Queen's University

Solving the world’s problems ... in a Sandbox

Desh Deshpande, PhD’79, set aside his boyhood dream of becoming a teacher when he pursued business opportunities. But now this IT pioneer, serial entrepreneur, and visionary philanthropist is intent on sharing his knowledge – and his good fortune – with others.

Barack Obama had high hopes in July 2010 when he created the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The U.S. President was looking for ideas on how to forge better links between researchers and bold corporate minds who can bring new technology to the marketplace. It’s all about creating jobs and solving problems.

Jaishree and Desh DeshpandeJaishree and Desh Deshpande

So Obama couldn’t have made a wiser choice than he did when he named Queen’s grad Gururaj (“Desh”) Deshpande, as one of the co-chairs of this 26-member blue-ribbon panel, which includes some of America’s top business minds.

“I was surprised to be asked to serve on the Council,” says Desh. “I’m also very honoured.”

It’s obvious how and why the 61-year-old Boston-based businessman and social entrepreneur came to be on the President’s radar.

The self-effacing Deshpande insists he’s just a regular guy – a “crackpot who hit the jackpot,” as he says with a laugh. “For most of my life, I’ve found opportunities as I’ve gone along.”

Maybe, but there’s a lot more to Desh Deshpande’s story than that.

When you talk with him there’s no missing that he’s a guy who bubbles with ideas and energy, yet his feet remain planted firmly on the ground – a fact that explains his popularity as a motivational speaker. People listen when he talks. As a writer for the website Oneindia noted, “Deshpande has a knack [for] spotting the next wave of technology just a wee bit earlier than most [of his] competitors.”

Deshpande has always been results oriented. Born in Hubli, a city in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, he grew up in a traditional middle class home. His father was a government labour commissioner and a very busy man. His mother raised Desh, his brother and two sisters. As a boy, Desh liked tinkering with radios. He studied electrical engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Madras) before coming to Canada in 1973 to earn a Master’s degree at UNB. When his advisor went on sabbatical to Australia, Desh taught for a year in his place. Having loved the experience, he went on to earn his PhD at Queen’s. “I always thought I’d get my doctorate and then return home to teach,” he recalls.

Deshpande bunked in the grad students’ residence in the old Students’ Memorial Union building for a while before settling in at Elrond College, the student-owned ’70s-era high-rise co-op on Princess Street.

Queen’s and Kingston were a lot smaller in the late 1970s, and while he enjoyed his student days here, Desphande missed India. He wrote home every week, and continued to muse about finding a teaching job once he’d completed his doctorate.

“It was obvious to me that Desh was very bright and gifted. I thought that he’d do great things,” recalls Professor Emeritus (Electrical Engineering) Paul Wittke, MSc’62, PhD’66, who was Deshpande’s thesis supervisor. Wittke’s instincts were sound.

Deshpande’s luck turned in 1990, the year he founded ­Cascade Communications, a pioneer in the frame-relay technology business. To say the company did well is an understatement.

After graduating from Queen’s, Deshpande and his wife Jaishree – whom he’d met at IIT and married in 1980 – relocated to Toronto. There Deshpande went to work with Codex Corporation, a Motorola subsidiary that built modems.

The intriguing details of Deshpande’s early business career can be found on the Internet. As he puts it, “One thing led to another.”

Deshpande experienced highs and lows after he and his wife threw caution to the wind in 1984, packed up their two young sons, and moved to Boston, then an emerging high-tech sector hotspot. The road to success wasn’t smooth or easy. On one memorable occasion Desh advised his family to be extra careful because their health insurance had run out and there was no money to renew it.

Deshpande’s luck turned in 1990, the year he founded ­Cascade Communications, a pioneer in the frame-relay technology business. To say the company did well is an understatement. When Ascend Communications bought out ­Cascade in 1997 for $3.7 billion (U.S.), more than 80 per cent of all Internet traffic was ­reportedly “moving through Cascade technology.”

Building on his success, Deshpande and some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched an even more successful high-tech venture; Sycamore Networks was a ­pioneer in the field of “intelligent optical networking” technology. When that company went public in 1999, the value of shares skyrocketed, rising in value 386 per cent on the first day of the IPO and quickly reaching a market cap of $50 billion. Deshpande’s 21 per cent share of Sycamore stock made him wealthy enough that that in 2000 his name appeared on the “Forbes 400” list of America’s richest people.

Since then, Desphpande has started or invested in eight more successful companies. That’s one reason he came to the attention of President Obama. There’s another.

One of the successes Desh Deshpande is most proud of is a meal program that feeds 1.3 million school kids each day.: One of the successes Desh is most proud of is a "kitchen program" that feeds 1.3 Indian school kids each day. 

Despite all his success in the business world, Deshpande never lost his enthusiasm for teaching. Both he and his wife Jaishree have a finely honed sense of social awareness and believe – like fellow entrepreneurs Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett – in ­“giving back.” That’s why, in 1996, they established the Deshpande Foundation, which began giving grants to deserving non-profit ­organizations.

This initiative served to heighten Deshpande’s philanthropic spirit, and when he turned 50 in 2000, he decided he no longer wanted to spend all his time being an entrepreneur. “I’d had enough of working 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “When I thought about it, I knew what I really wanted to do was to help make opportunities for younger people. I wanted to become a coach.”

With that goal in mind, he diverted $20 million in funding for a new initiative: the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at the MIT School of Engineering. The idea was to provide small, short-term grants to new technology being developed in MIT research labs. “We fund things no sane economic investor would,” Deshpande once told a case writer from the Harvard Business School. “We essentially place small bets and see what happens.”

By 2009 it had given out a total of $10 million to more than 80 projects, 23 of which had taken root and attracted more than $300 million in venture capital. This success inspired the Deshpandes to launch yet another initiative. As Desh recalled in a 2007 article that he wrote for Silicon India magazine, “In the process of working with the Center at MIT, we realized that ­innovation has a role to play, not only in the most sophisticated technology, but [also] in solving every problem in the world.”

To test that theory, Desh and Jaishree invested $10 million to start an initiative they called the Social Entrepreneurship Sandbox (SES). The basic concept behind the SES was simple enough – to create ideal conditions for “social entrepreneurship” by adhering to four core principles: all projects had to be local; SES advisors would work hand-in-hand with grant recipients; the emphasis would be on nurturing new initiatives and helping them grow to scale; and, SES advisors would push for the adoption of sound business practices.

There’s a lot more to the SES than that, of course, but the bottom line is that it represented a fresh ­approach to some old and difficult problems.

The Deshpandes chose India as their testing ground, in particular the Hubli area, where Desh was born and where his family still lives.

Not surprisingly, the SES has had its share of ups and downs. Along the way it has spawned ­various spin-off ventures aimed at dealing with specific problems and concerns that have arisen. Some of these have worked, some have not. ­Deshpande, ever the dreamer with his feet firmly planted on the ground, says he expected that would be the case.

One of the successes that he’s most proud of is a “kitchen program” that was set up to make sure hungry school children had at least one good meal each day. That venture has grown to the point where it’s now feeding 1.3 million children each day. ­Astoundingly, the total annual cost is only about $30 per child – that’s less than 10 cents per day.

“If you can earn a PhD and still retain enough common sense to recognize problems and see practical ways to solve those problems, you can do a lot of good in this world. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Deshpande says this is just one example of the kind of results that are possible if you can think outside the proverbial box when dealing with familiar problems. It has also led him to launch a similar initiative, a home-grown SES in the Massachusetts industrial towns of Lowell and Lawrence; both have fallen victim to economic hard times.

While the kind of problems Deshpande is wrestling with and trying to devise creative solutions for these days are anything but easy, he’s not discouraged. Not in the least. He’s determined to try his best to succeed where politicians and so many others have failed. He feels that the combination of his life experience and the benefits of the quality education he received have put him in a good position to achieve positive results.

“If you can earn a PhD and still retain enough common sense to recognize problems and see practical ways to solve those problems, you can do a lot of good in this world. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

You can read Desh Deshpande’s article “An inspiring approach to bridging the gap,” online in Silicon India Magazine (September 2007),www.siliconindia.com

For more information about the Deshpande Foundation, please visit www.deshpandefoundation.org

Queen's Alumni Review, 2011 Issue #4Queen's Alumni Review
2011 Issue #4
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