Rathish Balakrishnan started his career as a researcher at INSEAD in France. After a couple of years he returned to India and joined the software company SAP in Bangalore, where he worked for over a decade before co-founding Sattva, a consulting firm focussed on the social sector. Currently Rathish manages the work Sattva does across foundations and nonprofits.
Rathish and I have known each other since his days at SAP, where we were colleagues. In this conversation we spoke about his career arc spanning two decades.
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Rathish’s desire to create social impact began early. As a teenager he was part of volunteer groups and associations actively engaged in creating social impact. He traces this empathy (for the marginalised sections of society) to his own lower middle-class family background: he grew up in the kindness of strangers, benefiting from scholarships from age ten. “A lot of people at different stages of my life demonstrated extreme kindness for me to be able to get the benefits or the access I got, be it my college education, or my jobs.”
The years in France and the return to India
Following his MSc in Information Systems from BITS Pilani, Rathish moved to INSEAD (France) for an internship. He then stayed on at INSEAD, taking up research on IT related topics. While he liked his work and the exposure he got working with top European Commission officials and senior researchers from around Europe, he frequently found himself asking what he was doing in France. He felt he was part of a cultural context he didn’t quite appreciate or understand.
He also wanted to be volunteering and supporting social causes. And his friends at INSEAD were advising him that the action was really in India, with so much happening in the country.
Rathish returned to India in 2004 and took up a job at SAP. His decision to return to India didn’t go down very well with the family, but in hindsight he thinks it was the right one because of what he made out of it, by volunteering, participating in the theater circuit, and eventually starting Sattva with a few BITS Pilani alumni.
The SAP experience
Rathish says he thoroughly enjoyed working at SAP all through his eleven years there. He began as an engineer, grew into a project lead role, then shifted to product management and later to solution management. Towards the end he even had a stint in SAP’s corporate strategy group. This idea of abstracting to a higher level of detail — “from a worm eye view as a developer to a bird eye view in the corporate strategy team” — was a valuable experience that helped him once he started as an entrepreneur. He benefited from the managers he worked with at SAP, fortunately the “right managers at the right time”. The SAP experience gave him a grounding in structure and process, and it also exposed him to people from cultures across the globe. Both proved invaluable once he moved to Sattva.
And through his SAP years, from 2004 until 2015, he continued to stay in touch with social impact initiatives. At SAP he joined a CSR initiative called SAPPort. He also joined a group of BITS Pilani alumni who had started an online magazine — called Sattva — focussed on social impact.
The transition to Sattva
In addition to the magazine, this group had also started a consulting outfit focussed on the social sector. Following his MBA at INSEAD, Krishna (one of the group members) suggested that they turn these efforts into an organization. In 2009 Sattva Consulting was born.
Between 2009 and 2015 (the year Rathish left SAP and took up a full-time role at Sattva) came the phase where he juggled between the two roles. Initially the split was 80 or 90% SAP work and the rest on Sattva. The reason for this, Rathish says, was simple: “I come from a lower middle-class background, and I have no romanticism about poverty or financial struggle; I really wanted to be sure that Sattva as a business was viable.”
Over the years Rathish the scales tilted more towards Sattva. By 2012 it became clear that Sattva would not grow unless the founders came in full time. Rathish began to spend more time in Sattva without letting his SAP commitment slip: “I would typically wake up at around 4AM, work till 7AM on Sattva, then go to work at SAP; in the evening sometimes I drove off to the other end of Bangalore to be in my Sattva office, came home around 12 or 1 AM.” This took a toll on his health and well-being, apart from putting a lot of pressure on the family.
But those years also gave him the confidence that Sattva was something he could do full-time. Around 2014 he began to put the systems (like his finances) in place as he laid the groundwork for the transition out of SAP. He knew that the longer he stayed at SAP he would not be able to give all his focus to Sattva, and the credibility he had built at SAP would also suffer. By 2014 was clear he had to leave.
The decision itself
Did Rathish’s consulting bent of mind lead him to use a decision framework for this important step? Not really, he says. He finds himself often creating effective frameworks for simpler decisions — which fridge or TV to buy, how to choose a vacation — but for some of the biggest decisions in life — like whom to marry or what jobs to choose — he thinks it’s “almost useless to use a decision making framework… because such decisions are so driven by that fundamental instinct of what you believe is the right thing to do, that the framework becomes a way of rationalizing to your logical self as to why you are making that decision.”
Instead, he says, what helps is a checklist. A checklist that lists all things that must be done before an important step is taken: for instance, having X amount in the bank, aligning with Y number of people, et cetera. For him, the desire to work in the social impact space came very early, when he was a teenager, from a place deep within himself. He didn’t really need a framework to make that decision.
Expectations vs Reality
One of the surprises he had during this transition was how “awful” he was as an entrepreneur and as somebody running a business.
While his SAP experience had prepared him well for certain types of work, in Sattva he had to learn several things through experience. Sales, for instance, was something he had never done before. Selling is not taught in schools and that’s a big gap in our education system, Rathish says.
He also had to learn how to deliver with a team of people who often don’t have the exact skills you want. In such contexts a “growth mindset” becomes key, an attitude that makes you believe that people are capable of much more than what they think they can achieve. You have to find ways to coach, mentor, and inspire them to create value, he says.
Business leadership skills, like learning to be prudent with capital, understanding and managing cash flows, were also key to manage and grow the business. Having had no formal training, this was another thing he had to learn on the job.
More fundamentally, the ability to fail regularly and still pick oneself up was something he learned only in Sattva. At SAP, he hardly felt he failed because all failure was collective and attributed to systemic issues, rather than resting on the individual. At Sattva, hardly a week goes by without him facing a failure.
Influence of writing and theater
Since childhood, writing and theater have been Rathish’s enduring interests. He started writing when he was nine, engaging in poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction. He first got on stage to perform in a play around the same age, and until 2009 he performed at least once each year.
His engagement in these creative arts have helped him build the creativity and empathy needed to solve complex problems in the social space. They help him put people at the center and view the problem not just in terms of numbers and structure.
He also thinks the value of a narrative in getting people interested in social problems is extremely important. Talking about the recent occurence of migrants leaving cities and walking to their hometowns, he says, “The migrant problem is not new; migrants in India have always been treated as poorly as they have been over the last six months, but the recent narrative around a migrant worker walking for thousands of kilometers made that reality so much more vivid for many people who now want to try and solve that problem.”
Narratives also help him inspire others in the social sector. As a leader of a team of young, mission-driven people, Rathish finds it very helpful to be able to build the right narrative for them to put a problem in perspective in the face of so many adversities they typically face in the social sector. And this applies to himself too: to see the human spirit in the problem ahead, not just numbers, helps him get through difficult phases.
On the types of people joining the social sector
People want to find meaning in their lives, he says, and they want to add value to others. Among people joining the social sector, these two aspects manifest themselves in different ways.
The first type of people like the experience of directly engaging with a social problem on the ground and deriving satisfaction from it; for instance, teaching in a village school and watching the children learn and grow. The second type are keen on a larger narrative to their lives that highlights the meaning of the work they do; working in the social sector gives them that meaning, even if they are not helping someone regularly on the ground. The third group of people love taking on very complex problems and difficult challenges of the kind that is common in the social sector.
Rathish thinks that while the first type can make good volunteers, a full-time role may not be fulfilling to them because often they’d be doing the kind of work typical in the corporate world: working on spreadsheets, attending meetings, et cetera. The second and third types often find it more interesting to work in the social sector in the long run.
Personal changes before and after the transition
One of the things that has changed for Rathish after taking up Sattva full-time is his desire to keep his job turning into an all consuming affair. He now stops working at 6:30 pm, setting aside enough time for his family, his son.
He also is now a lot less sure of many opinions he once had. “When I was at SAP if you’d asked me how to solve education, I would have said put computers in the hands of children, including teachers etc and I would have been very sure of those answers. Now I realize that the problems that we have are extremely complicated and are a lot more nuanced.”
He also reads a lot more fantasy fiction now. Given the negativity one finds in the difficult social problems he has to deal with everyday, Rathish looks to books like Harry Potter for inspiration. “If an eleven-year-old kid can deal with the darkest lord, then my situation is not probably as bad as I thought it was.” He has read the Harry Potter series five times end to end. He thinks of the death of Sirius as “probably the saddest moment in literature.”
Factfulness by Hans Rosling is a book Rathish thinks “everybody should read, because the media does such a great job of telling us that the world is going to the dogs that we sometimes don’t recognize the fact that the world is actually getting better.”
He also deeply enjoys works by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, books like Poor Economics and Good Economics for Hard times. The latter one is a “a great read for anybody who really wants to understand how complex some of these problems are and how sometimes the most obvious solutions don’t apply to the problems we are trying to solve.”
In the context of these transitions, would he have done anything differently?
Rathish feels he underestimated the importance of money early on and could have been fiscally more responsible. He also thinks he wouldn’t have done the 2012 to 2014 phase the way he did it, considering the impact it had not only on him but also his family.
He believes he now has a more balanced view to life, and to the needs of other people.