Positive Leadership

Creating and scaling social impact (with Jeroo Billimoria)

December 22, 2021 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 2 Episode 5
Positive Leadership
Creating and scaling social impact (with Jeroo Billimoria)
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to the first episode of 2022! We’re starting off the year with a truly inspiring guest, Jeroo Billimoria.

She has been a serial social entrepreneur for over 20 years, focusing on empowering youth. She is also an Ashoka and Schwab Fellow.

Listen to her conversation with JP to become energized by her strong sense of duty, her endless optimism, and of course, her wealth of knowledge on being a changemaker.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Welcome to the latest edition of Positive Leadership Podcast. This is JP, and thanks to all of you for making the time to listen, to engage. And please, let’s keep the feedback coming. It is great to know that increasingly we are building a community of positive leaders around the world as you get more engaged. My guest today is Jeroo Billimoria, who has been a serial social entrepreneur for 20 years. She’s the founder of several NGOs with a core focus on empowering youth, something I’m very passionate about, too, I must say, with my own family’s foundation, Live for Good. Jeroo is one of the worthiest change makers in the world. She is an Ashoka Fellow. She’s a Schwab fellow. But she’s been also given a Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Skoll Foundation. Born in Bombay in India, she now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two children, where she founded the One Family Foundation. We hope that by the end of this conversation, you will be inspired as much as I’ve been for many years now. So, a very warm welcome, Jeroo, to the Positive Leadership podcast. It’s a pleasure, a delight to have you join us today.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Thank you very much, JP. I’m really looking forward to this conversation with you.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So, Jeroo, growing up you seemed to be very influenced by your parents and their commitments to the wider community. Can you tell us more about your childhood, your parents, and how growing up in that household with such a strong sense of service shaped you?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Yes, I am really lucky and blessed to have parents who are amazing as mine. And I always say my parents were the perfect Ying and Yang and the perfect balance in life. Because my mom was the intellectual social worker, social change agent. And she had a lot of theory, and she did a lot of social work and change. And my father just believed that if you have enough, you have to help everyone around you. So I was brought up with a very strong sense of duty, that you have to help whoever is around whoever’s the community. If we ever walked in the streets, and you know in India, there are several people who live on the streets. My father knew all of them by name. There was always a good word to talk to them to share and be with them and do what he could. My mother, on the other hand, was a professional social worker. She worked in the slum communities, and she’d say, “You need to come. You need to see what is there, and you need to see how you can help.” So I was brought up with a mix of that. And I when I was in the seventh grade, my mom said, “It’s nice to help people, but you need to know how and why.” So research is very important. And seventh, when I was in seventh grade, to earn pocket money, I actually had to do research and data analysis for my mother on adoption because at that point, she was studying inter-country adoption. So it was a really nice blend of two parents.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: So you did some research at seven.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: In seventh grade, yeah. So, I was around 10. Yeah.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes. Amazing. You know, I’m really struck, Jeroo, by how much, again, our parents can shape us and have a profound impact for a number of us to become what I’m calling entrepreneurs of all lives. I was having a discussion with Arianna Huffington recently in my last podcast episode but also another French basically both social entrepreneurial but really investor as well and business leader, Clara Gaymard, in my home country. And they both shared how much their mother’s unconditional love had built their self-confidence to become what they decided to do. So, as you really this just discuss your parents, your dad, your mam, can you then expand on what you did aged 11 to support the domestic workers I think in your own apartment block?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Yeah, so that was actually growing up in an average upper-middle-class Indian family. You always have a lot of stuff in the house and around, right. And I was speaking to my mum, and this is, remember, she’s already given me a lot of intellectual that … I think she taught me systems change when I was really young. And she said, “You cannot just talk about …” And, of course, she didn’t use those terms then; it would have gone above me. But she always said, “You don’t need to look at just giving money. You need to look at how you can change the person’s life.” So I was always growing up on just, “Don’t give the person money. Teach the person to fish.” She said teach the person to get their own livelihoods and stand. So all of this was happening, and then we have domestics in the house and in the building, and ironically many of them, they were women mainly. We had men also, but the women used to be beaten by their husbands. They never had any savings. 

The feminist part also of equal rights for women, my mom was a strong feminist, and my dad, too, he really believed in equal rights for women, so I was like, “Mom, on one hand, you say this, and another hand, if you see these women come home, and you see they’re abused, and then we can help them, but what happens later?” And my dad used to be the one teaching me always about money, and he would say, “Jeroo, if you have to grow up, remember, Mom was terrible with money. You need to know and understand financial independence.” So I said, “Dad, if I’m having it, why can’t we also have it with the staff?” And that’s where sort of it was a family discussion, and then I said, “Okay, why don’t we get all of them bank accounts?” And that time, banks were not very open to giving people who were illiterate bank accounts. So my parents, I was too young, my parents stood guarantee, and we opened bank accounts for all the women who worked with us. Because it was like a family of women, so then the grandmother-in-law said, “I want a bank account,” the sister-in-law. So that’s how it spread to the community in the building. I’m happy to say, because we are still in touch with some of them, we’ve moved out, but we are still in touch with some of them, the three or four whom who used to work for us and we are in touch with, they have retired, their children have got good jobs because they could pay for their education, and they have a pension. And one of them has bought an apartment. So even the person working with my brother, all of them have their own apartments, savings, pensions. And I think that’s what’s really, really important if you help them in planning. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Really great to hear that story by the way very early on with your parents and family you started empowering those women, obviously, and families that were supporting all of you. And maybe also as you talk about finance education. it’s interesting, this is maybe one of the reasons you decided to study accounting in university, but also took a postgraduate course I think in social work. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Right, but I’d like to get back to Bombay, where you met the children in the streets, Jeroo. Because I think it’s really hard for all of us, you know, so remote from the streets in India, to imagine how tough those children’s lives are today. So can you paint a picture, what does it actually look like?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Well, I always say that I had a lot of learnings from the streets and a lot of admiration for the street children in Bombay. And I worked with homeless men in New York when I did my master’s at the new school, and I worked with street children. And I think one of the fundamental differences is that homeless men in New York are extremely lonely, and they are faceless, and they are ignored. Many of them are vets, many of them have mental health issues, and they’re actually ignored. I feel as compared to that, the street kids in India, they have a tough life, they are working, they are young, they run away from home, but there is always a family which will adopt them. There will be a sense of community which builds around most of them. So I think that’s a fundamental difference, and I say that life on the streets is not easy. It’s tough. Many are rag picking. They take … but there is a very strong sense of community which is in the streets of India, which I found as a big, positive surprise as compared to the sheer depression and loneliness which is there with the homeless people in US.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love the fact you mentioned community because I’ve learned so much myself, at least in some of the works I’ve done in my home country, on how critical is building that sense of community. And I must say I’ve found a lot happening in the social entrepreneur circles when it comes to that broad and deep community engagement. So we’ll get back to that later because I think you are doing some exciting work right now for the future. But let’s go back again on the way you started putting your first organization, Mel Joe, back in 1981 to support these children. How did you even start putting together an organization? How did you do that, basically?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I’ll take a step back because I always say it’s nice to talk about success but it’s as important to talk about failure. 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: So I had studied in the US, I had helped kickstart United Homeless Organization, etc., etc. I came back to India and thought, “I’m going to start something in India.” And the very first organization I actually started was Unnati, which failed. 

And I say that that’s why you talk about failures first. And Unnati failed because now if I reflect back, it was an idea way, way, way ahead of its time. Basically, it was saying that we needed to use technology and geolocation to try to trace families back and send kids home

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Wow, that was visionary, Jeroo, for sure.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So it was so ahead of its time technology was taking still a long way before it got there. So I think, the first time I’d started that with a friend, and, well, after a point, we said, “You know what? We have to realize our idea is ahead.” But because of that, I had started working with street kids and also with school kids. And then I said, “We need to continue that.” While I was teaching at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, we always have in this, and we had a very visionary, how do you say, dean for the university, or director, Dr. Armaity Desai, who is also a strong mentor. And she always said that a teacher cannot teach social work in isolation in ivory towers. So she always encouraged academics to start field action projects. So she said, “Do what you want, start something, learn, fail, go for it.” And one of the things I had seen, in addition to I sort of started the key work for Childline, but I also, while I was doing that, I was speaking to a lot of kids in school, etc., and I just felt that there’s no way that private school kids really talk to municipal school kids. And there are so many stereotypes. So many stereotypes. And MelJol was basically the coming together and trying to get kids from more elitist backgrounds to talk to kids from private schools, talk to kids from public schools, and build bonds. That was the initial idea of MelJol. And then we had the Bombay Riots, so we worked very closely to look at how to bridge that. And from that emerged financial education. So it was a long journey in itself from MelJol.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s great to hear the foundational thinking about MelJol, and the way you started, I guess, bridging different worlds together. You talked about private school, public school, kids in the street, which I think is so important in terms of the real diversity, which is not just checking a box with one type of person but really bringing them all together in a shared sense of community. And I’m sure that you will come back later on, reflecting on the bigger issues you’ve been taking on. You know, actually, this discussion, Jeroo, reminds me of my conversation with Barbara Fredrickson, who, as you may know, is one of the foundational authors of positive psychology. And she said, “Make a sweat equity in organizing your positive emotions one day at a time.” So really building on this growing knowledge that we have now from psychology and neurosciences, I think we now have a much better standing on how we can manage our own positive energy in ourselves. So in your case, Jeroo, I’d like to understand where is your energy coming from — from your brain, your guts, your heart, or all of the above? And can you share the way in not only you manage this positive force, but even at times of failure that you already mentioned, how do you do that?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I’m thinking, and I would say a few different things. JP. Once again, like I said, my parents instilled a strong sense of duty in me. I’m not rich, huh, but I have enough, okay. And that means, if you have enough, I have always been brought up that you have to give back. So, even when I was marrying my husband, it was actually one of the first things my mother shared with him, and he was Dutch and not used to all of these things, but she said, “Listen, in our family, duty and giving back is as much important as anything else. And if you are getting married, remember that is part of the tradition that you should also help keep alive.” And I think my husband has been fantastically supportive in that. So one is the sense of duty, which I think is important, which I’ve also tried to carry forward to my kids. The other is, and probably in this day and age, it’s not right to say, I don’t know, but is a sense of spirituality. 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I don’t say religion; I strongly say spirituality in that there is a larger force. Just doing that. And the third is being the eternal optimist on however bad life is, whatever happens, happens for the best. My colleagues roll their eyes when I say that. They are like, “It happens for a reason.” I’m like, “No, it happens for the best. There must be a bigger plan.” So it’s the spirituality which influences the positivity, if I’m making sense. So it’s duty, spirituality, and the glass-is-always-full type of optimism, which comes from the spirituality. And basically, who am I? I’m just a drop in the ocean. I’m one in all the billion people that we have, the billions of people that we have. So, knowing that, essentially, we are nobody, and we just have to do our role in life.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Love it, but you have such, you’re such a strong drop in the ocean, Jeroo. You are showing us the way one drop at a time can make such a big impact. I love the fact you talk about, in a way, I think your core foundational values, like the sense of duty that your parents share with you since your early days, the spirituality, and when you think about the broader picture of the world, the impact you can have, and this incredible optimism, which I think is something I’ve heard as well from some other change makers or social entrepreneurs in the world. So, I’d like to—

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Maybe we are all a bit too optimistic, but, yes, that’s right. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Sometimes you do, but it’s better to see indeed the glass half to full to full and certainly not empty at all. You know, I’d like to understand, actually, the way you connected that inner conviction with the cause you embrace. We started talking about what you’ve done for children’s safety, financial inclusion, education — basically, to have a bigger impact on the world. Because many of us see things that we don’t accept, really that we find unacceptable, but we don’t necessarily drive the changes. So, for many of our listeners, in a way, who are truly motivated to do something about something that really revolts them, but they don’t know where to start, can you share what you did? Did you have a mentor? Did you ask the kids? Did you face resistance? How did you initiate the change yourself doing something about it?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Sorry. Yeah. So, I think with the street kids and Childline, I would totally give the credit for the idea to the kids. I’ve always believed that if you have to start something … again, this is a thing which I think, I don’t remember where I got it from, but you have two ears and one mouth, hmm? And it’s something that struck. God gave you two ears because you have to listen more than you have to speak. And I always say, this is what used to be with the street kids, we would always say, I would say, “Listen.” And so it always came from listening to the people I was working with or was interacting with would be the right way to say. Childline came from street kids saying that there were lots of uncles and didis, they call social workers, were called, but there was no one there for them in the night. So that’s the reason. So they wanted something which was 24 hours, where if they were being harassed by the police or they were unwell, there was a place they could call. And that’s where it was started. Nobody really thought the idea was possible in India to have a service like that. You’re talking about 25 years ago, or actually 27 because it took us two years to get it off the ground. And I think the important thing was that … I said, “If we have to do it…” So we actually did a survey with street kids, which is just icons, where the street kids themselves filled out the survey. Hospitals or the ambulance signal, police, they had put a stake, just those sorts of icons and what sort of help we would be needing. And then it came that healthcare was probably the biggest need of the street kids, arm the police and how to achieve it. So the whole infrastructure of Childline was built around what would be the best way for street kids. And the reason we didn’t start with a local number, then I could have started the service overnight, but it took us two years to get a toll-free number, is because the street kids said that we travel from Bombay to Goa to Delhi to Bangalore, wherever, by just getting on a train, and then we want to have something where we have the same number everywhere. 

And that was the reason why we really advocated for a toll-free number, which did take us a long time to get. So, yeah, I think my one tip and coaching tip is just listen to the people you want to do it with.


JEROO BILLIMORIA: That’s the first tip. Second is follow your intuition. There’ll always be obstacles. But don’t look at them as obstacles; look at them as challenges for learning from it. Because I could have said, “Oh, nobody wants to do this, so we are not going to do it,” or “How can we get a toll-free number?” So just persevere when you look at it. And I also always say, now this is the intellectual part of me saying, always try to have a business plan in place when you’re starting. And the business plan will change—


JEROO BILLIMORIA: —all the time, but at least you have a road, and you know where you have to go. So, again, there are several ways you can reach Rome. But you at least need to know where you have to reach. Otherwise, you’re all over the place. So you need to have that in your brain. These were just my three tips I would give. And let it flow.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Let it flow, yeah. No, fantastic advice, Jeroo. It reminds me actually a conversation I had recently with Michael Bungay Stanier. He’s really one of the best coaches I’ve heard about in the world. I’ve been actually coached by him in real life as well.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And Michael talked about his philosophy of coaching in three words. He said, “Be curious, often, and be lazy.” What he means by that is the following. Be curious in the sense of listening, listening, listening, listening, listening, as opposed to talking, talking, often in a sense that that coaching posture is something that you can repeat all the time. It could be two minutes. It could be five. It could be more. And be lazy in a sense … don’t be mistaken about this word, which is a strong word for a social entrepreneur; we are not lazy. It’s about really providing the safety in terms of connection with someone, in terms of building confidence with someone that you’d love to help so that that person can actually grow by herself to find the solutions. And in a way, when you talk about the kids, doing the surveys in the streets and telling you probably at the time what the issues were all about, and what may be giving you some cues about, “Hey, this is really what we need in terms of solution, Jeroo.” That’s why I love your deep tips because I think it resonates so much with what I’ve seen these other change makers in the world, Jeroo.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I agree. I think everyone thinks the same, not same but similar. Yeah.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You are someone obviously with a lot of humility, but I just want to share with all of you on the podcast that as you establish Childline India foundation in ’96, you grew it to be a social franchise network I think of almost a thousand partner organizations across India, and Childline handles over 18 million calls and 300,000 inventions a year. And then I think when you moved to the Netherlands, you founded an international network, Child Helpline International. So, can you tell us more about the way you achieve the next step, and the way you’ve been basically both shaping the mission, I believe that the mission of a social entrepreneur organization, it’s so critical. It is for any organization, but I think even more for such entities, and the way you’ve been finding, prioritizing your resources and building a sustainable revenue model to make it work.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Okay, so a few questions I’ll try to unpack. One is with Childline India. I don’t want to take any credit, I would have started it, but there was a phenomenal team. And I think, we partnered with the government of India, which currently pays I think 90-plus percent of the resources, which help us to scale. Because foundation money, however big the foundation is, is not really going to be able to give the support to have that sort of scale. And therefore partnering with the government not just gives the funding, but it gives access. We were able to change the laws, the policies, and all of that. So there is core sustainability. So I do want to say it’s not me; it’s the team which is doing it, and also the vision of the government to agree to take on this new model of partnering with civil society and also with corporates. So I think that was something to me which was very interesting to do. 

In terms of moving from India, where I had a very good support system and everything and then moving to the Netherlands, where I knew nobody but my husband and his family, was a really, really big and tough shift. I probably should have been sensible and worked somewhere and just done something more normal. But I had made a commitment to sort of take child helplines global before I decided to get married. And as I told you, there is this big sense of duty. So when we got married, my husband and myself said, “Okay, you don’t take a job. We’ll manage very well.” And I started Child Helpline. But starting it alone from a house was quite difficult, and also because I am going to say something you will not like, so I apologize, JP, but there was a lot of racism. And I tried to set up, and there was a lot of pushback which I got when setting up Child Helpline International. So when I initially tried to fundraise to set it up, I even had remarks like, “You’re Indian. You will take the money and give it to your family.” That’s when I was volunteering, and we were putting in money of our own. And because you earlier also asked about challenges, I think it was really, really difficult. I was lonely and sitting alone in my house and trying to get this off the ground. And that time, I requested the helpline in the Netherlands. And I said, “Would you all be willing to give me a space to sit at least. I’m not asking for anything more.” But they were scared I would take over office space because I was Indian, and appropriate it. So they did not even, weren’t even willing to give it. Now, I say all this not to say how difficult it was but to say that in the end I’m really happy to say the helpline in the Netherlands became a very active member. We were able to get all the European helplines who had tried to become a network initially and fail to come together. And by bringing all effort together, we were able to come together to see what are the best practices, models, which were there across helplines, and then co-create different versions of models, which helped Child Helpline International to scale to 100 countries in three years, 100 new helplines in three years. Otherwise, it would have taken a lot longer, and I could have gone on my hobby horse and said, “Oh, I’m not going to do this. I could have gone confrontational, but I chose to go conciliatory and chose to talk and to listen to where the fears were coming from, and address the fears. And most of them may not be conscious fears, many were subconscious fears, but then to create the neutral space for everybody to come together to showcase that. And they were amazing people, all the helplines. And there were many people who were super amazing. The Swedish helpline was very supportive from the beginning. The British helpline was very supportive. It took time, but everyone was able to come together. And I think if there’s one thing I learned through that transition, it is conflict gets you nowhere, but by listening, deep listening, to where people are coming from and building from that, is what will bring about the change we wish to see.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Fantastic insights, Jeroo, first of all, to hear about the way you’ve been, in a way, transcending your country relocation, as you moved from India to the Netherlands, and then really the way you are thinking deeply about building that neutral space, which I think is so critical, to bring together so many diverse voices who might have a very different opinion in life on what should be done and how it should be done, etc. And I believe that’s certainly one of the key success factors I’ve heard you talking about in different settings on the way you build that impact, that scale. A little bit of follow up question, Jeroo, if I may, on the way you build, in a way, a revenue model, a resources model that helped you scaling to the 100 countries. Because it’s very mysterious for people on this call, on this podcast, to really understand, well, so Jeroo didn’t have much money, I think, and I think you’re going to confirm that—


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You did not, right? It’s always frugal innovation. How did you do that?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I think this is where I would like to introduce a lot of people talk about systems change and having the, how do you call it, systems change outcome. There are two ways to scaling, sorry. 

One way to scaling is the traditional model, like Save the Children, Plan, Oxfam, where you have a big model and you build a multi-billion-dollar model, and then Europe collects all the money, and then it distributes it to the south, correct?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: That’s the traditional model which is there. The model which I really use, and I think works very well, at least it works for me, I am a bad fundraiser, so I’ll start with that. It works for me is where you build on existing infrastructure. Even in Childline, that’s why we created this social franchise, a brand handle. It’s collaborative, what I call collaborative systems change mindsets, or a collaborative approach, where instead of saying, “You need to be big to get to the same table,” I’m saying you need to build collective power, and bring about the change through collective power, community power, and through sharing of resources. So Child Helplines budget when we started, and I think till I handed over, it was not more than a million when we scaled. And I think even now it doesn’t go beyond 1.5 or 2. 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: And the main reason is that we did not ever say we would fund the helplines. What we always said we would do is we would contact the local resources, find the local resources, work with the government to help set up the helpline. So, take any country, if we were traditionally to go there, it would not be as imposing. We would find out who is already working in the child protection ecosystem. Get all of them together, and ask them do they think, firstly, they need it, and then do a needs assessment to see what would be the right sort of thing, if at all it was needed? Have the government, the donors, the civil society, all together at the table to decide what would be the best way, after the results have come in. So if you see, the whole premise is not, “I have an idea, and I’m going to tell you what to do.” The premise is, “There may be this concept. Do you think you need it? Let’s first research. Let’s find out. And let’s co-create. These are some of the principles of collaborative systems change which I am talking about, where you basically never impose. You go in on an inclusive approach, where you convene, you connect, you co-create, then you calibrate the results. You see how to get them going, you know? And then you celebrate successes. But essentially, the whole example for scale for me, be it with child helplines, or later with Aflatoun or CYFI, or even now with Catalyst, is the belief that you don’t need to be big to succeed, that if you get a lot of small players together and listen to them and build on their strengths, collective change can be much faster.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, it’s so inspiring. You’ve been so articulate to share your wisdom, Jeroo, of many, many years of building that systems change. And I think there’s a lot of learning as well beyond social entrepreneurs here. Because I believe that in the corporate world as well, by the way, there’s a lot more we can do as corporations to be also committed players of that systemic change. And I think you have actually a number of cooperations as well involved side-by-side with NGOs and governments to do that. We’ll come back to that later on the corporate world, but it’s really, really exciting. Talking about scaling, you’ve been scaling all of your life your social enterprise. There’s this book I read a little while ago from Reid Hoffman called Master of Scale, where he said, I believe, that a moment almost always chooses you, but to seize that moment, you have to move fast. In a way, can you actually give us your own perspective on what does it mean to move fast in your own social environment? How do you decide to take a step to go from 1 to 100 as opposed to 1 to 2? Because you are someone who was always looking at the next big, big, big step to move the impact to the next level up.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Sure. I’ll now talk … Actually, we are currently discussing this with Catalyst 2030, where, JP, you’re also a member, correct?

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yes, and a pleasure to be part of that. 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So in Catalyst 2030, when it was started with leading social entrepreneurs like myself, initially, we had thought we would work on certain issues. 

But what came very strongly as the network was growing and we were listening is that members wanted country chapters because a global movement didn’t really help someone in a town in India, or who was working in a district in Kenya, or even for that matter working in Nairobi. It didn’t have direct relevance. So within a short time in the incubation period, we realized that we had to shift our total strategy to focus much more on developing country chapters. Now, we could have gone that way, which would be the traditional way, say, “Okay, we are going to put in this huge pot of money, and then we are going to do it.” But our budget in Catalyst is still very, very low, as always, you know? So what did we do? We went back to the membership. And this is why I say the moment has to also link to strategy. I’m a firm believer you have to have strategy. And it’s not all Kumbalaya, you know?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: And love for all. So we said, “Okay, if we are listening to the membership, there is a need to have local chapters, and there’s a need to create a local identity. We have limited resources; how are we going to create it?” So then we took a mapping, and we said, “Let’s look at the countries where A, we can influence government policy more easily; B, we have sufficient members to be able to take this on; and C, we have someone who’s willing to take on the leadership. So with that, we sort of kept certain criteria in mind. And then we said we will start with developing maybe 10 country chapters in the EU. That was our logic, correct?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Because you can’t just run. We just use this logic, and we actually developed 20 country chapters because that’s where the momentum and the movement was. And some are strong; others are still fledgling, really fledgling. But we were able to see what then were the principles to help us to take to the next. So now we will consolidate the 20 or maybe 25 because a few want to join more. Consolidate, we create a structure. We learn from them. We tell them what they think we should be doing. We’ll create the whole infrastructure, learning from these 20 — 5 more who want to do it, 25, let’s say — and then we will know what we need to do. Once we have this infrastructure in place, it’s not we who will take it. We’ll have these country chapters telling other country chapters, and those telling others. So it’s not the secretariat doing everything; it’s working with the people who have helped co-create the baños, so to speak, to spread the word. And therefore, hopefully, in three years, we will have, if not earlier, we hope we can have 100 country chapters also. And you were part of the movement, so you can watch and also give advice and help us. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I will definitely look forward to spending more time in learning from this incredible community, Jeroo, Catalyst 2030, which is a very exciting change movement, I would say that you’ve been inspiring. Now I’d like to shift gears a bit, Jeroo, and talk about, in a way, your own personal skills, capabilities, strengths, etc. Because clearly, it takes someone special to do all of that at a mega scale. So can you share what you think, when you’ve been told, I’m sure, as you’ve been growing up and doing all the things? What are your unique strengths and talents that you believe really serve you really well to become a social entrepreneur? And in a way, kind of elaborate on that, on some kind of advice as well, for other change makers, emerging change makers, on the way they should think about their strengths, talents, to bring the best in the world?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Can I look at it from another point, JP?

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Please do. Please do.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: If you don’t mind? 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: My parents, and my mother always said, “Don’t necessarily build things based on your strength because that also comes from a point of arrogance, and the one thing I don’t want is for you ever to have that. Is actually built from your weaknesses.”


JEROO BILLIMORIA: So, if you look at the whole networks, and if you look at it, I already said I’m a terrible fundraiser, right? 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: I never wanted to build an organization … and I don’t really like asking for money, even if it’s for a cause or an issue. And honestly, we need to shift the whole funding world. That’s a different talk we’ll have at a later stage. So it was always trying to create something which is where I don’t want to have to do that, so how can you create structures where there is at the minimal? Another thing is very often change makers … there are two ways you can go. When you are very articulate, you can speak. You can lead with your personality, or you can lead with strategy and with putting other people forward. I’m talking now, but it’s really not something I like, being in the limelight, so the models which have been created are where there are many other people who are in the limelight. And if I have to, I will pitch in. So if you attended the Catalyst general assembly, you’ll rarely hear me talking. We have two co-chairs, and we have everyone else who is sharing what they are doing. So, again, it’s leadership not with … and that’s contrary to the normal model of leadership, where the leader has to be upfront, but it is I think, and it will over the years become, I think, a more organic leadership. And it also comes from a deep-rooted ideological belief that you’re just one in a billion, and everyone has a strength, and you portray it. So all I’m trying to say is that, for me, and I think it gives happiness, is that it’s not looking at the skills, it’s looking at where you compensate where you’re not good for. Another thing is I am chronically dyslexic, so you will see 10 spelling mistakes in any email I send you also, JP. You will see them. I know that, so then I would never bother with … I try not to make the mistakes, but, again, then I have other people who are much better taking that and leading that and making all of that happen, you know? And it’s not because I’m uncomfortable with my weaknesses. I’m talking about them. But when you build from knowing what you’re not good at you build much stronger. 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Am I making sense?

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Yeah, no, I love the fact you disputed my question, actually. Because I fully understand where you are coming from in many ways. You’re such a humble, first of all, leader that you never want to put yourself ahead of anyone else. And I believe, like you, that understanding your own areas of development, weaknesses, whatever you want to call that so that in your organization you create you’re really having stronger people than yourself in many of the aspects that you need to build whatever it is, an organization, a social enterprise, etc., is critical, absolutely, not to be blind about how much you can achieve yourself. But on the other hand, I will also challenge a bit your response saying I think you have some wonderful strengths, you don’t want to talk about them necessarily, but the way you are able to inspire a movement, the way you are able to basically create that systemic change, and the way you describe it by creating that neutral space, is pretty unique. And I would call that strengths and unique talents to Jeroo. 


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: And yes, you need more people around yourself for finance, for many other things, absolutely. And we all need others who are stronger than ourselves. But I love your response in many ways, showing, in a way, the deal of our strengths and all the other aspects that need stronger people than yourselves to build a change. Let me build a bit on, of course, your own deep knowledge. As you know, I’m trying myself to be a practitioner for the last several years, my own foundation, family foundation, Live for Good, that unleashed the potential of hundreds of young social entrepreneurs in my home country in France. And I’m always asking myself, what are the critical skills, attitudes, mindsets, we should pick when we support a cohort of new entrepreneurs. So, you know, we’ve got basically every year a couple of new cohorts that are starting. If you are sitting in our own foundation at the moment, where we have to pick among many, many applicants, unfortunately, we have to make some choices, and it’s unfortunate, what would you look for, and which questions would you ask to those young people who want to change the world?


One is I always look for passion, so how deep is the passion, and the perseverance, and then strategy. I think one of the things I firmly believe is you need to have a roadmap to wherever you’re going. So that’s where it’s the emotional and the intellectual, which to me are both very important, what I talked about earlier, you know? 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Yeah. So I would look at those three things. But then I would also ask you, and I’ve read about your foundation online, but I think what may also be interesting is to look at how can you probably shift your business model to make it inclusive for everybody and to create an inclusive cohort. So maybe that’s something we can both brainstorm and see if we can make that happen.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: It’s a wonderful question and something I’m debating with my, not just my team at the foundation but with many other stakeholders, including existing alumni of entrepreneurs, we have more than 260 of them now across the country, to truly change ourselves about the way we have to broaden and deepen the inclusion of those entrepreneurs. And, by the way, by design, we try to mix very different types of young people, people who are graduates with some business school, engineering schools, and people who dropped from schools, kids who’d been also coming from the suburbs of big cities in France or coming from rural areas, or some of them having a handicap, being disabled as well. And the wonderful thing that happens is when you mix them all as a cohort of 50 of them, and they come together three times a year physically for full week. The experience you get out of that, and the sense of community we build, is just wonderful. But I’m certainly looking forward to do a much better job, Jeroo, with your wisdom on the way you can shoot for a broader deeper inclusion because that’s a big goal we have indeed.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Yeah. Because your vision of your foundation is really, really powerful. Yeah, I really admire it.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Oh, wow, you are so kind, given what you’ve achieved. But wonderful coaching, Jeroo. I take it every day, by the way. And I’d like clearly to come back a little bit to the movement you’ve been talking about, Catalyst 2030. Because to be brutally honest, how do you expect this movement to have a huge impact when many of the governments, civil society stakeholders, cooperate and others, are falling behind their commitments when it comes to reach the 17 United Nation SDG goals, right, as we call them? We saw what happened with COP26, and again, I want to be someone optimist, okay, we’re seeing also the glass more than half full, like you, and there were some positive moves, but when you look at the 17 goals one by one, where we are with the pandemic, getting us backwards in some of them, how do you see that movement helping driving the change?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: I think it’s an excellent question, JP, and it’s something I always think about. So, over here, I’d say if you have any ideas, please, please share. As you know, and you were part of we did this movement by consultation, where we consulted all our members, and I think one thing which emerged very strongly which wasn’t there before, is that if the movement has to really achieve the SDGs, it needs to be taken seriously. What we need to do is we actually need to create almost like a sector voice. And that’s something which is missing, okay. So I think the first thing which has emerged from this whole consultation is how do we create a strong sector voice? And what do we need to do for that? So that is the first thing which we need to do because no change can come if you don’t have a seat at the table, correct? And I think that’s one of the big drawbacks which is happening. Even with everything that’s happened with COVID, the government really hasn’t listened to the people at the frontline who have done the most difficult jobs.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: You’re right, yes. 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So I think that is one big shift that Catalyst needs to be doing because if we all come together, as I said, our collective voice is stronger than individual voice, right?


So that I think is going to be the first where we can do that. And I don’t think we are there yet, because we are still very new and young, but to develop this whole sector of social innovation and entrepreneurship, I think that’s something which we need to look at. And basically saying, “This is the front line. This is the group of people you need to listen to before you make a policy.” If the government is making a policy on internet, or on whatever, they will consult all the big companies, right? But they don’t consult the people who are actually doing the work in the social field. So I think that is thing which—

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That’s a very good point, yeah.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So if that starts happening, then we are opening up a communication bridge. And slowly, like we were talking earlier, once the communication bridges open, things happen much faster, correct?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: So that is the first thing. The second thing is actually the whole funding system is broken. I’m being extremely blunt over here. There is a huge power dynamic between the way the funders fund and also they interact with social entrepreneurs. And that needs to change. If there is no change over there, it’s not going to work. So if people are asking for … Like you said, when your 50 entrepreneurs come together, there is a power which happens with changes them for good, correct?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: And for their whole life. But if it were not your own foundation, and you went to a foundation and asked them for money, they would say, “Okay, tell us, what did the 50 people actually do? Give us an impact matrix.” That won’t work.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, no, it won’t work, for sure. 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So the whole questions that are being asked are not really what is needed. The whole foundation system needs to change, and I think that’s something that Catalyst is very actively working on. And again, that’s something, because you are in this unique position of being a foundation person and seeing that not everything is quantifiable, you can help with. But I think that’s a big change which will come. So, one, getting a seat at the table. Two, changing the whole funding ecosystem to make it much, much more, how do you say, much, much more useful to actually helping the people at the frontline. And three, I think working with the corporate sector, not just with CSR but with sort of seeing how they can work with entrepreneurs across the whole value chain. That’s another thing which we can look at. And finally, feeding all of that back into academics. So I think these are the things which Catalyst is trying to do. And I say it’s system change. It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow; it may happen in three years. But once that changes, the SDGs will be achieved because there’s a whole narrative which has changed. And with that, yeah, it will happen.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Very, very clear roadmap, Jeroo, and very, very specific indeed. And just as we are coming almost to an end, a couple of more questions, I just want to follow up on this one, on your own expectation of the corporate world when it comes to social stability, as you know well, the world has changed a lot, I think, the last couple of years. And I don’t think there’s any more acceptance of kind of a fake CSR, if you see what I mean. It’s going to be authentic. It’s going to be real. It’s got to be connected to the real expertise of any company in the world where they do their best. And how they can apply some of the best they do to help solving some of the problems of the world, of course, not all of them. So how would you encourage a lot of business leaders listening to the podcast on what they could do as corporates to join forces here?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: So, there are a few things. One, at the systemic level, and I think this is what … we haven’t done it now, but we will be doing it with Catalyst is looking at can we not just have a financial balance sheet but an impact balance sheet, which is what are the externalities the country is doing. So as shareholders, I would like to ask that, “How are you doing it with the environment? How are you doing it with social?” All of that.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Making ESG real, in a way, right? 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Making ESG real and making it part of the, how do you say, the reporting, the financial reporting. So, not just the financial but the ESG reporting. So I think that is one thing which I think at an ecosystem level we are pushing, and I think it needs to be pushed much, much more. 

The other is, for several corporates along the value chain, they can work with social entrepreneurs. We need to see how can they work with social entrepreneurs if you’re a clothing manufacturer, so we have an entrepreneur looking how are you able to make sure that actually everything that you’re doing is socially right, there’s no child labor, etc., etc. So, reflecting on the whole value chain process and making sure that it is not exploitative, correct? 


JEROO BILLIMORIA: So you can’t say that, and I don’t want to name any one company, that’s why I’ve stayed away from names, but that company is doing this but actually it’s exploiting its workers by not paying the minimum wage. So sort of making sure that the whole way the companies operate is fair and sustainable. So if a company is giving 100,000 jobs of which 80,000 are not at minimum wage but at bare minimum wage but no benefits, it’s doesn’t work. And then they are doing the same to their suppliers. So that whole thing needs to change. That’s the second. And the third is if they are doing CSR and it’s not directly linked to their area of work but they have a separate foundation, because many companies are doing that, to sort of make sure that the foundations are not giving like one-year grants, which are of no use, but actually working with the entrepreneurs to create long-term programs. You cannot build a company plant in a year. You need seven years before they are going to pay off. Everyone knows that, right? Gestation periods, that’s why you have depreciation. So, number one for shareholders, making sure that you have proper accounting and impact accounting of everything; two, across the value chain; and three, for CSR-based foundations not directly linked to the company’s work, making sure that they give unrestricted, co-created grants.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Okay, very clear and very great, great list of commitments and recommendation, I will say, the corporate world and looking forward to propagating that dialogue between the corporate world and social entrepreneurs, Jeroo. Now, really last couple of questions. Yes, sorry.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: And my last, which is very personal, if you don’t mind, JP?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Is respecting social entrepreneurs and their choices.


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Because very often, there is very lack of respect. People don’t realize that the entrepreneurs could have got as good a job in the corporate world but have chosen to take and work in the social sector.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I more than agree with you, yeah. I see so many incredible talents. 

JEROO BILLIMORIA: And I think that lack of respect is something which should also change that mindset.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: But I’m optimist like you, Jeroo. And I see the world changing and looking a lot more the social entrepreneurs, I think some people call them the positive impact entrepreneurs as well in the world, with a different lens. So I think the expectation of the world is changing, and hopefully, those social entrepreneurs are going to inspire a lot more people. Couple of last questions, really, Jeroo, because I don’t want to keep you too busy when you have so much to do to the world with Catalyst 2030 and more. We discussed a bit about the energy before, but, clearly, with all the challenges that the world is facing and where you’re getting aged yourself, do you ever get exhausted? Do you feel like the problems are just too big to fix any days? So how do you keep that positivity on tough days, the tough moments or failures, as you tackle such big issues?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Balance. Balance, and not taking your … I keep saying you don’t take yourself too seriously, right? At least I don’t. So I think that’s the first thing. But balance, I think, family. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I still have a lot of responsibilities with my family, my children. So I think there is balance, and I think that’s really, really, really important, having the balance between your professional and your personal life, having amazing friends, having family, I think. So if you have a bad day and you’ve worked for something and it doesn’t happen, it’s nice to be able to pick up the phone and just share it with a friend, share it with your husband, your family, my brother. I think that’s, to me, very, very important, having that support system. And I am who I am because I have a phenomenal support system. I’m really blessed with that, touch wood.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: No, it’s so critical, I agree with you, to have that support system around ourselves, particularly for, again, all those change makers who are doing such hard things every day in their lives. 

I’d like to finish with the last question, Jeroo, which is what would be, to close this call, the top three must-do that you would urge any social entrepreneurs or wannabe social entrepreneurs, maybe someone in this call is saying, “Wow, I’d love to become a social entrepreneur” after listening to Jeroo. What would be the top three must-do that they should plan to positively change the world? What would be your top three list to do?

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Well, the first would be, be happy with yourself.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: That’s a great start.



JEROO BILLIMORIA: Because I think when you have that basic inner peace, it’s something which is very important to getting going. Two, be crazy and take the boldest decisions and just run with it. The more people tell you, the easier, you know?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: Okay. So, the crazier you are, probably the more likely. And three, you are to succeed, I really believe so. Like when you had your idea, I’m sure people said it won’t happen. And then you make it happen, correct, JP?


JEROO BILLIMORIA: And three, I think, well, for me, it is just persevere. And don’t take all the failures personally. I do also; I’m not trying to deny. Sometimes a good cry helps. But I think just, okay, it’s part of life. And you can’t have everything positive always. But it’s only when you have the negative can you appreciate the positive. So, be happy. That’s what I’ll say.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: I love it. What a wonderful closing, Jeroo. It’s been really delightful to have this conversation with you and continue the dialogue with you, of course, in your broader community of Community 23. But before closing, Jeroo, I’d like to do what I’m used to do, which is trying to capture, which is really hard, three takeaways from this very vibrant conversation. So I’m going to give it a shot. So, bear with me, because I’m sure that all of you taking other notes might agree or disagree is my top three kind of takeaways. I want to start with kind of your own words of positive energy. You said it’s about having a strong sense of duty, really building on spirituality, and having an eternal optimism. That’s my first one. The second one, it’s about the point of view, which I think is so key, conflicts gets you nowhere. Be conciliatory, create a neutral space for all voices to be heard. And the third one, really had a challenge to pick between a few favorites, but I would say, I’ve tried to merge together — be happy, be crazy, have passion, bring a strategy, and persevere all the time, and then you will grow as a change maker in the world. So with that, I’d like really from the bottom of my heart to thank you so much, Jeroo. I hope you had some good time having this exchange together. And I really look forward to hearing from you not just in this forum but way beyond on the impact you’re having in the world. So thank you so much. And for all the listeners, thank you for tuning in, and please, let’s keep the feedback coming in. Thank you, Jeroo.

JEROO BILLIMORIA: Thank you. And thanks a million. It was a great conversation. It was lovely chatting with you, and I have a lot of ideas I hope we can follow up on. Thanks. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: We will. Thank you, Jeroo. Thanks.