Dec 9, 2023

Atul Satija

Atul Satija is the founder and CEO of The/Nudge Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on alleviating poverty in India by providing sustainable livelihoods. He has a background in technology and business, having previously worked at Google and McKinsey & Company. Atul is passionate about social change and has been recognized for his work in the social sector.

Episode Highlights

  • 0:02 Nitin Bajaj welcomes Atul Satija to The Industry Show.

  • 0:29 Atul Satija discusses his upbringing and motivation for social impact work

  • 1:27 Atul talks about his career at Google and Mobi, emphasizing the belief in solving problems at scale

  • 2:45 Discussion on Atul’s work with Give and Nudge for large-scale impact.

  • 3:33 Atul shares insights on his poverty alleviation work and the importance of continuous improvement.
  • 7:38 Atul explains the missions of Give and Nudge, focusing on making giving more impactful and livelihoods-focused poverty alleviation.
  • 10:23 Nitin praises Atul for his impactful work and scale of operations.
  • 11:50 Atul reflects on the personal fulfillment derived from his work in poverty alleviation.
  • 14:18 Nitin acknowledges the challenges faced in creating impactful and scalable solutions in poverty alleviation.

Show Transcript

Transcript - Full Episode

Nitin Bajaj

(0:02) Hey everyone, welcome to The Industry Show. (0:05) I’m your host Nitin Bajaj, and joining me today is the Atul Satija. (0:12) Atul, welcome on the show.


Atul Satija

(0:14) Thank you so much for having me, Nitin. (0:16) Glad to be here. (0:17) Pleasure is all ours.


Nitin Bajaj 

 So let’s talk about who is Atul. (0:24)


Atul Satija

 Hmm, very interesting question, Nitin. (0:29) Nitin, I grew up very aware of the birth lottery that I got, the ovarian lottery, because I saw my first cousins around me who didn’t, and they had to be almost like supported by my father growing up.

(0:48) So part of me, I grew up with a very strong desire to do social impact work, because poverty is something that I experienced up close, while having a safe childhood. (1:02) So that’s a core part of me, which I discovered much later in life, how important it was to me. (1:08) I think the second part of me, which is an important strand is my career at Google, and then in Mobi, that build a certain level of, call it, belief that if you think about the problems the right way, you can actually solve them at insane scale.

(1:27) And that resonated with me. (1:29) So I think scale hunger, while I’m in the social sector now is what makes me to some extent. (1:41) And I think the third one here is my natural disposition is of very high energy, action orientation, and almost an incorrigible optimist.

(1:54) Like I just permanently believe things are going to happen. (1:59) And I think between the intersection of optimism, scale hunger, and trying to do meaningful, impactful work is, you know, you can call it my key guy. (2:11) So, by any means, and any definition, you’re a rare breed.

(2:16) And, you know, I really look up to you and all the discussions we’ve had over the years. (2:24) And you are the exquisite mix between the kind of running things as a for profit in the nonprofit. (2:37) But really, what that means is and translates to is driving impact to scale.

(2:45) And what I would love to, for you to share with us is, you know, typically, we ask about what people do, and what is the impact? (2:55) And, you know, you’re doing two, I would say two different things, but at massive scale and massive impact. (3:04) On one end, you have give, and on the other end, you have nudge.

Nitin Bajaj

(3:08) So I want to take a kind of a step back and ask you a bigger broader question, and say, what’s your day look like? (3:18) What do you do for a living? (3:19) What inspires you to get up and get going?

(3:23) And what motivates you? (3:25) What are the factors that you look at and say, this is where I want to move the needle? (3:32) Yeah.


Atul Satija

(3:33) Wow, there are multiple questions in that. (3:35) So let’s try to attempt to stitch them together in some way. (3:40) So Nitin, like I said, in the previous question, I chose to do poverty alleviation work.

(3:46) I think the journey for the last eight years, since I’ve been doing it full time, has been of a child in a classroom, curiously learning how to do it in a better fashion than what we did yesterday. (4:00) And hence, the journey has evolved. (4:02) Like you said, we run two nonprofits now Give and the Nudge in parallel.

(4:07) I think what stitches them all together is the need to say there was never a better time in India to do poverty alleviation work. (4:16) Because if you look at it, there are many countries that are themselves so poor, that they cannot solve for their poor, they don’t have resources to solve for their poverty. (4:26) And other countries are countries that are rich.

(4:29) But the people are also all rich, right? (4:31) The actual poverty rates are very, very negligible now. (4:35) But India is one of those very few, if not the only country, which is a large now rich country, with many people still left who are living in poverty.

(4:46) So roughly about 190 to 200 million people by Niti Aayog’s latest report. (4:52) And that is where the opportunity lies, I feel my generation can actually see a poverty free India within our lifetime, because the resources, the will, the talent, and the enabling conditions are all there, digital access, financial access, social capital, and the resources. (5:11) So I feel that it’s a good timing to actually spend your life doing this kind of work.

(5:17) And the way this all comes together is that look, if you have to do poverty alleviation, it will happen in big waves, the way we saw the white revolution, the microfinance movement, the tiger economies growth, we saw Chinese manufacturing ecosystem build out, India’s IT industry ecosystem build out. (5:36) So what we are really trying to do is how do we increase the probability of big waves through capital, which is the gift journey, through talent and specific solutions that might work through the nudge journey, and enabling all that through policy ecosystem, which we engage with very actively in the work we do. (5:56) So that’s all we are trying to do talent, capital policy, and also technology to bring together for creating large scale social change waves in the country.


Nitin Bajaj

(6:07) Well, you know, first off, I have to applaud you for being so humble, in giving credit to others, the ecosystem and what have you and saying that it’s all the ecosystem that is bringing this about. (6:23) But it’s not right. (6:24) It’s really you as a visionary as a leader, that is bringing the ecosystem together to say, we’re at the right place at the right time, to deploy the time, talent and capital, and, and also capitalize on the policy to say, this is where we need to be, as a generation, as an administration, and as a country, to make that generational change, so we can make a true impact and move the needle.

(6:58) So kudos to you and congratulations to you for making that impact at that level of scale. (7:05) Both nudge and give have truly moved the needle. (7:10) And I’d love for you to elaborate on not just the size and scale of the operations, but the impact you and the team have been able to accomplish over the past few years.

(7:24) And what you’re looking to do in the next few months and years to come. (7:31) So please, you know, share the vision and impact with us. (7:37) Yeah.


Atul Satija

(7:38) So Nitin, on the give side, what we are really doing is, we say our mission is to make giving bigger and better. (7:45) The more you give, and the better you give more impact you create on the ground, even if it is through the nonprofits that actually do that work on the ground every day. (7:57) I think on the give side, we are deploying about $75 million, $200 million a year on the ground. (8:05) Obviously, the money comes from philanthropists and corporates and foundations and works done by nonprofits, we are mostly a conduit. (8:11) But through the work that we do, we are able to partner with about 500 to 1000 plus organizations more directly, and about a half 1000 nonprofits. (8:24) So the platform that we have built, that enables them to share their information with donors, etc.

(8:30) And I think collectively, they go on to serve 10s of millions of people across the country every year. (8:36) On the not side, we are a livelihoods focused poverty alleviation organization. (8:43) Directly, we are working with people who are getting skilled and getting entry level service sector jobs or ultra poor communities, tribal, agrarian, nomadic, vulnerable communities across the country. (9:00) We are working with 150,000 families or so like that in UP, in Jharkhand, in Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Karnataka, etc. (9:11) Through our indirect work of enabling other nonprofits through our incubator, accelerator, and other programs, I think it would be around another 20 million people that we are serving across the country. (9:24) Where we are going with this is that, look, the probability of creating a large scale social change like to happen in microfinance or white revolution or Aadhaar or UPI.

(9:38) To enable these journeys, you need to kind of really find out what works. (9:42) So not just focusing on what we call the three P’s of social scale, you prototype what works on the ground. (9:48) If something works, you propagate that in the ecosystem with other actors could be nonprofits, for profits or governments. (9:55) And then see what is it that we need to do to enable proliferation of that the way microfinance is proliferated. (10:01) So it’s a journey of finding what really works on the ground. (10:05) And if you find something, can we support that journey to actually go to insane scale. (10:11) And I’m hoping in the next five years, we create one such large or contribute one such large social change wave happening in the country or created in the country through our work. 


Nitin Bajaj

(10:23) And I love how you throw these numbers as if they don’t mean anything, you know, 150,000 and 20 million. (10:32) And, you know, it’s just like, yeah, we’re doing this.

(10:36) We’re making this happen. (10:37) I love that. (10:38) And, you know, the humility that you bring to all of this is amazing. (10:46) So congratulations, and thank you. (10:49) And kudos for everything that you’ve been able to envision, and bring to life (10:56) through the work you do through the team, you have in working with, you know, none of this is easy, (11:03) right, going to the nooks and corners of these parts of India that are for all purposes, (11:13) considered third world and fourth world, and being able to not just bring them to life, (11:20) but showing them that there is a future here. (11:24) It’s, it’s amazing. (11:25) So hats off to you for for what you do, you could have been doing a lot more and making a lot more for yourself in being in the corporate world that you have been and you’ve had access to. (11:39) But leaving all of that behind and focusing on making a generational change for for the country for the macro economic situation.


Atul Satija

(11:50) These are massive numbers. (11:52) So I can’t thank you enough. (11:55) Now, well, it’s at a certain level, very selfish, Nitin. (12:00) It is. (12:01) We all want to say that reality is if I don’t find enough meaning and joy in this, you know, I won’t be able to do it. (12:08) So just currency you choose for what time you put and what you get back, I get enough back from doing this.

(12:16) As much as we feel we are creating, creating impact. (12:19) But yeah, thank you so much for the generous words. (12:22) No, you know, being in the nonprofit world, we know that this is as much of a selfish journey. (12:29) But that selfishness could manifest itself in making monetary gains, or making a generational change for the community. (12:40) And we have that choice, we have the power of making that choice and determination of going this way, or going that way. (12:48) And, and you’re in that selfish journey, you’re making a selfless choice.

(12:54) And I want to applaud you for that. (12:56) Because, you know, what you’re going after is the long term is, you know, what will help the community, what will help us what will help a generation to realize their dreams, their values, their capabilities, and as selfish as it is, it’s not. (13:20) So, you know, let’s not be little that in, in the bigger context of humility.

(13:27) I’ve known you to be extremely humble. (13:30) And, you know, to put kind of all of this in. (13:35) Yeah, that’s, that’s okay. (13:37) We this is what we do. (13:39) This is what we have to do. (13:40) But it’s a humongous undertaking. (13:44) And it takes someone with that vision and with that leadership skill to put all of this in perspective, and lead an entire team and generation to believe in this, because that’s what it takes to make a true difference and a true change. (14:04) So, thank you. (14:05) You know, let’s, let’s acknowledge that and, and inspire an entire team and entire generation, because that’s really what it’s going to take to, to deliver on a true change.


Nitin Bajaj

(14:18) So I really applaud you on that. (14:21) And thank you. (14:22) No, you know, it has, it has to be acknowledged. (14:26) And that said, you know, what, what I would love to understand is making the changes that you are making. (14:35) What’s the one big challenge you face and your team faces that, that people need to understand and hear about? (14:45) Yeah.

(14:46) So, Nitin, I think there is so much action that is happening on the ground across the country, whether it is this action being enabled by government, using the taxpayers money to create social security schemes or programs and all kinds of activity on the ground, or it is nonprofits doing great work on the ground day in day out. (15:09) And all of us have done this work with great intent, right? (15:13) Wanting to create impact and change some life outcomes and stuff like that. (15:19) I think what the global evidence ecosystem has increasingly now started to prove is that most of this action on the ground is not really as impactful as we think it is. (15:35) And very few things really, really work when we look at beyond the obvious. (15:44) So the biggest challenge that we are facing is looking livelihoods, which is what we are focused on, like how do you economically empower a family or in simplistic terms, how do we make sure that a family is financially independent, right?

(15:56) In that journey, very few things are the ones that actually are things that work and can scale. (16:06) You can find things that work at very small scale, you find things at large scale that don’t work. (16:11) And there are a lot of in between, a little bit of impact is there and you can do a little bit more of that. (16:16) But finding something that works and can scale is a very hard one. (16:21) And globally, GiveWell has found three, four such solutions that they put in their own platform, what works in livelihoods, there are only few. (16:30) We have seen that turned out to be true as well in India. (16:34) There is not enough evidence of all the work that we all do, which we can say, okay, this really works and can scale. (16:43) And we know it has to be simple enough, cheap enough, good enough, and then it can scale. (16:48) But that’s very hard one. (16:49) So a lot of our efforts are going in saying how do we prototype within the nudge through our work? (16:55) How do we seed such activity in the market? (16:58) So more solutions that work are call it created, invented prototype. (17:06) Or we put a smelling mechanism in the ecosystem saying, okay, so much is happening. (17:12) Maybe there are ones that really work, but they have not been evidenced enough or we have not used the lens of okay, let’s study whether it really works or not. (17:21) So I think between a discovery process, creation process and call it a little bit of execution, inking with stuff to ourselves, we are using all these means to say, okay, is there something that works that we can scale? (17:37) We have a few, but you would love for more such solutions to be there that we can actually explore how to scale. (17:44) I love the for profit execution for a nonprofit model, because that, that leaves, that doesn’t leave any kind of, you know, people consider nonprofits to be softer on the execution, but you’re really running this as businesses and saying, how can I, my ultimate goal is to go out of business, right? (18:08) Because if everything worked, and everything is to how it should be, then I don’t have a reason to exist. (18:15) So I love that model. (18:17) And, you know, I meant to say this in in a few minutes ago, to me, and this may be a little old school, because it’s probably gone out of fashion. (18:28) But you’re the Jack Dorsey in the nonprofit world, you’re running two very successful nonprofits at scale, and bringing that impact to the world, and to the economies and the communities that really matter at the size and scale that nobody has ever seen or heard of. (18:46) And, again, I’m, you know, ever since we got to connect and talked about the work you do, and, and why you do it, I’ve been blown. (18:57) And I’m just so excited to bring this to our audience and to our community that give and nudge are doing the work that you are leading them to do. (19:09) Now that said, you know, with challenges come opportunities.

(19:15) And I’m excited to hear about the opportunities that you’re excited about. (19:21) So please tell me about the one that is getting you all jittery and excited. (19:31) Yeah.

(19:32) So within in the pursuit of finding what really works, in 2018 and 19, beginning we (19:39) chanced upon something that’s now called cash plus care, cash plus programs or graduation programs, (19:47) which is, how do you take a family in extreme poverty, through a carefully sequenced (19:54) steps out of extreme poverty in a period of time, defined period of time, we tried that (20:00) through a pilot, we saw the results, and we got very excited saying, look, it works. (20:06) And and then the game was, look, if it really works, how do you take it to let us the bottom 5 million, 10 million families, 5 million families is almost 25 million people that’s in Australia. (20:21) So we’re saying that we’ll take 5 million families out of extreme poverty in a decade, that’s roughly 25 million people, like I was saying, but it will take roughly three to $5 billion, given the cost of taking a family sustainably out of poverty. (20:41) So we are on this business plan right now, our goals to take 1 million families in five years, on this path of graduation, that’s one and a half New Zealand’s 5 million people. (20:51) And in a decade that hopefully will get to 5 million families or so. (20:59) In that journey, now we are one and a half years into that call it a business plan of sorts to say, how do we now scale it. (21:06) And we are lucky that in the last one and a half years, we’ve been able to get two central ministries to appreciate that the design works and they should invest behind that. (21:18) We have two state governments that are putting state treasury capital into it. (21:23) Where we stand right now, we have $100 million plus activated from the governments to invest in that. (21:29) That’s roughly 100,000 families. (21:32) And we are hoping that in the next year or so it will start to get to 300 to $500 million, and hopefully in a few years, a billion. (21:39) And that will actually allow us to get these families on the path of this graduating out of poverty. (21:46) And super excited about it. (21:49) And I really think that the role that Nudge will end up taking here given government is deploying this capital and government machinery is implementing it is of how do we make sure that we are able to support government in their vision of doing this by bringing technology, technical assistance, carder training, livelihood research, MNE frameworks, SOPs, impact assessment, etc. (22:16) So that we know that we are a partner along the way in the journey when government’s prioritizing it. (22:21) Super excited about this ultra, we call it the end ultra poverty program. (22:26) I love how you put these numbers across with such humility, and attributing all of this to luck. (22:37) It’s sheer hard work. (22:39) It’s sheer vision on your part on the rest of your team to think about it to put this into the very detailed steps it takes to bring this to life to bring this to fruition. (22:55) Again, congratulations and kudos to you to be able to say this with such humility. (23:02) The numbers you’re talking about are massive. (23:05) These are you’re literally putting countries at a time to lifetime generational changes. (23:14) And it’s just amazing to hear you put across these numbers with such humility and confidence that this is not something that you know, I work with a lot of startups that say, Oh, we’re going to be $100 million in five years. (23:28) And I know for a fact that 3% of them or less than that will ever make it anywhere close to it. (23:35) But I do know at the same time in the same breath, that when you say that there is a 99% plus chance that these numbers will happen, because these are rooted in reality. (23:51) And you’ve done the math and you’re being a pessimist.

(23:55) Like they say in India, right? (23:56) I hope we are able to meaningfully get governments to prioritize and invest in that. (24:03) But like most startups, we are also forward looking.

(24:06) We are also inherently optimistic and excited about, you know, the opportunity and hoping to get there. (24:17) Thank you. (24:18) No, knowing you, I know there is a 99% chance of success compared to the 3% chance of success with the startups that I work with, and you know, I invest in.

(24:31) So super, super excited about the opportunities that lie ahead of you and the team that’s working on this. (24:40) Now, I would love to know, you know, as we look forward, I would love to take a step back and take a peek in the rearview mirror and ask you to share two instances. (24:53) One that blew your own expectations and became a success beyond your imagination.

(25:01) And another one that did not pan out to your plans and became a failure and lesson. (25:10) So please share, you know, two of those extremes with us. (25:15) Interesting.

(25:17) I think it’s easier to share successes, far more difficult to share failures. (25:21) So let me start with the failure first. (25:24) I think there are a few, which pointed me to the same learning. (25:31) So I’ll just put them together. (25:33) See, in my past life, when I was running mandates, which were regional or global on the business side, I’ve encountered multiple countries in the overall portfolio of scheme of things to scale them. (25:54) And Japan is one country where twice it fell in my portfolio. (26:00) Once in Google, when I was heading mobile business for Japan and APAC and the second at Inmobi, where Japan was early on a market that we invested in. (26:12) In both the instances, I personally felt that while they may have been okay businesses, I really struggled to understand and crack the problem where you would actually scale it. (26:26) A similar thing happened when we started doing admissions for our Gurukul programs at the nudge from grassroots. (26:34) And I realized that in all of these instances, I personally did not understand the cultural context of the audience that I was working with. (26:43) In Japan, an average Japanese mobile user, I just could not connect to. (26:50) And it is just the language, I had language problems in China and in many other countries, South Korea, but I was able to make sense of a user there. (26:59) But in Japan, because the cultural nuances are so different, and so tough to make sense of and comprehend for somebody like me, who grew up in India, lived in India all his life and some travels here and there. (27:13) And I think that is where the solutions that I kind of could come up with were not needle moving. (27:19) And it was just gap in understanding the culture and the user.

(27:24) The same thing we saw in our work at the nudge on the ground, if I do not spend time in the communities and speak their language and understand their cultural context, there is no way I can meaningfully solve for the problems that we see that a user is facing, customer is facing in our case, communities that we serve are facing. (27:45) And there are repeated failures of all of this, like admissions, we really struggled to crack admissions, with the thoughts and ideas we had in mind, I had in mind. (27:56) And the more I started listening to the team, that is actually able to relate to the audience understands is on the ground every day, you realize they have the answers that you will never have. (28:08) So whether it is listening to the customer, relating to the customer or have people who can connect and relate better and listening to them, I think that the tools that I’ve learned to appreciate over time, and lack of which actually caused my early failures in admissions and twice a large failures in Mobi and Google in cracking Japan as a market. (28:29) Thank you for sharing that it takes a lot to be open and vulnerable and transparent about the failures we’ve had that have in the long term, you know, have made us better people better leaders. (28:43) So thank you. (28:44) I appreciate that. (28:48) Yeah. (28:48) And on the on what has really surprised me in what we were able to do, Nitin, I think the I remember the third fourth week of March 2020, when the COVID lockdown was announced in India.

(29:05) Give has always been a retail fundraising platform, right? (29:08) Like we encourage people to come to our website and donate money to the nonprofits and causes and campaigns they care about. (29:16) And COVID happened. (29:19) It just felt like we should spring in action and do whatever in our powers we can. (29:25) And the first thing we did is we made a campaign online to say we’ll get migrant workers back home. (29:32) Very soon, we realized that in the hospitals, you need PPE kits and all the other stuff. (29:38) Then we realized that corporates are looking for partners where they can deploy their capital for COVID response. (29:44) And we said, look, we historically haven’t taken CSR money. (29:48) But this is time for you know, what we have done and not done in the past, we have been supporting corporates in many other ways in the past, let’s start supporting them with CSR and deploy money for COVID.


Nitin Bajaj

(0:03) Thanks Atul for sharing that. (0:05) And, you know, that brings us to my favorite part of the show, the one-line life lessons, and I would love for you to share your one-line life lessons with us.


Atul Satija

(0:16) Awesome. (0:17) Yeah. (0:17) It is a tough one to distill what you believe in just one lines.


Nitin Bajaj

(0:22) Yes.


Atul Satija

(0:23) I think a few things that resonate with me. (0:25) The first one is that I keep saying that we need to pass all the key decisions we take through first principles filter. (0:33) It’s so easy to get drowned in all the, you know, norms and practices and principles and approaches and frameworks people put, but I think somewhere in that we lose the first principle.

(0:45) So that’s my first one. (0:46) It’s heavily underrated. (0:47) I feel the second one is something that a friend of mine shared, which I’ve carried with me resonated, which is look for people with fire in the belly and almost everything else can be taught really resonates with me as we look for people, especially in startups, where you’re trying to take risks and building something. (1:09) The third one is what a very well-known, but Gandhi just said, be the change that you want to see. (1:15) We try to do that in everything we do at Najin Gibb. (1:19) The last one, something that I started putting when I started the nudge, which Margaret made one said that never doubted a small group of committed people can change the world.

(1:32) Indeed, that’s the only thing that ever has. (1:36) And I think what we and many of the nonprofits are doing kind of is to take a, you know, a small group of people and bringing them together to bring large scale change and we hope it resonates. (1:49) The last one is what Theodore Roosevelt said, which is, I mean, it’s obviously a longer speech out of which this line that it’s man in the arena.

(2:02) That really comes resonant. (2:04) So I keep reminding myself that, you know, we are a bunch of people in the arena, uh, uh, fighting the battle. (2:11) And it’s important to have that level of ownership, uh, to the, the cause of the problem.

(2:17) So these are my, uh, my few top ones.


Nitin Bajaj

(2:20) Thanks, Atul. (2:21) And, you know, it provides that, uh, clarity that vision for the team coming from the, from the leadership. (2:30) So having that clarity, having that vision, having that big picture, but really distilling it down to, as you said, it’s, it’s extremely difficult, but it, you know, it reminded me of, uh, one of those, uh, quotes that are attributed to Mark Twain, uh, sorry, I didn’t have time to write you a short note, so I’m writing you a long one.


Atul Satija

(2:55) So, yeah, yeah. (2:58) Very, very powerful. (2:59) We struggled with that as leaders, as in terms of our communication as well. (3:04) And we don’t have clarity. (3:06) We start writing a long note and trying to explain everything. (3:08) Then we realized that, look, we really thought it through.


Nitin Bajaj

(3:11) So, yes. (3:13) Thank you so much for making the time. (3:15) I know you have a lot going on and, uh, really appreciate you sharing your journey, your story, and more importantly, uh, the one-line life lessons with us. (3:24) Thank you so much for doing what you do. (3:27) And, uh, again, continued, uh, congratulations and good luck for many, many more successes to help you help many millions of lives and, uh, transitioning them, not just them, but generations to come. (3:44) So thank you.


Atul Satija

(3:45) Thank you so much, Nitin. (3:47) Lovely being on this show.


Nitin Bajaj

(3:48) Thanks a lot.


apple podcast
Spotify Logo
Youtube logo