In Conversation With Sejal Desai, Founder And CEO Of Seva Yatra
Nirmala Garimella 01/16/2011
Sejal Desai is the Founder and CEO of SevaYatra, a social venture that offers short term service project opportunities at NGOs in India.
Prior to SevaYatra, Sejal served as a Principal at MHT Partners; a boutique investment bank based in Dallas where she worked on cross-border merger and acquisitions primarily between US and Indian companies. She was also a Co-Founder and Principal of STARTech Early Ventures, a seed stage venture firm, that invested in early stage technology ventures in Texas. In addition to STARTech, Sejal also co-founded and sold a hands-on science education business, Mad Science of Denton County..
Sejal serves on the advisory board for the Entrepreneurs Foundation of North Texas. She currently also serves on the Boards of thinkIndia Foundation and Dallas Assembly. She co-founded the Dallas chapter for the American India Foundation (AIF) and serves on their Leadership Council for the Dallas chapter as well as their Education Advisory Council at a national level. Sejal is a Chartered Accountant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, an MBA from University of Texas at Dallas and is currently also pursuing a Masters in Liberal Studies from Southern Methodist University. Sejal lives in Dallas with her husband, Hemang, and their two children, Mohan and Maya. Lokvani spoke to Sejal about the work of Seva Yatra.
How did you come across this idea for Seva Yatra?
I have always been passionate about philanthropy and volunteer my time in local causes and other non profits. On a tour of India in 2007, I visited an HIV center in Mumbai and took my son along with me to distribute stationary kits to the children. Even though he was very young he could see kids of his age having a very different life and was full of questions. The visit got me thinking on how we can all make a difference through meaningful service. It was around this time that discussions were going on about the impact of social enterprise and I focused my efforts to develop the concept of Seva Yatra and how to implement it. Finally in 2009, I decided to quit my job in investment banking and devote my entire time to launch Seva Yatra.
What are the various facets of Seva Yatra ? Do you have a good network of NGO’s you work with in India?
Yes we do, we are in close contact with good standing NGO’s all over India as well as non profits in the US. NGO’s do not have time to look for volunteers as they are busy on the ground. I have been approached by people, students and children who make two months trip to India during summer vacations and would like to spend some time helping out an NGO during this period yet don’t know who to approach. This is where Seva Yatra steps in. We customize a service program from A to Z taking care of their travel as well as creating a program in their region about issues that they are passionate about. We set ourselves apart because we are not competing for donation money and only charge for our services while fulfilling a social need.
These NGO’s welcome volunteers even if it is of short duration but don’t know how it can be done. Seva Yatra acts as a catalyst bringing like minded service volunteers and connects them to these NGO’s. .
Share with us recent service trips conducted by Seva Yatra?
Recently twenty MBA students from the University of Texas, visited AMBA, a local NGO in Bangalore which trains youth with disability for employment. The students interacted with the youth and learnt more about the challenges facing people with disability. In another trip, fifteen Hewlett Packard employees spent half a day in Bangalore with Dream A Dream, a local NGO which empowers children with vulnerable backgrounds. 39 of these kids had an opportunity to visit the HP campus, interacting with staff and learning about various technology projects.
Seva Yatra organized a two-day, academic seminar for Northwestern University’s Global Engagement Summer Institute (GESI) students in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The seminar was hosted by the Udaipur School of Social Work and was attended by GESI students, second-year MSW students from the Udaipur School of Social Work, and social sector experts from locations as wide as New York to Mumbai to Delhi.
Here back in the US, we organized a trip for Infosys employees to a trip at an under resourced neighborhood, the Over town youth center at Miami teaching math and science skills to kids at a summer camp.
Seva Yatra is a social business. Tell us what makes it different?
Seva Yatra believes that social change can go hand in hand with a value and cause based business.. If you want a scalable and sustainable model of social enterprise than you need to invest time, money, and effort into it. You need resources, capital and people to grow and make it scalable. In time we hope to put the profit back to reinvest in the business. Right now we are also approaching venture capitalist in the social sphere for investing in our cause and fund our growth. We measure our performance through two main objectives:
Commercial: We seek to operate a profitable, sustainable and scalable business, providing services that are sought by clients that have a desire to be a part of creating social change.
Social: We rigorously measure our social impact through output and outcome measures. An integral value of our business is to create opportunity for other social businesses and NGOs and to empower individuals and organizations to do good.