Q&A

Fellows Friday with Shaffi Mather

Posted by: Alana Herro

Ever since founding the first truly effective ambulance service in India, Shaffi Mather has been hooked on social enterprises. He’s gone on to set up inclusive high-quality schools, support small-scale dairy farming, and is now launching a bribe-fighting business. (Watch his talk from TEDIndia 2009.)

Can you give us an overview of each of your entrepreneurial projects?

I have been in the area of social entrepreneurship now for seven years. First, I became involved in setting up a professional, self-sustainable emergency ambulance service in India, starting with the city of Bombay. Second was setting up high-quality schools in peri-urban areas in small-town India, where quality schools don’t exist. And third, I have been supporting a rural supply chain project founded by one of my friends.

Right now, I’m working on the concept of fighting corruption with a project called bribebusters.com. The concept is to set up a fee for a service to fight individual demand for bribes from government officials, etc.

You’ve said that personal experiences led you to your involvement with each of these projects.

Yes, for example, the “Dial 1298 for Ambulance” initiative began because of a combination of three personal experiences. One, my mom choked in her sleep. My family and I didn’t know how to react. We put her in the back of the car and drove like crazy to the hospital. She survived, by God’s grace, but it was very touch-and-go and she was in the ICU for a few days.

A few days later, very coincidentally, my best friend’s mom collapsed in Manhattan. The response was very, very different. In four and a half minutes, the 911 ambulance came, attended to her, and transported her to the ER.

This was the trigger point for the thought process. A few months later, a very close childhood friend died in a car accident. And that’s when we decided to get out of the comforts of what we were involved in, and to get out and do something. My friends and I got together, pooled a little bit of money, and started with one ambulance. Now we are operating in five states. We have almost 300 ambulances and are still growing.

“Dial 1298 for Ambulance” has had a lot of success. How does your ambulance service compare to others in India?

There were no organized ambulance services across India when we started out. It was all very micro-fragmented, individual units. Most of those ambulances financially survived on transporting dead bodies — people didn’t actually call ambulances to go to the hospital.

We don’t transport dead bodies. We are life-support ambulances. It’s comparable to any quality 911 service in the U.S.

Before “Dial 1298 for Ambulance” even basic transportation for individuals without the ability to pay — even in life threatening situations — was unavailable. With our unique multi-level differential pricing strategy, “Dial 1298 for Ambulance” provides universal access to all.

“Dial 1298 Ambulance” advertisement.

Tell us about your other projects.

The schools project is coming along. I realized some time ago, that while there are really, really high quality schools in urban India — my daughter attends one — there are very few high quality schools in rural India. And that is mostly because of the perception that there are not enough people to pay a reasonable fee in rural India.

We decided that maybe we can’t do it in truly rural areas yet, but we can at least have high quality schools in small towns. Although most of the investment in education in India is actually going to urban India, we felt there is an opportunity to set up financially self-sustainable schools in small towns. The schools work on a cross-subsidized fee regime that makes it sustainable financially. It also provides education to at least a few underprivileged students.

There are regulatory challenges in structuring such a fee regime, and we are struggling with that at present. We do hope to successfully continue what we are doing within the regulatory framework. We now have two schools fully functional, of the same quality of top Indian schools, and two to be launched next academic year, in June.

The rural supply chain project is founded by my friend Harsha Moily. It’s actually his concept and project, but I agreed to become a co-promoter. Right now the project is working on setting up end-to-end dairy farming. Harsha is organizing this through self-help groups where small groups of women pool together their resources and buy cattle. The organization gives advice, etc.

The rural supply chain has a base of around 40,000 women, organized around self-help groups. Harsha manages the supply chain end to end for them, while they actually take care of things at their level.

The bribebusters.com project is very much at a seeding stage. It requires a lot of hands-on effort at the moment.

How does bribebusters.com work?

I got fed up with a situation where government offices and agencies ask for bribes.

Bribebusters.com is a concept that I am trying to organize into a professional service, in a corporate manner. It’s based on a number of small pilot initiatives that we undertook with individuals facing demands for bribes. Individuals often who are asked for bribes don’t have the time, resources, or know-how to fight this. What happens is that since they are so tied up with life in itself, either they have to give up what they are entitled to, or they end up paying the bribe, just to get on with life.

We provide a service where people who don’t want to pay bribes call us — like they’d call a plumber for a plumbing issue — they can call us if they have an issue of bribes. And we will take on the responsibility of fighting that demand, while at the same time getting whatever they are legally entitled to.

What do you like to do for fun, in your free time?

Right now, I am having a lot of fun working on the Bribe Busters initiative … My wife and daughter keep complaining that their idea of fun and mine don’t match!

Shaffi with his wife and daughter at Niagra Falls.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes?

Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

The three things that I would warn social entrepreneurs to do, is to actually put down the thought process of the idea into an actual business plan. It gives perspectives which otherwise will not be seen or evaluated.

Second, one has to be ready to be persistent with the idea. You can’t just float an idea and then walk away if there is no initial traction. Persistence is very important.

And third, while trying to implement your idea, it’s very important that you stick to ethics and integrity. Because it’s very easy to get persuaded to compromise on these small things in order to obtain your big goal. But it’s very, very important that one doesn’t do that.

How has the TED Fellowship influenced your work?

The TED Fellowship exposed me to a set of youngsters who had wilder ideas than I did — and almost all of them were pursuing their wild and crazy ideas without fear of failure. TED Fellowship is an unbelievable environment to be in. The bits of self-doubt which appear when thinking through wild and crazy ideas seem ridiculous … when you are surrounded by a bunch of youngsters fearlessly and confidently pursuing wild and crazy ideas.

What are your future plans?

I continue to work on the social enterprises that I am currently involved with … and, as I said, have fun building www.bribebusters.com initiative.

I also dream of being able to contribute to the development of my state and country by playing whatever positive role I can in public policy.

Watch Shaffi Mather’s TEDTalk on a new way to fight corruption >>