In conversation with Rajat Jain who is leading an acceleration program, aimed at helping 22 social impact organizations to create greater impact.
Hi Rajat, thank you for taking out the time to speak with us today! You said that you took a sabbatical last year before joining Vihara. What’s the story behind that?
Since my college days, I used to keep tinkering with start-up ideas. I joined a start-up after my college where I helped them build a base of 10,000+ customers and raise pre-series A funding. Then I joined a bank and later on went on to co-found a venture with two friends. We worked on it for over a year and then decided it wasn’t working out. It was one hell of an experience. But also very mentally and emotionally exhausting. I did not want to take up a job right away. So I decided to take a break to explore what I want to do next - do I want to take a job? Launch another venture? Go to business school?
When you were thinking about taking this break, what was going through your mind? How did you want to spend this time?
Sabbaticals for me are not about ‘not working’. I wanted to use this time to push myself, explore different fields and understand what my next steps in my career should be.
So a goal-driven sabbatical. How did you spend your time?
I did not have an elaborate plan for how I wanted to spend my sabbatical. I went from one thing to another, trusting my instinct to guide me on what to do next. In late September 2018, I went to work with Peepal Farm in Dharamshala. They work for the welfare of stray animals and raising awareness against cruelty. What an amazing place and they do such exemplary work! The people there are just incredible. Interacting with them, I came to know that their founder, Robin Singh, himself took a sabbatical and traveled the country before he started this place. I stayed with them and helped them with retail fundraising.
During an IIT Mandi incubation I had attended once, I had gotten introduced to a Himachali who was interning at the time with one of the organizations participating in the program. He was from a village near Rewalsar and had offered to host me at his place. After my stint at Peepal farm, I went to stay with him. After traveling to a couple of other places in Himachal, I went to Delhi for a short time during which I did market research for a couple of ideas that I was exploring.
At that time, the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections (2018) were in full swing. I came across an opportunity to work as a campaign manager for an INC MLA Candidate. I have a keen interest in politics so I thought why not explore this as well? I spent two months doing this and I realized that I have never experienced anything like this before! There was so much to do and everything was so exciting! Organizing political rallies, managing volunteers and what not! I had the time of my life.
At the end of the election, I moved to Bhopal. It was both a practical and emotional choice. I was running out of money and I had done my engineering from NIT Bhopal so I had an attachment to the city. After living in Mumbai, the rent in Bhopal was a blessing. I rented a duplex with a friend. The total rent was Rs. 6,000. I had an entire floor for Rs. 3,000! I spent six months there helping two friends with their businesses - one was up and running with the other one was still in the ideation stage. It felt good to help them. Having lived and worked in Bombay and with my experience of running my own start-up, there were a lot of tangible skills I brought on the table that had a positive impact on them. This experience wasn’t just personally fulfilling; it also gave me a lot of confidence in my skills.
That’s quite a story! In the beginning, you mentioned that you did not have an elaborate plan for your sabbatical. You trusted yourself to figure out what you want to do on the go. Looking back, are you happy you went with that approach? Would things have panned out differently if you had chosen to plan everything?
I was very clear that I wanted to give myself the freedom to explore. That’s not possible if you plan everything before you even start. I took a leap of faith. For instance, I was initially skeptical about going to Peepal Farm. I had read up about them so I knew about the kind of work they were doing but, at the same time, I was skeptical because they were located in a remote place and I wasn’t sure about whether this place is genuine or not . But I went ahead anyway and it turned out to be an amazing experience.
I think being on sabbatical gives you a lot of confidence. I had my doubts before starting off but felt that I could sustain myself through it. But once I started my journey, I became a lot more sure of myself and my ability to make the right choices and land up with the right opportunities.
Did this sabbatical help you in any way?
Definitely. I found that I am inclined towards working with companies that focus on tier-2 and tier-3 cities. I think that this market has a lot of potential that is still to be explored. And the kind of impact you can have here is huge. For instance, have you heard of this app called Khatabook? You see how small businesses, especially kirana stores, in small towns do bookkeeping - it’s in notebooks and pieces of paper. It’s inconvenient, time-consuming and inefficient. Khatabook digitized the process and is now being used by over 50 lac small traders. The kind of impact this kind of technology has is exponential. That, to me, is fascinating.
At the end of my 9-month long sabbatical, I had made up my mind that I want to do something through which I can help early stage enterprises do impactful work. I moved back to Mumbai and started looking for such opportunities. Within a month, I was fortunate enough to get an offer to work as a program manager and manage an accelerator program for 22 social impact organizations.
To sum it up, I started with ‘not knowing’ where I want to be and ended up with finding just the right place where I fit in perfectly. To anyone out there thinking of taking a sabbatical, I’d say - be brave, have faith in yourself and take the leap. Everything works out eventually.