Savitha Sridharan is the founder and CEO of Orora Global, a for-profit social enterprise that works to bring solar power to rural communities while also working to empower the women living in those communities. With the help of a small team in India, Savitha is the driving force behind the company, working on both big picture planning and day-to-day tasks.
A month or so into my internship, Savitha and I sat down at an Indian restaurant a couple blocks from our office for a late lunch, and after a few minutes of casual chatter, I jumped right into my more “formal” interview of Savitha. Although I’ve heard much of her life story in the past few weeks we’ve spent together, I wanted to record her actual words for the interview, so I started at the beginning.
Anika Richter: For the sake of formality, can you talk a little bit about your early life? Where did you grow up? What was your family like?
Savitha Sridharan: I grew up in Bangalore, India. Bangalore is a very entrepreneurial city, and growing up in that community, I was really inspired by those kinds of people. Also, my dad was an engineer… I remember when I was 3 or 4 years old, my geeky dad would give me algebra to solve! Other kids were playing games, but my dad was teaching me when I was 3 or 4. So yeah, my dad is really my inspiration for [going into] engineering.
(We shared a laugh about that, and then continued to talk about her mother.)
My biggest support system was my mom. She always wanted me to grow up to be independent—to be an independent woman. All my inspiration for women’s empowerment came from my mom. My mom told me “I don’t care if you get married, I just want you to be able to support yourself.” I think that’s very rare for women (especially Indian women) and it’s important to be told that at a young age.
(After a couple side anecdotes, I proceeded to ask about her educational and previous work background.)
I graduated as an electrical engineer from Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Then after a few years of working in a startup in Bangalore working on network processing, I got motivated to learn more about computer architecture. So I came to NC State to do a masters in computer architecture. Then, I went to Austin to pursue my job, but I felt that engineering should be used to solve a real world problem. So I went to Babson College to get my MBA to combine my engineering knowledge with business.
AR: This is a little off-topic, but can you talk a bit about your experience as an ultra-marathon runner too? How did you get into that?
SS: While I had a corporate job in Austin, I was always trying to find ways to give back to my country and I got into the habit of running to do some fundraising work for rural India. So I started with a 5K, and that became a 10K, full marathon, and then ultra-marathons.
I did one to support village schools which are part of the educational motivation center set up by Bharathi Trust (a non-profit in Tamil Nadu). The other was to set up an organic farm…to raise money for that. And then I realized running is not really going to change the world. But I was really having so much fun running and doing what I was doing, so I wanted to make it a full time thing and start my own company. I was having too much fun!
(She laughed a little to herself and then paused, deep in thought somewhere. I then proceeded with a new question.)
AR: What did your path to social entrepreneurship in women’s rights and environmental justice look like?
SS: I think there’s a long way for women in developing countries to go, particularly for women living in rural areas, with regard to being financially independent, with safety, with accessing all of their human rights. And in a populated country like India, it’s going to take a while…every country has that problem but…
So, personally, having grown up in India and then moving to the US, I’ve seen how different the lives of women are in a developed country like the US and how everyday life is so much easier when the community respects rights. And I’m trying to take some of that back after seeing how women have it a little easier, seeing if we can take back some of this global community spirit to help women in developing countries. Although Orora Global is primarily in India right now, we want to be able to have a global community of women in many developing countries.
(After a short, thoughtful pause, she continued.)
So when basic infrastructure is not in place like electricity, water, education…when that’s not accessible, you can’t expect a woman to be safe. So I decided, as an engineer, renewable energy seemed like the most self-sustainable solution for a community.
AR: What does your work at Orora entail? Could you just describe what your day-to-day looks like?
SS: I think there’s a ‘US’ world and an ‘India’ world in my work. In the US, my day often starts at 4 am or 5 am to connect to India as I work from here. I go to the American Underground office or to Babson College, and mostly work on building up partnerships and fundraising to be able to scale our efforts in India. Here, as you know, I also work with schools because I think youngsters are the next generation and we are trying to build young leaders from schools that promote sustainability (like Duke).
When I’m in India, we are generally traveling to rural communities and meeting with people to see how to scale our efforts. It’s understanding how renewable energy can be used in different ways, to understand the challenges faced by the rural people and how we can think of creative ways to solve the problem.
AR: What do you think are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
The most rewarding part is when someone in rural India actually gets empowered with our electricity…I think the most challenging part is scaling impact. You want to take it to EVERY rural part of the country. I wish I could take it to every village and every woman around the world. I find myself thinking, how will I even do that? Where do I even start?
(Savitha took a long pause to eat some of her paneer wrap and think quietly.)
You know, there’s that Gandhi quote, “A small group of determined and like-minded people can change the course of history.” That’s really how I feel. As a woman, I think when you have your own company, you want to build the culture you really believe in. It’s amazing how many women around the world have the SAME vision and have come back to support me. Everyone is living in their own world, and so I think my vision for how women should be, I’m living it through my company.
Savitha and I continued to talk for a while, finishing up our food and relaxing after a long day of work. When we finally finished, she told me how glad she was that I was asking her these questions—they really made her evaluate her own work and her place in the world. We eventually got up from the table and left, and as we parted ways, Savitha gave me a huge hug and snapped this selfie with me, wanting to document our happy little experience.