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Let There Be Light: Harish Hande’s Visit to SOM

There’s nothing like being back in school. I’m not being facetious! The opportunity to learn is all around you: during any given lunch period, you can stumble in on a famous business leader (and free food) if you find the right lecture hall.

Allow me to illustrate. A few weeks ago, when there was a lull in recruiting events and study sessions, I found myself in the Isaacson Classroom (Room 4210) at a lecture on solar energy, social entrepreneurship, and strategies for maximizing the impact of your life’s work. Munching on my brie, apple, and herb-y sandwich concoction, I could hardly contain my excitement.

I had been waiting for four years to hear Harish Hande, the chairman and co-founder of a for-profit Indian solar enterprise called SELCO India (Solar Electric Light Company, India). It is all too easy to find abject poverty in India: a typical urban slum has poor plumbing and no electricity, and a lack of resources and upward mobility condemns most of its residents to perpetual impoverishment. Harish Hande and his colleagues are part of a small set of transformational individuals who believe they can improve the lot of India’s poorest individuals. SELCO’s start in 1995 could not have come at a better time: providing low-cost, sustainable electricity to destitute households and small businesses would allow the poor to leverage the technology boom that swept India in the late 1990s early 2000s. Smart business planning, shrewd navigation of rampant government bureaucracy, and a laser-like focus on sustainable growth have contributed to SELCO’s enduring success.

In his talk, Hande focused on key learning moments for SELCO over the past two decades, SELCO’s path to organizational sustainability, and his vision for creating continued impact. Known for re-purposing off-the-shelf solar energy parts to meet the needs of India’s poorest, the company serves a number of villages in South India. Hande says that SELCO’s success resulted from identifying the key drivers of poverty in India. Especially in the company’s early years, having a customizable energy product for customers had little value if they could not access the capital needed to pay for it. On the brink of failure, SELCO reversed its fortunes by giving the poor a greater role in all aspects of its business, ranging from product design to financial inclusion to long-term maintenance; it created a vibrant market in the process, one that is rapidly expanding. SELCO is building its client base by targeting specific geographical regions and scaling to meet the demand for its services.

SELCO ensured its organizational sustainability by developing an eclectic team. Discussing several “disruptive moments that threatened the health of the organization,” Hande concluded that its recovery owed to the contributions of a team whose members have different perspectives and strengths—which enabled them to make complementary contributions to the overall group effort. Hande tries to ensure that half of his employees at any given time are passion-driven, while the other half are more operationally focused. Hande and his original team have taken a step back to allow SELCO’s younger talent to take the reins, hoping to maintain this 50-50 balance while allowing the organization to accelerate its growth. 

Hande’s talk provided the inspiration I needed to keep chugging after a long five months of studying (as a student in the two-year joint MBA/MPH program, I started classes in July). Between applications, recruiting, classes, studying for the MCAT (unique to my ambitions of wanting to be a physician-leader), and trying to have a social life, I had begun to lose sight of why I was at Yale and what I was getting out of my experience. The truth is we’re all here for a simple reason: we have the power to create lasting change. We just have to ignore the resistance, switch on the lights in our minds, and let the ideas flow.