Aneri Pradhan is the Founder of ENVenture, an incubator which offers seed financing and training for rural clean energy entrepreneurs in Uganda. In October 2017, she attended the American Express Leadership Academy in New York City.
Q. Why did you decide to go into the nonprofit/social purpose sector?
In my college application essays, I wrote that I wanted to be a diplomat – an Ambassador or working within the United Nations solving big global problems. As an Indian-American, I was attracted to a career in global development, a field that would afford me opportunities to work from both a western and eastern perspective.
While I was studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a friend dragged me to a lecture on nonprofits. At first, I was not interested. I felt that charities have been tackling global poverty issues for decades, with little to show in terms of impact. The real game-changers were policies and institutions that tackle the ecosystem that enable poverty to decrease – or so I thought. After working in government and institutions, I saw the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy stall and limit innovation. It wasn’t until I was working for various social enterprises in developing countries when I realized that nonprofits have a very important role to play in subsidizing services for the poor and marginalized, and that there is a real opportunity to deliver change.
What keeps you here?
As a founder, the greatest reward for me is to see the direct impact of my labor improve the lives and well-being of people in underserved communities. It’s hard to not want to stay involved after our beneficiaries tell me the impact ENVenture has made in their lives.
For example, one of our partners told us that because they started a clean energy business in their villages through our support, they were able to sell a solar lantern to a grandmother. She used it to bring her daughter-in-law to a health clinic in the middle of the night, lighting the path and eventually the delivery room too because the clinic did not have electricity. Without that light, the mid-wife would have had to perform the delivery in the complete dark. These stories of our impact keep me going.
What is your favorite thing about your work day?
Every day is different. As a founder, I wear a million hats. Sometimes, I’m burning the midnight oil on a fundraising deadline, the next day, I am re-designing our program with my team in Uganda. On other days I am product managing our mobile financial inclusion app with our developer. There is never a routine to this work, which definitely keeps things interesting.
What impact or success are you most proud of?
I created ENVenture as a market transformation solution to support rural entrepreneurs to sell clean energy. Being a nonprofit founder is immensely difficult; ENVenture did not happen overnight, but when I lookback at the steady period of growth and impact achieved, I could not be prouder.
Our work has created 56 energy entrepreneurs who have hired 300 people in their communities, mostly young women. Our business trainings have demonstrated increase in clean energy adoption, with over 7,000 technologies sold benefitting 42,000 Ugandans earning less than $2 a day.
And because so many of our distributors work in schools, many children are getting light to study at night and clean drinking water in the classroom.
We all have our “failing forward” moments. Can you share a failure that in retrospect led to growth or learning?
My “rejected” folder of fundraising proposals is probably three times the size of my “successful” folder. Every rejection is difficult to bear because of the amount of hours and time it takes to create a proposal, and it feels like failure when a grant that was desperately needed is denied.
I try to get feedback as often as possible and implement it in future fundraising. It’s common to hear a thousand no’s before getting a yes. It’s important to remember that and stay positive because I know how important this work is to our clean energy ecosystem building efforts in Uganda.
In a few words, what most gets in the way of your ability to be the leader you want to be?
Time! When you are a leader and a founder you wish for more time in the day to get everything done. Of course that is impossible, so the best thing to do is to be a productive as possible and utilize technology tools that enable efficiency.
What’s your favorite tech tool for the work?
It’s simplistic, but nothing beats WhatsApp for international work. Nearly everyone with a smart phone in a developing country uses it and it’s great for sending quick updates and information throughout the day, as well as making free international calls.
How did your experience with the American Express Leadership Academy influence your approach as a leader?
It’s difficult to find opportunities as a nonprofit for professional development, such as coaching and training programs. I really appreciated and valued the experience American Express and Ashoka provided in enabling leadership through design thinking, ideation, and team management strategies.
What was your greatest take away from the experience?
Being a leader is lonely work! It was powerful to be in a room of people on the same level, who were in leadership positions in their start-ups and organizations who could freely share the challenges and experiences of implementing a new innovation. I greatly enjoyed spending two days with everyone away from the computer absorbing lessons and best practices.
What has been your biggest area of growth as a leader in the past year or two?
ENVenture was the first time I have been in a direct management position and I had to learn very quickly how to keep a team motivated, engaged and empowered on a regular basis. Burnout is real in a nonprofit and most people do not work at nonprofits because they are motivated by money. So personal fulfillment is extremely important and knowing that it’s nearly impossible to accomplish targets and goals without your whole team on board is critical.
What is something that people don’t know about you from reading your resume? (Have fun with this. What do you love when you’re not working, or what secret talent do you have?)
I’m a huge animal lover! Part of the fun of working in East Africa is the proximity to wildlife; I have been on six safaris! My favorite thing to do when I have free-time is to play with my dog and take him for long walks.
Please share your greatest piece of leadership advice for your social sector peers across the world.
It’s important to practice self-care as a leader. As a leader, you are in a position of constantly helping others and it’s easy to forget about helping yourself. Take care of your body, physically and mentally. Try to get 6-8 hours of sleep – very hard I know! But just like airline safety videos say, you have to put your own mask on before you put one on someone else.
Three words: If you had to name three specific abilities, skills or mindsets that you think every 21st century nonprofit leader needs, what would they be?
Empathy, vision and determination.