up to the idea of corporate social responsibility. This is evident from the KPMG India CSR Reporting Survey 2018, which states that Indian companies spent ₹75.36 billion on CSR activities in 2017-18―47 percent rise from CSR spends in 2014-15. It is good to see these companies coming forward to address socioeconomic issues, regardless of whether they are partnering with other non-profits or establishing their own non-profit wing.
From the non-profit organisation’s point-of-view, CSR intervention is an opportunity to maximize the impact of our programmes. Several corporates seek non-profit organisations to partner with. If we are to make the most of this opportunity though, it is imperative that we meet the needs and expectations of being an efficient and trustworthy organisation in this sector. We are striving to meet these needs and expectations. Our efforts are validated by the several awards we have won for excellence in financial reporting, including the ICAI Gold Shield seven times in a row.
Marginalia: Today the corporate world is built around competition, profits and an intense desire to stay ahead of the curve. Somewhere in this race the social purpose of business and their responsibility towards society seems to be fading? How can businesses reinvent their social purpose and how can they contribute to movements like Akshaya Patra?
Shridhar: Based on personal experience over the years, I have seen that people have always had a positive outlook on social good. Even before the CSR law came into being, we were collaborating with several corporates entities, including the Tata Group and Infosys, for our programme. I think overall things are changing and businesses are reinventing their social purpose by integrating it into their organisational philosophy.
Marginalia: Millennials who are soon going to become almost 75% of the workforce around the world. They are also known to be socially driven. Do you see volunteerism from millennial employees for Akshaya Patra?
Shridhar: The energy millennials bring to the table is unparalleled. They are much more socially conscious, and more importantly, they don’t just want to do good in their spare time. Giving back to the community is, in fact, a key component of job satisfaction for this generation and corporate volunteering can enable the same. We encourage corporate employees to volunteer at Akshaya Patra kitchens and be a part of our noble cause of serving food to children.
Marginalia: You left your corporate job to join Akshaya Patra. What inspired you to do that? What message do you have for the business graduates of today as they step into the corporate world?
Shridhar: I left the corporate job about 14 years ago in search of the existential purpose of life. The chairman of Akshaya Patra, Shri Madhu Pandit Dasa invited me to his office and asked me “why are you building empires for others? Build it for these deserving children.” This was a calling for me and I joined Akshaya Patra. It has been an immensely satisfying journey.
My advice for business graduates is ‘be in search of happiness; don’t chase money.’ If money brought happiness, the richest people in the world would have been the happiest. Secondly, please ask yourself, why are you doing what you are doing and are you doing the right things? Leading a life of values brings immense power to oneself and it can be truly transformative.
About Mr. Shridhar Venkat
Shridhar Venkat serves as the CEO of The Akshaya Patra Foundation. He has over 25 years of work experience with leading multinationals, including Philips, ABB, Webex Communications (CISCO), etc. An Eisenhower Fellow 2014 for innovation, Shridhar has been working with Akshaya Patra for the past 13 years. Prior to that, he was the Vice-President – Sales of Webex Communications (CISCO).
Shridhar holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Marketing Management, NMIMS Mumbai. He has been selected as a ‘Distinguished Alumni Leader’ by NMIMS. He is a graduate of the Advanced Management Programme from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is a recipient of Mother Teresa Social Leadership Scholarship.
His search for ‘Existential Purpose’ in life made him quit a corporate career and join Akshaya Patra, a not-for-profit organization with the vision: ‘No Child in India shall be deprived of education because of hunger’ and mission to feed ‘5 million children daily by 2025.’ The Foundation is the world’s largest NGO-run school meal programme, feeding over 1.76 million children every day in 43 locations across 12 states in India. The Global Journal of Geneva has ranked the organisation 23rd among the top 100 NGOs in the world.
The prestigious Gandhi Peace Prize for the year 2016 was conferred upon Akshaya Patra for its contribution towards socio-economic development.
It has also received the Nikkei Asia Prize 2016 for Economic and Business Innovation category. The Foundation has been honoured with the ICAI ‘Gold Shield Award’ for excellence in financial reporting for seven times in a row. It has the distinction of being the only NGO to be inducted in the ICAI Hall of Fame.
Harvard Business School has done a case study on Akshaya Patra. MIT has featured it in its technology review. The Foundation has been covered by several leading media houses, including Forbes, CNN, BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery Channel.