To those in the world of venture capital funds — especially impact investment — Vineet Rai needs no introduction. He is a man who places human interest above profits, despite claiming otherwise. Eighteen years ago, armed with self-confidence and personal savings of Rs 5,000, Vineet started Aavishkaar. Simultaneously, he borrowed Rs 1 lakh from his wife to set up Intellecap — a company that made its first crore in 2007. Today, this 46-year-old runs companies, with $800 million assets. Let’s do a quick recap to understand his business interests.
Aavishkaar, the parent company, does equity investments in start-ups; Intellecap, the flagship company is involved in consulting and investment banking. It also runs Sankalp which helps investors meet social entrepreneurs. There is Arohan, which offers micro finance to women in east, north and north-east India. And finally there is Intellegrow, which lends money to small and medium companies without collateral from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 10 crore. Recognition has come from home and abroad. He is off to the Vatican — his second visit — to address a large gathering of cardinals on ways to use business to pull people out of poverty. “I’ll get a chance to be blessed by the Pope,” he states. His list of achievements is long and prestigious and a quick Google search will reveal every minute detail.
A heart-to- heart with the man who could bring acche din to the downtrodden...
From being a forest management graduate to a man steeped in finance. That’s an unusual journey. How did it happen?
I grew up inspired by Maharana Pratap and Chandrashekhar Azad. Naturally, my only ambition was to join the armed forces. I passed my written exams but failed in the interviews, each time. That was when a friend suggested that I try for the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal. After graduation, I was posted in the depths of the forests in Odisha, being chased by elephants and bears. Around this time, I married Swati, who had been a year junior to me at IFM. Our honeymoon suite was a large rambling house with a thatched leaky roof, and unwelcome visitors like snakes and large lizards literally dropping on our heads. The electricity was more off than on. After a year or so, when Swati was expecting our first child, she gave me an ultimatum to move to a more civilised place, as our immediate neighbours were more than a kilometer away. But for the ultimatum, my wife says I’ll still be swinging around like Tarzan in the jungle!
There were many rejections before you found your niche, isn’t it?
Yes, most people didn’t even bother to reply to my applications. That’s when I found out that Professor Anil Gupta of IIM, Ahmedabad, was looking for a research assistant. I worked with him for about a year. Since I didn’t enjoy sitting on a chair and typing all day, I applied to GIAN (Gujarat Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network) expecting the post of a manager and instead they made me the CEO! Here, we explored how innovations carried out by farmers on a small scale could be converted to good business. To me, it became clear that change cannot happen if capital and talent are not taken to rural India. And that’s how the idea of Aavishkar as the first venture fund for rural India and Intellecap as a repository for talent was born.
When did the seed of bringing about a social change enter your subconscious?
It was probably while I was posted in a forest village called Boinda in Odisha that I saw extreme poverty at close range. The levels of deprivation, infant deaths and malnutrition was appalling.
Having tasted success so rapidly, do you see a change in you?
My thinking has evolved. I think I’ve become more blunt and boorish! Definitely more confrontational. Maybe that’s my way of calling a spade a spade. I come from a family of very strong women… my mother, my sister, my aunts. They’ve always thought I’m a mild sort of guy who can’t say boo to a fly. I’m still that at home but at least in the office I’m more assertive.
What was your biggest failure and your biggest success?
In my heart, the only failure I acknowledge is my inability to join the armed forces. When we had to write-off something like $70 to $80 million during the Andhra micro-finance crisis in 2010, it didn’t pull me down. I just thought of it as a new interesting game. I’ve noticed that only good or only bad never happens to me. They co-exist like twin brothers. One of the reasons I’m ambivalent about highs and lows is possibly because I’ve managed to retain an almost childlike zest for life.
You have a strong Telugu connect, don’t you?
My mom’s family migrated from Azamgarh in UP to Nallagunda some 250 years ago. My relatives are spread all over Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. When mom got married to dad, she naturally brought her Andhra culture with her. I remember her telling me that when she landed in our village in UP, the entire village gossiped, “Bahu namak ka halwa khati hai.” Would you believe it, they were talking about upma!
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I’d like to support a company co-owned by the underprivileged so that they can become rich. Playing with other people’s money — which is what I do — is very limiting. Even though we are into high risk ventures, I can’t do anything radical. Shareholders don’t give you that kind of freedom. Once I have a nest egg, I’ll play with it.