We all have 24 hours in a day. But I have always wondered that while majority of the people complain about not having enough time, how a select few are able to accomplish greatly in the same amount of time. Ron victor, President and founder member of Vibha shares his secret to time management and his invaluable experiences as a social entrepreneur in this very interesting and thought provoking interview.
What inspired you to start Vibha?
Growing up in India, I was always involved in volunteer activities through the church and various youth groups. Whether it was doing a little for the elderly in old people’s homes, or volunteering for CRY (Child Relief and You), the desire and inclination to do something for those not as fortunate as I, only kept rising. I was extremely fortunate to realize very early in life that living only for one’s self is an absolutely meaningless existence. That desire and trend continued when I moved to America, while volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, The American Red Cross and Missionaries for Charity. In 1994 Vijay Vemulapalli and I were introduced to each other by Nomita Kundandas while she was trying to get some momentum going for CRY in the US. Vijay and I hit it off really well, and both of us along with a handful for volunteers located across the US began to build a network of young adults that wanted to do something for underprivileged children. Subsequently, I moved to Silicon Valley and met a few like minded young adults of Indian origin at a Starbucks and the rest as they say is history. Vibha is the result of a whole bunch of people, all of whom had one desire – to do something for those not as fortunate as themselves. I was only the catalyst and motivator to push people over the fence and empower, encourage and enable them to make that positive difference they all wanted to.
Tell us about some of the challenges you have faced as a social entrepreneur.
The challenges of a social entrepreneur are many. In my case, the biggest challenge was instilling structure, organization, continuity and professionalism to a completely volunteer driven activity. We had the people. We had the energy. All was ok as long as few of us ran the continuous day-to-day operations. However, what happens when we move on? Who takes the ropes? Are we training and providing the required skill sets? Are we building the necessary organizational structure that is sustainable? While every single one of us is a volunteer, how do we instill a hierarchy to avoid anarchy? How does one instill unquestionable professionalism in a completely voluntary environment? Do people deliver what they said they will deliver, when they are supposed to deliver the same? How can we scale up to make this a world-wide movement v/s a small click of people? How do we enable a distributed management structure locally while continuing to ensure ONE MISSION and ONE ORGANIZATION? And above and beyond all, instilling the “WE CAN DO IT!” attitude. Margaret Mead was very correct in saying “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Instilling this attitude and confidence into our volunteer force continues to be my biggest challenge!
Share with us an experience that made you feel immensely content about your contribution to Vibha.
I would say that Pragati 2009 was an incredible experience for me to see the results of 19 years of working towards our mission. Pragati 2009 was our first ever Projects’ Conference, we put together in Bangalore where every single project we currently fund attended. Our mission is “To encourage, empower and enable any individual that wishes to make a positive difference in the life of an underprivileged child”. While I experienced tremendous joy over the years in seeing this mission being accomplished through our volunteer and action center growth; seeing this same mission being accomplished through the eyes of grass-roots social entrepreneurs we empower was the most rewarding experience. Here was where the rubber met the road. Every single grass-root social entrepreneur present at this conference was able to accomplish what he or she wanted to do, whether in a remote village in India or a slum in a major metro, all because of Vibha! Here was a true example of the Vibha vision – “To ensure every single underprivileged child attains his or her right to education, health and opportunity”; being attained through the Vibha mission, an absolutely incredible experience for me.
Where do you see Vibha ten years from now?
I see Vibha as a movement. A movement in every city, town and village where like-minded people have come together to solve a problem that most people think is unsolvable. Jeffery Sachs in his book “The end of poverty – economic possibilities for our time” has quite categorically, confidently and logically explained how, if we choose to end extreme poverty, we very much can, and we can do it as early as 2025. However, making that choice and then doing something about it requires momentum – tremendous momentum. I see Vibha as an enabler of that momentum for India. A movement that has already started the boulder rolling – albeit in very small portions – but hey it’s moving! Most people may not have even thought that it was possible 19 years ago. Imagine the result of every single empowered human being volunteering for one hour a week. We just need to pursue our mission and push or pull concerned individuals over the edge of doubt. They CAN make a difference! Make them take ownership of the Vibha vision and then use the Vibha mission to attain that vision. It is very possible and 10 years from now – I see us having made tremendous progress towards the same. On a more micro level, I see us having taken two of our major projects nationally across India and having solved – yes solved – two problems – Education for the children of migrant laborers through DSS (Door Step School) & a fabulous fully functional municipal school system through Sikshana.
What is that one thing you would say to encourage someone to become a part of Vibha?
Become part of the solution! We can show you how. Join us. Just spend an hour with us each week and you will see the difference you can make. You don’t even have to be physically present at a meeting. If you have the slightest inclination to share your time, talent and/or treasure towards doing something for the underprivileged child, we can put that desire to work in a plethora of ways. Doing nothing is equal to being part of the problem and that is unacceptable.
How do you balance your work at Vibha with your successful corporate career?
Prioritize, Prioritize and Prioritize. Volunteering is the same as going to the gym. If you don’t make it a priority, you will never have time for it. One never has time for anything. One always “makes” time for everything. So, if I make it a priority to volunteer for 4 hours a week, I can achieve it and do it – but only if it’s a priority in my to-do list. If it’s not, it’s never going to happen. So balancing volunteer work and a corporate career hasn’t been too hard for me – only because Vibha is a “priority” just as swimming or doing yoga or cycling or singing in the church choir or visiting prisoners in San Quentin prison. I am a firm believer that we have a lot and I mean a lot of time – we just don’t use it wisely and productively. Most of the most successful people in the world worked at and got very good at “Time Management”. I do my best to manage my time as efficiently as I can – because that’s the one thing that is completely in my control.
You have assumed a leadership position on many an occasion. According to you what does it take to be a good leader?
Vision, Team and Cash Flow! A great leader has the ability to set a vision for the team and get people to buy into that vision. The only reason man reached the moon is because someone set a vision to reach it. Else, we’d be happy just having been able to fly. Build a team of people that have great chemistry and like to work with one another while realizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You can have absolutely brilliant people in the team – all aces – but if they can’t work with one another, I can guarantee you that the team will fail. The key lies in what Phil Jackson did with the Bulls – Jordan, Pippen, Rodman – all individually capable of leading a basketball franchise themselves; but Phil managed to keep them all in one team and showed them how working together could make them champions for years in a row. Another key point is making absolutely sure that you don’t surround yourself with “yes-men” – it’s the biggest mistake one can make. While leading, getting view points from people that are not necessarily in agreement with you is key. Make decisions only after hearing those view points and giving them the due consideration they need. Also, being able to mentor and coach the team to always make them outshine you personally. I have always considered the failure of a team member as my own personal failure. If I could not get a team member to succeed, part of that responsibility is mine. I didn’t do my job as mentor and coach. Another factor is “control”. How much control should a leader exercise? I always like to make myself redundant as soon as possible, by trying and imparting as much knowledge, skill and decision-making ability as possible to the team. The team must be completely empowered, mentored and capable to function on its own with minimum supervision. Lastly of course – watch the cash flow like a hawk. This I learnt the hard way through one of my entrepreneurial ventures. That doesn’t mean holding back investing for new ideas. It means knowing when to stop the investing knowing that something’s not working. I’ll be the first to say that leadership is all about taking calculated risks, but once you take the risk – know when to stop!
Name three qualities a Vibha volunteer should possess in order to make a difference.
Perseverance, Passion and Determination.
Tell us about Ron Victor, the person
I was born in Mumbai into an upper middle class family and had a fabulous childhood. I studied Electronics and Computer engineering. I attended Grad school in Syracuse and have an MBA from ASU. Started off at Intel, and then launched three technology start-ups. One succeeded wildly, one failed (success is a drug – when overdone, leads to calamity!), and the other did ok. Currently am working on projects involving extending the range of wireless networks, as well as energy efficiency in the Aluminum industry. I am married to a lovely wife who tolerates all my idiosyncrasies and wild ideas. We have no kids, but have launched our first baby together – Almaden Yoga – http://www.almadenyoga.com/ , a yoga studio located in Almaden Valley in San Jose, CA. I love the outdoors and am an avid mountain biker as well as road cyclist. Yoga is another passion – am just finishing my certification as a yoga teacher. I enjoy cooking and do reasonably well at it as long as there’s a recipe to follow (Engineers can make great cooks! – just follow the flow chart!). My other current volunteer interests include being a certified ombudsman for skilled nursing facilities in San Jose, singing in the church choir as well as the prison choir at San Quentin prison. I do a project once a year with “Rebuilding Together” – an organization similar to Habitat for Humanity. I am an avid Jazz, Blues and classic rock fan and at one time, long ago, was quite a pianist and violinist. Single malts are my favorite drinks. Organizations that I have actively volunteered with over long durations, other than Vibha are the American Red Cross, Missionaries of Charity and Habitat for Humanity.
Who is your role model?
Mother Teresa – “Do small things with great love”!
What is your message to all the volunteers at Vibha?
We can! We shall! And We Will! accomplish our mission. Think big! Think outside the box. Don’t for even one minute doubt your individual ability and our collective strength to bring about positive change. And while doing all of it – have loads of fun!