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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Social Entrepreneur Straddles Two Cultures, Ultimately Succeeds In Both

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Ajaita Shah, founder of Frontier Markets, a retail distributor of solar powered products in rural India, was born in the United States to Indian immigrants; a part of who she is has always remained connected to her roots. Last year, she was recognized by Forbes as one of the 30 Under 30. Recently, she was recently recognized by Acumen as a world-class social entrepreneur, having been invited to join the SAP Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

Shah explained the challenges she faced trying to live in two communities at once. A member of the Jain Marawi religious community in New York City, Shah felt the extreme juxtaposition of her life. She lived in a close-knit religious community and at the same time in the larger, increasingly secular world.

“I realized I was meant to be an entrepreneur from college: my senior year of college (2005) was all about working on creating projects which brought me back to India regularly,” Shah said.

She goes on to explain the realities she faced when she started working on her business in earnest in 2009, “Initially, I did not understand what being a social entrepreneur was going to entail – I was merely focused on writing a business plan and then testing a pilot, and determining whether I was correct in my assumptions. I was lucky to have early mentors ready to help in the process and help me understand that in order to make FM work, I will need to invest my own money into the idea– and eventually Frontier Markets becomes my baby, my story, my future.”

The 2009 launch proved, however, to be a false start. In 2010 and 2011, she completely reinvented the business, moving from Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan, a state with more sunlight and poverty–perfect for her solar power business.

About the same time, Shah’s cultural duality became a central part of her life. Agreeing to a traditional arranged marriage with a member of her Jain community, she began the next chapter of her life as a married woman.

Things improved and she made progress beginning in 2011. “Spending everyday in the field; trying to crack this model,” she says of 2011. “By 2012, I feel like I have achieved something. I grow the company, get more investors, [and] suddenly FM is on the radar of many social impact investors–what we’re doing works. Our philosophy of building last mile retail for solar is working. We start growing, and suddenly, I am no longer an entrepreneur, but a CEO.”

But the cultural duality of her life proved in some ways to be unsustainable. She explained, “2013-2014 was the toughest year for me as social entrepreneur, as a woman leader; managing a company in India is hard. Rules and regulations I do not understand; whom to hire, whom to trust? There are a lot of cultural barriers–though I am Indian, I can speak, read and write in Hindi–I am still very aware of not being a local. I make many mistakes, hire the wrong people, try things and fail – but with a supporting investor group, amazing advisors, and strong partners, I come on top.”

But success with Frontier Markets was balanced by the end of her marriage. She said her mother-in-law come “soap opera enemy” laid down the law. “At the end of the day, the message was clear: if I wanted to be married to him and his family, I would have to give up my dreams and stay at home with them; work as a hobby, not as a career. Speak when spoken to. Live the way you are expected to live, not desire.”

Last year, she notes, was a year of achievements, including the Forbes recognition and more recently the Acumen-SAP fellowship.

“Today, I am free. Today, I am empowered. Today, I have control. Frontier Markets is doing well; we have 225 retail points, have sold 50,000 solar solutions in Rajasthan, [and] I am leading a team of 40 people. FM and I have gotten a lot of recognition for our work. I have a loving and supportive family both in India and the US. I have set up a foundation in the US that allows me to share my experiences from the field, continue to bridge gaps in the energy access space, and also now think even bigger – global,” she concluded.

Frontier Markets received an investment from Acumen and Shah was named an entrepreneur in the SAP Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

On Thursday, August 20, 2015 at 11:00 Eastern, Shah will join me from India for a live discussion about her work of bringing solar power to the masses in rural India. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

More about Frontier Markets:

Frontier Markets is a sales, marketing and after-sales service distribution company in Rajasthan. Founded in 2011, Frontier Markets works with local channel partners and field staff to educate, relate, and reach households providing them access to high quality and affordable clean energy solutions. We create solar retail points in the last mile and support them with service centers and after-sales. We work with manufacturers to get the right products to our rural customers. We create women entrepreneurs which is the solar saheli campaign; as well as working with local rural villagers to build presence of solar in Rajasthan. To date, we have sold over 90,000 solar solutions and have created 800 retail points and 500 solar sahelis. Frontier Markets has expanded access to clean energy products including solar and clean cook stoves to its partners on the ground in Rajasthan, primarily, Centre for Microfinance and their NGO partners. We have worked on creating a program to empower women through energy access called Solar Saheli.

More about the SAP Social Entrepreneur Fellowship in collaboration with Acumen:

Twitter: @Frontiermkts

Acumen and SAP, global business software leader, have collaborated to create the SAP Social Entrepreneur Fellowship to accelerate the growth of social enterprises serving the poor in East Africa and India. Leveraging Acumen’s 14 years of investing in early-stage social enterprises and SAP’s global business and innovation expertise, this unique collaboration will bring together emerging and established CEOs committed to building sustainable, socially driven businesses, creating a more inclusive global economy, and expanding opportunities for the poor to lead lives of dignity and possibility.

Shah’s bio:

Twitter: @Ajaita_Shah

Ajaita is the Founder/CEO of Frontier Markets and the President of Frontier Innovations Foundation. Frontier Markets is a rural marketing, sales, and service distribution company providing access to affordable and quality solar solutions to low-income households in India. She has been working in India for 10 years in microfinance and clean energy distribution. She is a 2006 Clinton Service Corp Fellow, 2012 Echoing Green Fellow, 2013 Cordes Fellow, has been awarded the most influential award in Microfinance for people under 30, and Business Week’s 30 under 30 award, and most recently, Forbes Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year. Recently, she has been recognized as the #3 of top 40 women entrepreneurs of India in 2014, and Nasscom Foundation identified her as Women 2.0 of 2015. She actively speaks at conferences for the US Green Business Council, Universities, global forums. She has been an active educator, collaborator, and catalyst in helping scale clean energy access globally. Ajaita serves on the board of Frontier Innovations Foundation, a non-profit focused on last-mile distribution support for clean energy companies. As well as NASE, the National Association for Social Enterprises in India, a network for social enterprises. She is also an advisor to various social enterprises in India focusing on product development for the poor. She is an active member of the UN Practitioner’s Network, Asian Development Bank’s Energy For All Partnership. Ajaita Shah holds her B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.

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