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Giving it all away reaps big reward for philanthropic venture capital company

Acumen has helped provide clean, cheap water, maternity centres and housing for the poor as the new face of an industry where caring and corporate accountability meet.

LifeSpring's maternity clinics in India list their services on big boards, like a restaurant would advertise its daily specials.

A normal delivery costs 2,000 rupees (Dh164), while a Caesarean is 7,000 rupees - a fraction of what private hospitals charge. Ankur Shah, an Indian entrepreneur whose company backed LifeSpring, bubbles with pride as he describes the wards. Mr Shah's employer, the philanthropic venture capital fund Acumen, invested a mere US$2 million (Dh73.4m) to get the company started. If everything goes well, LifeSpring will operate 250 clinics by 2012.

After years of searching, Mr Shah, who once owned a $180m internet company, has used his experience as an architect, entrepreneur and fund-raiser to run an organisation that tries to combine compassion and capitalism. He takes a salary, but less than he would earn in the private sector. His motivation is philanthropic, but there is an element of personal gain. "In a nutshell, we improve people's lives," Mr Shah says. "We offer patient capital that gives enterprises time to grow. It sees long-term opportunities with a horizon conventional investors may not have."

Mr Shah, 33, embodies many of the seeming contradictions of his organisation. Clad in a formal pinstripe suit, he sits in the glitzy Dubai office of Abraaj Capital, a private equity firm that provides an office and free strategic advice to Mr Shah, who heads the Middle East operations of Acumen, and his team. When he's not busy designing new maternity hospitals, you may find him strolling along the quay walls of Dubai Creek early in the morning or at dusk, trying to capture the perfect lighting for the pictures he likes to take of the bustling barges and the stevedores busy at their work.

He has an eye for beautiful things. While photography is one of his passions, keeping fish is another. He has 15 angel fish, among the most vivid and delicate of species. Such attention to detail has allowed him carve out a niche within the business of philanthropy. Acumen takes donations from philanthropists to invest in a business-like manner and under strict commercial criteria. It requires that companies serve the poor and their basic needs such as health, education and housing. But it gives them loans or takes equity only in companies that strive to make profits.

Mumbai-born Mr Shah speaks about "10 per cent hurdle rates", which means that Acumen wants to generate $100,000 from every $1m it invests to reinvest elsewhere. Despite his obvious wealth, whenever he is back in Mumbai he loves returning to Swati Snack, a rundown little restaurant he used to visit with his parents while he was growing up. It helps him retain a link with his roots. Growing up in Mumbai, the world's second-most populous city, young Ankur dreamed of building a better version of his hometown.

"I always knew I wanted to design a city that could keep up with the demands of a growing population," he says. Although well-off himself - he grew up as the protected only child of a textile merchant - he saw lots of suffering around him. "I noticed early on that the world was not like it should be." Twenty years later, the 33-year old has broadened his goals beyond building a better Mumbai to building a better world.

It was Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead that sparked Mr Shah's passion for architecture, and bettering people's lives with its help. The novel's protagonist, an individualistic young architect, chooses to struggle in obscurity rather than compromise his artistic and personal vision of modern architecture he believes is superior. After graduating from architecture studies at New York State's Cornell University in the late 1990s, Mr Shah and fellow graduates launched an internet company, as a marketplace for office goods and services.

It was great fun while it lasted, Mr Shah recalls. He loved the experience and the excitement that came with it. "It taught me a lot about human nature and mechanisms to raise money." At one point, the company was valued at $180m. The experience taught him skills ? "and how to lose it all two years later." The next step was tough, he says. Either join corporate America, or do something on his own. After choosing the conventional way, working as a management consultant for McKinsey for two years, Mr Shah joined the Robin Hood Foundation, a public-private partnership dedicated to building libraries in New York's low-income neighbourhoods.

It shaped his future. The libraries were treasures for the children of some of the city's roughest neighbourhoods, many of whom had never read a book. "They were real gems built by some of the best architects." But Mr Shah soon realised that everything came down to the librarians and their energy and commitment to keep the libraries a centre of inspiration and learning. Doubts that the libraries would still be used five years later turned him from a conventional do-gooder into a cutting-edge benefactor.

"To make things work, to last and have a real effect, you must incorporate the private sector. You must be able to change the system structurally rather than giving gifts," Mr Shah says. Acumen raises funds and gives them to entrepreneurs who deliver services to low-income communities, ranging from electricity to clean water, and healthcare to internet kiosks in rural areas. To this day the group has invested $160m. Mr Shah's organisation provides simple maternity wards, water-purification plants, solar LED lanterns, drip irrigation facilities and low-income housing.

In many ways, the maternity wards are his childhood dream come true. The secret to their success, Mr Shah says, is that they make people pay for services governments provide for free. The difference, he says, is that many governments do not actually cover the costs or provide a good service. "Take government-run maternity wards: you may have to give bribes and it may be dirty in these so-called free places.

"By contrast, women are happy to pay for an affordable low-cost private clinic which is clean and where they are treated with respect." Granted, not everybody has 2,000 rupees to pay for a "private" birth. The water, housing and health facilities provided by companies with Acumen capital aim for families with a daily income of between $3 and $6. "They must be willing and able to use a small percentage of that for clean water and clean hospital," Mr Shah says.

Acumen only helps companies that are getting started. Its model contrasts with that of charities. "Once these entrepreneurs demonstrate success and profitability, others will follow," Mr Shah says. "We want to foster the mindset of an entrepreneur and investor, not of a recipient. We want to change the dynamic and look at the end beneficiary as a customer." Charities and non-governmental agencies, by contrast, lack incentives to grow at scale. "This does not mean charities do not have a role to play.

Take Haiti, for example. They have a huge role in emergencies and in survival situations, when people are hungry. "Our market-based solutions, by comparison, are only viable in specific circumstances, but they have a longer effect." Acumen also seeks to stamp out some of the inefficiencies and corruption associated with conventional giving. For example, Mr Shah's first project for Acumen was giving $700,000 in equity to Water Health International, a profit organisation. Based on the assumption that people are willing to pay for water as long as it is clean, reasonably priced and nearby, the group built a water-purification plant in eastern Andhra Pradesh.

The plant had innovative elements such as high water tanks that only required between two and three hours of electricity a day. It costs 16 fils, or 2 rupees, to buy 12 clean litres of water - enough for a family of five for 2 days. What started with one plant in 2005 has now reached real scale, with 275 plants in as many villages serving 250,000 Indians. "It changed the perception that people would pay for water," Mr Shah says.

Since then, another three companies have set up another 600 plants, reaching an overall 1 million Indians. Mr Shah is not the only one to join Acumen after years of searching. Acumen's founder, Jacqueline Novogratz, once a Chase Manhattan banker, created the fund after seeing an African child wearing her favourite sweater she had given away as a 12-year old. It made her realise just how broken both the finance system and aid system was.

To this day, Acumen has helped more than 30 entrepreneurs set up companies across Pakistan, India and Africa. Over the years, Acumen has received money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and the King Khalid Foundation. Mr Shah looks sheepish when asked whether his work, and his achievements, make him proud. "I am not yet proud. I have a long way to travel. I am very motivated by what I do. Getting out of bed is never an issue for me."

That is just as well. With 25 million people born every year in India, Mr Shah may need all the hours of the day just to keep up.

Published: May 6, 2010 04:00 AM


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