Jivika Rajani is the founder of Aspir8, an award-winning transnational social enterprise that leads social innovation & entrepreneurship education programs for high school students in the Middle East and across South Asia. As of last week, Aspir8 has been named a semifinalist for the C3 Social Impact Accelerator, powered by HSBC!
What initially inspired you to launch Aspir8?
I was born and lived in India till I was five, and then moved with my family to the United Arab Emirates, where they still reside. Growing up, I was told that I should study hard, find a good job, have a stable career and then, later on, could choose to give back to society with the disposable time and savings I would have set aside for myself, if I followed the “plan” right.
The other option I saw was to become akin to a social worker and willingly sacrifice material comforts for the personal and emotional satisfaction that comes with such life paths. Then, while studying at Pomona College, I stumbled across “social entrepreneurship,” or the idea that you can use business as a force for good and not have to “give up” a certain standard of living in order to make a true, sustainable difference in the world.
This concept felt revolutionary in the way that it provided a third, middle path that seems much more appealing to the general (Indian/immigrant) parent community – allowing their children to pursue impactful, well-meaning, but also well-paying, life trajectories.
The only problem is that very few young people, whether in the United States or not, are exposed to this philosophy early on…
I started Aspir8 because I wanted to give more young people the information and inspiration I wish I had received: so they can go ahead and make informed choices about the way they want to spend their lives and careers, hopefully integrating work for the betterment of society in some way.
How did you first get started & how has your mission evolved over time?
I graduated as one of two winners of the Napier Award for Creative Leadership in May 2017. This provided a $15,000 Fellowship stipend that allowed me to found Aspir8.
Aspir8’s mission has always been to show the next generation it is possible to both live well and do good, and that one does not have to come at the expense of the other. Accessibility has always been a huge part of our organizational vision and financial model, and we strive to embed this value in every aspect of our daily operations.
Our business model is thus of a hybrid, for-profit social enterprise where each mid-high income student from developed markets subsidizes the cost of delivering our programs to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and/or less developed markets. Essentially, we work off a “buy one [registration], gift one” model that allows those students who can afford the cost of our programs to give a “gift of empowerment” in the form of an educational experience of the highest quality, to those who would not normally be able to access it.
We recognized early on that the way we choose to approach achieving this mission is not important, but the results of how we choose to do it are.
This focus on impact has allowed us to be flexible and not limit ourselves to our initial offering of Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Bootcamps.
Furthermore, we apply design thinking to continually iterate and evolve our company. Working in small increments has made it easy to address new business development opportunities and systematically explore and evaluate a variety of revenue streams. For example, over the last six months, we have been able to partner with various local creative ecosystems to lead Idea and Service Design Jams as well as experiment with rolling out a shorter Social Innovation Masterclass for multiple age groups. Our lean approach allows us to deliver high quality experiences no matter the audience.
We have bold ideas for the future, and have never believed in sticking to the conventional. Our next iteration of programs will likely incorporate tech for good, open source and crowd-funding concepts. We really can’t wait to share more of this with the world.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome and the lessons you’ve learned from them?
Learning that living and working in a place are two different things entirely was a big personal lesson for me. Because of the global nature of our company, there are often days where we are coordinating work and meetings across five very different time zones – and that’s the easy part!
Getting a feel for a country’s work culture, communication style/norms, email etiquette and even their preferred medium(s) of communication (not just a first world problem, I assure you!) has proved to be less straightforward than we expected it to.
Eventually, we had to come to terms with the fact that every territory, no matter how similar it may seem to others on the surface, does business differently, and that just because a tactic worked in one country doesn’t mean it will work in another one. We didn’t take too long to realize this, thankfully, and this understanding has since allowed us to redirect our energy and be more judicious with our email outreach and marketing efforts.
What is helpful advice you’ve received from a mentor or friend?
Being an entrepreneur is truly a wonderful responsibility. And done right, the journey is as hard as can be. I remember sitting down with Bonnie Chiu, a few weeks into Aspir8’s launch. She walked me through her journey starting Lensational, a social enterprise that empowers marginalized women through photography. She compared the milestones she has been able to achieve with those of some of her friends, who all started social enterprises at around the same time.
The only reason she has been able to blaze ahead is because she worked on her company diligently every single day. Even when times got really tough and there were other more lucrative opportunities on the table – that some of her peers got sidetracked by – she kept her focus, and that story really has inspired me to do the same.
No matter the distractions, I make sure that I put in some work towards the bigger goals I am trying to accomplish every single day, and hard work pays.
What advice do you have for people trying to design a life with purpose?
I’m actually in the process of writing an article for Entrepreneur on this very subject! I can definitely share more once it’s out, but here’s a teaser:
The best advice I can give to people trying to design a life with purpose is to make time to design a life with purpose. In today’s world, through the power of the internet and otherwise, there are myriad opportunities available to those who are able to articulate what they truly want and why.
Look at the people you admire who are out there doing things you would love to, and spend time figuring out what it is about what they’re doing that appeals to you (your why). Figure out 2-3 key aspirations you have for the next year, and then work backwards distilling those goals into the smallest tasks or chunks of time you can commit to pursuing each day or week or month (this is your how). Then, make a plan you’re excited about and don’t hesitate to ask for as much help as you can (from friends and family but also from strangers who inspire you) while you strive to follow through with designing a more meaningful life (your what).
Two great books I can recommend that really guide you through this process are How To Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick and Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.
Really, the essence of these authors’ advice boils down to: “If you don’t see anyone living your dream life – go ahead and invent it!” That’s exactly what I’m doing: experimenting each and every day, and so far things have only ever “blown up” in the best possible way!