How One Silicon Valley Millionaire Is Using Tech To Spark Change In India
Karl Mehta has made quite a splash in the tech world.
He founded PlaySpan, which sold to Visa for more than $200 million in 2011. He was a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow in the program’s inaugural year. He joined Menlo Ventures in 2013 as a partner to focus on finding and funding interesting and world-changing companies. He’s writing a book called Financial Inclusion at the Bottom of the Pyramid about the best ways to get financial services to poorer people.
Right now, he’s also working on Code for India, a program that he founded to inspire engineers in the U.S. and abroad to use technology to help India’s urban and rural poor.
Code for India will be holding it’s second hack-a-thon – happening simultaneously in Mountain View and Bangalore – on May 9. This year’s event will revolve around the theme of using tech to make India more resilient to natural disasters. Business Insider hopped on the phone with Mehta to ask him a few questions about his illustrious career. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
BI: Tell me a little more about Code for India.
Mehta: India already has a large number of tech developers and there’s also a large Indian developer community in the U.S. The country has massive challenges, in the public service infrastructure and the government, that need a lot of help. So this is an excellent opportunity for tech developers all over the world to take time to volunteer. We have a very diverse group pitching in, and contributing and building software. Code for India is special because hundreds and hundreds of NGO’s in India, and instead of starting another NGO to try to focus on education, or healthcare, or crime, or women’s issues, we can cut across horizontally, and provide a technology backbone to dozens or even hundreds of NGOs that are already doing wonderful work.
It’s been a wonderful, really open source movement, and we’ve created some really great apps – over 20 of them so far.
BI: Any particular ones that you want to highlight?
Mehta: One of our apps that gets the most attention is the voting app, I Vote For A Better India. India is going through a massive election – probably the world’s largest election – and 1.2 billion people are going out to vote. Tirelessly, through weekends and weeknights, outside their daily jobs, both here in the US and in India, our community of developers and entrepreneurs have developed this app to increase voter registration. Part of the trouble with the democratic process is that the people who can actually make a difference in voting, don’t go out and vote, because they think that it’s too much of hassle, since even registering requires standing in big lines.
With the mobile devices, and the software that we built, we cut down the hassle to almost nothing. And that made a big impact over the last few months. Our volunteers all over the country were able to convince even the election commissioner to use the app, which is a big achievement. For tech volunteers like us, our ability to take our software and get it implemented in this vast country, and also getting it out there through the election commissioner, is a pretty big deal. It’s a big achievement and it’s kind of super-charging all the other projects and applications that we’re working on.
BI: What made you decide to launch Code for India and how did you get involved with Menlo Ventures?
Mehta: When I sold my company PlaySpin in 2011 to Visa, it was a pretty large, very successful outcome – $240 million in cash – so I almost retired. And I decided that I want to do two things:
First, I want to help entrepreneurs because I had benefitted from being an entrepreneur. So, I think taking on a venture capital role is the best way to keep in touch continuously, either by funding them or mentoring them. But I realized that the venture capital role is not very engaging from a personal standpoint. You’re not actually playing the game, you’re coaching.
And having been in an operating role, used to working 18 hours a day and 7 days a week as an entrepreneur, I realized that I had a lot more time being a VC. So, the second thing that I wanted to do was give back, and for me the best way to give back is through technology because that’s all I know.
I had seen how technology projects worked in the White House, and when I was appointed by Governor Brown to the Workforce Investment Board of the California, so I had a pretty good understanding of the state government and how we work here and some interesting best practices that I could bring back to my native country. Code For India was the perfect way to bring all this together.
I spend almost half and half of my time helping entrepreneurs launch for profit companies that can change the world, as we say here in the Valley, and then the other half goes into helping nonprofit initiatives.
BI: Do you think enough startups are focusing on social good?
Mehta: I think that Silicon Valley gets a fair share of blame for not doing much in the social impact space and I think that that criticism is quite legitimate. I think we still have more companies getting funded that are just solving the first world problems than the second world or third world problems, because typically investors have a short-term horizon and they all want the next Snapchat and Facebook, which is unfortunate. And I think that we’re starting to see some big stories where big bets and big risks are taken – like Tesla – that still offer first world products, but help the third world (in Tesla’s case, in reducing CO2 or bringing clean energy). But we’re still very far away from that in changing the mindset of people to build, take risks, and try to innovate in areas that will really make an impact, instead of trying to make the next photo sharing app.
BI: What do you think are some U.S. problems that could be solved by technology?
Mehta: I think there is a big movement going on now in the education space. That’s another area that I’m really excited about. And there has been a surge in the number of of ed tech companies that have been funded in Silicon Valley and in the U.S., and I think that’s a really encouraging trend. And several years back, VCs would probably shy away from anything in education because they would think that the majority of that was government controlled and for nonprofits, so there isn’t much money to be made. But I think that the thinking is shifting as we are moving more and more towards consumer-centric technology adoption, and that is helping to fund more companies that want to bring more technology to education to improve both the student performance and outcome in K-12 and in higher education. I’ve seen some technology startups that are pushing the boundaries to bring the cost of education down and the access ability to everyone.
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