On May 22-23, Acumen India held its first CEO Summit to reflect on lessons learned over the past few years, explore opportunities for collaboration across the Acumen community and discuss the path forward. The Summit was held at the Aravind Eye Care System campus in Madurai and brought together 15 CEOs from Acumen’s portfolio companies across India, as well as the India team and a few sector-specific experts.
Aravind holds special significance in Acumen history as it was our first investment back in 2001. Today, Aravind is the largest and most productive blindness-prevention organization is the world. Interacting with its staff and touring its facilities served as a profound reminder to the CEOs of the power of combining innovation with empathy, business principles with service, and outer transformation with inner change.
The first day of the Summit was spent reflecting on lessons learnt and hearing from Acumen, as CEO, Jacqueline Novogratz, and India Director, Sachindra Rudra, shared personal insights on how Acumen’s investing strategy and investment management style has evolved over the past years. They spoke about how India had served as a lab for innovation, starting with Aravind and now spanning over 26 companies. Over time, Acumen has learned that while patient capital is an essential tool to build sustainable, scalable companies, it is not enough to create leaders and spread ideas. It was these lessons that encouraged us to go through a process of renewal and rethink who we want to be going forward. The applause that followed when Jacqueline read out the Manifesto was an important affirmation that investees support the ethos behind investing in companies that serve the poor in empowering and compassionate ways. The sessions led by Acumen staff also gave the CEOs a chance to learn about the different types of support that Acumen has to offer including leadership support via the Global Fellows Program, technical assistance grants, and a loan guarantee fund with USAID for working capital.
The three expert sessions for the next day were chosen based on the challenges identified by the CEOs in a survey that Acumen had conducted prior to the Summit. The main internal challenges identified were: need for powerful marketing strategies; systems to support expansion; and strong people, processes, and systems. Pradeep Kashyap from MART spoke about rural-specific marketing tactics such as opportunities for mass engagement at village fairs and using trusted figures like panchayat heads at the local level. The HR session led by Rajanikanth and Srivathsa from P4P Consulting shared case-studies about building trust at the start-up phase and scaling systems and processes at the later stages. Dr. Nachiket Mor, former MD of ICICI Bank, shared some insights from decades of experience with breaking through to customers to take ownership of different brands.
6 am visit to Meenakshi Temple
What came out of the CEO break-out discussions during these sessions was that several of the challenges were shared across companies that were in similar growth phases, and that hearing from CEOs of companies like Ziqitza and WaterHealth International that had reached over one million customers was especially useful for companies in the early stages.
Presenting key lessons with examples from their businesses after a break-out discussion
The success of the Summit lay in the simple act of gathering like-minded people under one roof. The air was constantly abuzz between sessions as CEOs, most of whom were meeting for the first time, chatted about everything from their business models to the challenges of balancing work and family as an entrepreneur. Building sustainable businesses that serve the poor can be a long, bumpy and often lonely road. In this sense, the greatest outcome of the Summit was that the CEOs were exposed to the Acumen community, which they can both claim for themselves and leverage to access best-in class talent and service providers and advisors. The overall experience reminded the Acumen team that true change and innovation is built on the support of a vibrant community that learns and grows together. As Dr. Venkataswamy said:
“When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify with all that is in the world so there is no exploitation. It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.”