It is an understatement to say that Suraj Kripalani is passionate about social ventures. Like many participants of MIT Sloan Executive Education programs, he’s interested in making an impact on the world. However, few take that charge quite as seriously as this former finance executive.
Born in Bombay, India, and raised in Oman, Kripalani came to the U.S. to attend Purdue University. He later pursued a master’s in financial engineering at Columbia University and began his career at BlackRock in 2004, where he held several roles in fixed income risk and portfolio management over eight years in New York and London. In 2012, Kripalani left a comfortable and successful career at BlackRock and returned to India to pursue his passion for entrepreneurship, mission-driven enterprises, and social ventures.
After co-founding a web-based start-up focused on experiential learning, Kripalani joined a nonprofit, Motivation for Excellence, and helped launch the Nalanda Education Technology Program, a blended-learning program using an offline version of Khan Academy and serving low income schools that did not have access to the Internet. Kripalani collaborated with multiple non-profit partners and managed diverse global resources to launch two successful program pilots and develop a scalable blended learning curriculum. The program has since grown to serve more than 6,300 students across 175 classrooms in Mumbai, Pune, and Delhi.
After this success, in 2015, Kripalani joined Tranzmute Capital & Management in Bombay, where he focused on business transformation and restructuring. At Tranzmute, Kripalani cultivated his passion for change management, turning around struggling companies and helping them execute on their strategies.
“During my time in that role, I came to understand the challenges and rewards of change management,” says Kripalani. “But I needed to take a step back and think about what I wanted to do in the long term. Could I leverage this consulting background to potentially help for-profit ventures that have a social impact? And could I do this as an entrepreneur? I really enjoyed my time in consulting and helping other people solve problems. I also loved building curriculum and helping people apply it in a real-world setting. Now I needed to learn more about the startup space.”
Towards the end of 2016, Kripalani knew he wanted to apply to an entrepreneurship program where he could learn more about innovation-driven startups, and he began to consider his options.
“I was looking at entrepreneurship programs at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT,” says Kripalani. “I wanted a program with the best possible content that I could learn quickly and that was taught by top faculty. I also knew the learning needed to be action-based and applied. After more exploration, I discovered that the only instructor who had authored a book on startups and who had synthesized entrepreneurship best practices was Bill Aulet at MIT. So that was the only program that I applied to.”
Kripalani attended the week-long, 2017 session of the Entrepreneurship Development Program and said it was not what he expected.
“In fact, it blew through my very high expectations. Completely. And here’s why. First, the program format was incredible. At the start of the day, we heard from the best lecturers—industry experts, practitioners, and entrepreneurs who have made a big impact using the 24-step framework that is core to the program. This practical, real-world context was extremely meaningful.”
“The second half of each day,” continued Kripalani, “we broke into teams to apply the steps we were learning to the venture we chose to represent for the week. By evening, we had feedback from mentors that gave us time to iterate on our business planning by morning. We followed this process over the course of the week, and it culminated in business pitches of incredible quality.”
Kripalani also points to the visits to Boston startups, innovation centers and accelerators as a program highlight as well as “the incredible global network of 100 entrepreneurs.” In fact, this immersion into the MIT ecosystem and the bonding experience he shared with participants were critical influencers of his next steps. Kripalani had the opportunity to spend some time in the Boston area after the program and found the startup community to be exceedingly supportive and helpful.
In the summer of 2017, BonBillo, a social venture incubator based in Boston and Mumbai, was born.
“As I became more familiar with the innovation ecosystem around MIT, Boston, and Cambridge, and after attending various start-up events, many themes became clear,” says Kripalani. “The quality of student ventures was exceedingly high, and a large portion of them are potentially investible, but a lot of the funding support was through university start-up competitions, which is great for the top winners but left the rest of the student ventures to fend for themselves. Next, while there were a lot of local accelerators, very few focus on social impact ventures.”
Combining his recent insights with the many facets of his work experience, Kripalani co-founded an incubator that seeks to enable undergraduate and graduate students to develop and launch social ventures dedicated to solving critical problems.
“I wanted to know whether we could generate a pool of big ideas, oriented around the United Nation’s 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development—goals like zero hunger and gender equality—that would allow students to gravitate to ones they are most passionate about. We tried to create a platform to inspire students to join or launch a for-profit social venture. That’s how we came to be.” The incubator is currently running a pilot program (fall 2017-spring 2018) with twelve students (from Babson and MIT) across three ventures.
BonBillo provides students with a stipend, guest lectures, mentors, advisors, and a workspace at Impact Hub in CIC Boston (a co-working and office space for innovators). They are also guided by two frameworks to support the creation of their ventures. The Disciplined Entrepreneurship 24-step framework taught in EDP is paired with a rapid-phased design methodology, “Sprint”, authored by Jake Knapp and others from Google Ventures.
“We also try to bring in a customer or expert working in the field specific to each venture so that the team gets get iterative feedback on a constant basis and very early in the process,” says Kripalani. Reporting on current progress, Kripalani says all three teams have made considerable strides, narrowing their target segment and defining a customer in a beachhead market. “This is essentially the initial goal for each venture—to validate that there is customer interest during the fall semester. Teams that meet this milestone work with an outsourced technology team to develop a working technology prototype during the winter. They then get customer feedback to iterate on their prototype during the spring and pitch to investors in March, so that they can ideally receive seed funding and work on their venture full time after graduation.”
BonBillo’s business model follows that of a traditional accelerator. “We get an equity stake in the ventures, but the stake is higher than typical because the risk is higher—these ventures start at BonBillo at the idea phase. We wanted to build a model that would allow us to get compensated for working with high risk early-stage ventures that will hopefully enable these ventures to make a significant social impact.”
At the start of the year, Kripalani was learning about the startup community surrounding MIT, dipping a toe into the ecosystem. Today, he is adding value to it. He credits the Entrepreneurship Development Program with helping him bring this vision to fruition.
“EDP was exceedingly intense and fun at the same time. Being surrounded by these participants, entrepreneurs, and faculty gave me a lot of energy—so much so that I didn’t even feel the pace and the 14-hour days until the week was over. It flew by. It was a life changing experience for me.”
You can follow Suraj Kripalani and BonBillo on social media:
Learn more about the next session of the Entrepreneurship Development Program, January 28 – February 2, 2018.