The next time you taste a scoop of chilled Arun Ice cream on a hot summer day, you should thank Ambar Sinha, our next pathbreaker, for his work in South India’s Co-operative milk sector helping farmers with clean technology.

But Ambar didn’t stop there. Wanting to make an impact on a larger scale, he applied for and was selected as a Smart City Fellow, through which he has been applying technology to address real problems at the grassroot level.

Ambar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his unconventional path from the villages of South India to Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Ambar, can you tell us about your background?

I was born in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, where I spent my entire school life. My father was in the Merchant Navy and my mother was an English Professor. I was fortunate to have a great childhood at home as well as in school. My dad’s father was a bureaucrat (IAS) and my mom’s father was an academician, so I was exposed to the best of both sides. This made me understand the importance of scale and impact at an early age. 

Though I was just average in academics I took part in a lot of extra-curricular activities such as debates, quizzes and NCC. In fact, I initially grappled with nuances of good debating but eventually started enjoying and learning from my experiences. I was also a part of the school’s basketball team and played at the national and state level. Spurred on by my dad who had a telescope from his sailing days, I joined the school’s astronomy club in 8th standard. My science teacher, also the head of the club, taught us all about the stars and space in such a simple and interesting way that I started loving science. Unbeknown to me at the time, these activities played a very important role in shaping my personal and career choices.

My dad retired from the merchant navy to spend more time with his family and set up his own logistics and cold storage business. Seeing him sacrifice so much and become an entrepreneur influenced me to look at the big picture and planted an entrepreneurial outlook in me.

What did you study?

In 2005-2006, class 9, there wasn’t a lot of awareness about careers other than Engineering, Medical and CA. There was hardly any focus on potential careers in Design, Law, Sports, Defence, etc. Although, we had a few career counseling sessions by British Council at school, they weren’t very helpful. Fortunately, I learnt a lot about these alternate careers from my brother, who was in medical school in Bombay, and had friends in these fields. I even spoke to my dad’s peers to understand better.

I took PCMB in 11th and 12th and was very lucky to visit the local hospital, courtesy of my school alumni, that allowed us to experience a day in the life of a doctor. Seeing doctors working with cadavers in the lab was a blessing in disguise, which made me realize that medicine wasn’t a career for me. The school even organized visits to local industries and I loved the work engineers did.

Eventually, my mind was made up and I decided to take up mechanical engineering at Manipal Institute of Technology.

How was the experience studying at Manipal?

Manipal had a great alumni network and amazing infrastructure. My 4 years at MIT were spent in lots of extra-curricular activities. Although I started out in 7 clubs, I narrowed my focus and ended up leading 2 clubs, Red-X and SAE (Society for Automotive Engineers).

Red-X was a unique as it is the country’s only collegiate socio-adventure club. We organized treks, camps and adventure sports for all students and provided an outlet for students who would otherwise have difficulty accessing these activities. We then used all these funds to fund the education of 35-40 underprivileged children each year through the club’s charity arm – Disha. Through Disha, we provided an opportunity for students to volunteer at these schools to teach life skills to these children.

As a part of the automotive club, I organized events, workshops, seminars and conferences for students interested in pursuing a career in this field. In fact, as a part of SAE, I even worked with the college’s BAJA team on their race car.

Clubs were a great outlet for me to build un-tradable life skills such as leadership and networking.

Through my networking initiatives and contacts I started getting exposed to the growing startup environment. Since Manipal didn’t have placements and internships specific to startups, a friend and I decided to launch an initiative to connect opportunities in these startups with prospective students. By my 4th year we had a database of 400 startup companies and had helped 80 students land internships. This was my own little startup!

I even continued to play basketball in college and was a part of the team till the time I graduated. 

BTW, regarding academics, even though I wasn’t acing my subjects, I was making sure I kept my grades just okay through college.

 How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

When I started my engineering, I remember telling my dad that I’ll be doing a Master’s and a PhD when I graduate. That completely changed in my 2nd year when I did an internship at Skoda that summer.

Having worked with automobiles and loving the subjects I studied, I used my network to land an internship at Skoda in Aurangabad – which is a major hub for automobile manufacturing in the country. I worked on the logistics and supply chain for the Audi Q5, A6 and A4 lines. It was amazing to see the processes we had learnt in the class in action. But honestly, I found the work extremely monotonous and uninteresting. My impression of the work as an outsider was in total contrast to what I was doing.

It was through this that I decided a a core engineering career was not for me! I wanted to do something more meaningful and relatable to the real world. 

At Manipal, every student in the final year had to either do in-plant training or work on a research proposal under a professor for 6 months and then do a final presentation. Most students typically take up projects at big companies. With my exposure to the startup world I was very keen on doing my training/internship in a startup working on unique technologies in the renewable energy space.

It was then that I remembered having met 2 entrepreneurs during networking events while working on my startup in Manipal. They were from MIT, Boston, and were planning to start a Cleantech venture in India. They were trying to solve a major problem in the dairy storage and cold chain in rural India. I reached out to them and they were thrilled with my enthusiasm. I was in honest in telling them that I had limited technical knowledge but being from a very different mindset than that of Indian entrepreneurs, they hired me for my desire to make an impact.

Tell us about your career path

Promethean, the cleantech startup I worked with hired me right after my internship and right from day 1 was thrown in the deep end. The dairy farming sector in rural India was plagued by the issue of milk-refrigeration. Most villages are reeling under an acute power shortage which has sapped the momentum off dairy farming. With intermittent power supply and frequent power cuts, keeping milk fresh becomes either very difficult or very costly or both. If the milk gets spoiled before reaching the dairy, the farmer is not paid. This in turns deals a debilitating blow to the income of farmers. Not surprising then, the dairy farming industry trips on power pangs. Promethean realized the possibilities of tapping into the power grid when it was on and storing energy to keep milk cold even when there was no power. Promethean Power’s milk-chiller technology uses an innovative thermal battery that saves cold energy instead of electricity. The company launched a manufacturing and testing facility in India in 2013 to commercialize its thermal energy storage-based approach. 

Our pilot products for Hatsun dairy (Arun ice cream) were failing in the field. Our product was meant to eliminate the need for diesel generator in the field but in fact, it ended up consuming so much power that it was cheaper to use a DG!

We risked losing the contract if this continued. My bosses sent me down to Tamil Nadu and I spent the next 3 months living in villages and working with these dairy farmers to understand where the problem was. I gained volumes from involving them in the process! The firm then sent me to Boston to work at the world’s largest cleantech incubator – Greentown Labs, where I worked with the engineers to design an efficient and cheaper milk chilling product for them. Soon, we had fixed all issues and sold over 100 units to the farmers and saved over 4,00,000 liters of diesel that year.

Eventually as the firm shifted to full-scale production, I helped them set up their factory and knew my work was done. I yearned for new challenges.

Fish Amigo – During my time at Promethean I made friends with a person who was starting a hyperlocal delivery startup that delivered frozen, ready to eat seafood at your doorstep. This firm was based in Pune and I saw that he would need someone to help him establish his processes, logistics and customers. 

Taking a leap of faith, I worked with them for a year and helped them increase their customers significantly by experimenting with unique marketing techniques  all while optimizing their supply chain by introducing decentralized warehousing.

Although I worked here only for a year, I loved the role I had. I was the de facto head of the firm as the founders were often occupied with fund raising. Wanting to learn more about growing businesses and scaling ideas, I decided to make another leap to consulting.

ICT – In 2016, I spoke to a number of people and realized that the role I was looking for would not be possible at a huge consulting firm such as PwC, McKisney, etc., atleast not right away. I was 24 and eager to achieve a lot very fast. I realized that going to a smaller consulting firm would give me these opportunities more quickly.

Again tapping into my network, I found a job as a Manager at the largest Indian infrastructure consulting firm. My first few months were a huge let down as I spent most time in paperwork and documentation and barely ever met clients and sourced deals. 

However, when I did start meeting clients, I realized that it was necessary for me to go through the grind. It was a big shift for me to go from startups to a firm with a $45 million turnover that operated in 50 countries. I was interacting with government clients and partners from all over the globe and I loved it! In addition to India, I even got multiple opportunities to close deals in South East Asia and East Africa and spent a lot of time there.

In 2017, I convinced my management at ICT to venture into a new sector: Smart Cities. The Indian Government was developing 100 smart cities under the $30 billion India Smart Cities Mission. The ICT board was initially reluctant to digress from traditional cash cow urban projects and felt it risky to compete against entrenched players. Determined, I won the Board’s support by creating a sector breakthrough plan that included forming joint ventures, technology sharing and bidding for geography specific projects. Surprisingly, instead of a senior consultant, they picked me to lead the charge!

My first challenge was to win my team’s trust. These were experienced professionals who had run traditional urban projects for last 20 years. They could not relate to Smart Cities – integrating infrastructure with technology for a better standard of living. They perceived Smart Cities as a gimmick, and preferred watching from the sidelines, if this failed, to say, “I told you so”.

However, knowing they carried a wealth of knowledge on urban planning, I shared my desire to learn from them. While most refrained, few proactively assisted me. Realizing I would have to earn their respect through knowledge, I spent the next month educating myself on Smart Cities by attending conferences and scouring almost 40 global case studies. This successfully displaced my image as the fresh kid off the block when I deftly tackled questions during the monthly board review. 

I then held individual meetings to understand their reservations and aspirations. Personalizing my response, I conveyed how Smart City projects were the future of urban development. I even helped them overcome inertia by allaying their concerns about being led by a 25 year old by assuring them that their wealth of experience mattered and the goal was to co-create the future of the company.

Next, I found firms whose capabilities complemented ICT’s. Identifying firms with expertise in IoT and financial consulting to augment ICT’s infrastructure expertise, I approached McKinsey, PwC, Grant Thornton and E&Y. The resistance was stiff as most had established Smart City practices. Modifying my approach as we needed them more than they needed us, I met their respective Partners and tactfully identified their ambitions beyond Smart Cities. Negotiating, I made an offer they could not refuse – They would provide experts and tech for ICT-led Smart City bids and we would take them as joint venture partners in our East Africa and South East Asia infra projects.

Unfortunately, 5 months and 5 bids later, we were at 0. It broke me but I persevered and we finally won two projects worth $5.9 million that year.

India Smart Cities Fellowship – Driven to create more impact in the urban landscape, I applied and was selected to the first Smart Cities Fellowship by the Indian Government – 40 out of the 4,000 who applied. My fellowship project led to the creation of India’s first citizen incentives toolkit that invigorates citizen participation in wellness, mobility, utilities, youth, waste, water and innovation initiatives. 

It was a herculean task but I overcame the disparate interests of the municipal bodies, citizens, banks and technology providers by understanding each stakeholder’s aspirations and barriers and found common ground.  While citizen incetivization is central to Smart Cities’ success, no precedent existed in India. Studying examples from UK and Singapore, I collected real-time data from 3 million citizens, combined it with rudimentary municipal data and used intense analytics to create city-specific solutions.  

This experience of using data analytics, behavioral economics and design thinking to create a new initiative was as exhilarating as it was challenging.

Can you tell us about the influences, people or events that have been instrumental in the career path that you have pursued?

A few moments and experiences I believe shaped me are:

  1. Sorin Grama, my boss from MIT always encouraged me to not innovate just for the heck of it. He taught me to never use the guise of startups to innovate something unnecessary and go knocking door to door trying to sell it.
  2. Prashant Kapila, the COO of ICT, gave an interesting reply when I asked him if I am too young for consulting. He said, “Usually to succeed in consulting you need no hair or gray hair, I have neither and I got by fine and you will be too”. He was 39 at the time!
  3. I was 1.5 years old when I fell from the first floor my building and was left immobilized for 2 years. In fact doctors said that I would never walk without a limp and would be physically handicapped for life. My parents put in everything to ensure I would have a normal life. I proved the doctors wrong by not just playing sports but by doing so at the national level. In fact, I never let the fear hold me back and led an adventure sports club in Manipal. My final victory over the fear was when I skydived from 14,000 feet in San Diego in 2014.

What were some of the challenges you have faced in your journey?

I guess the challenges I faced were two-fold, personal and professional.

Personally, while my parents very extremely supportive, my friends from school and college often failed to understand and relate to the work I was doing. They all opted for traditional careers as CAs, engineers, etc. While I keenly loved listening to their work, I often felt like an outsider as they couldn’t relate or show interest in my work. Fortunately, over the years, I have cultivated my circle of peers and friends who are as driven as me to create meaningful impact.

Professionally, it became harder and harder for me to find jobs. I mean, most jobs today say 4+ or 10+ years of experience in a certain field. It infuriated me to see how so many firms dismissed offbeat careers, often for short durations, as “a phase” or “a bad choice”! To find ones passion is an iterative process and it is important, nay, necessary to experiment as it is more important to know what you don’t want rather than what you want.

To encourage youth to wholeheartedly embrace such careers, I serve as a panelist during Vision India Foundations 21-day annual Public Policy Bootcamp, where I talk about offbeat careers and take sessions on the future of tech in Smart Cities.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs as a Smart Cities Fellow. Although HQ is Delhi, I work in my pilot cities of Thane and Pimpri Chinchwad.

As a Fellow, I run my project (akin to a startup), to tackle issues of citizen engagement, participatory planning and urban finance by creating unique solutions for municipalities and citizens.

Our jobs as Smart Cities Fellows entails a number of things. 
However, our primary role in the Indian Government’s  $30 billion Smart Cities Mission is to identify pressing urban challenges and find unique solutions to solve them.
After being selected, the Fellows were given an intensive two week training by experts from Niti Ayog, the UN and MoHUA.
Following this, we created a framework through which we identified problem statements and potential solutions for them.
After narrowing down to 12 projects, the Fellows set out to implement their solutions through pilots / proof of concepts in cities. We built relations with stakeholders and got their buy-ins to help us pilot our projects.
Once implemented, these pilots, in themes ranging from citizen governance, waste, water, behavioral economics, innovation and smart transport, will serve as blueprints for 100 Smart Cities to replicate their success.
The cohort comprised of highly accomplished individuals and the basic tenet of the fellowship was to encourage entrepreneurial thinking through experiences in the urban landscape.

In Thane, my project entailed the creation of an incentives toolkit wherein I hoped to use monetary incentives such as cash and discounts and non-monetary incentives such as recognition and prioritisation, to nudge good citizen behaviour.

While seemingly easy, no precedent existed in the country. It was also important for me to be cautious as dealing with social incentives draws comparisons with the negative connotations of social engineering.
Initially starting out with a very grand plan, I quickly realised that it was important to not be rigid about my idea. When I went to Thane, I had to change a number of things from my proposed plan of action. In fact, it was an uphill battle to get the full support of the municipality, citizens and the private stakeholders as each one had different ambitions and barriers.
I had to go back and forth to structure my idea to meet the needs of all these stakeholders. After all, the solutions were meant to be for them. So I figured, why shouldn’t they also be made by them!
Each day was as exciting as the next once I had gained the support of my stakeholders and negotiated an agreement of common goals. I experimented and iterated each day and finally created the country’s first citizen incentives toolkit.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

  1. Entrepreneurial mindset – By working in startups and actively seeking projects and initiatives way outside my comfort zone.
  2. Communication and negotiation skills – I grew up reading everything under the sun. Right from fiction to fantasy. I even practiced debating with my parents and my brother. Although I often ended up losing the debate, I worked on this skill each day and now I use it masterfully negotiate tough contracts and convince difficult stakeholders.
  3. Resilience – I had to fall flat on my face a few times to learn this. It was important to get rejected or fail. This made me tenacious! I doggedly fought back and never stopped. I learnt a lot about this from basketball as well. Even if the game was down to the wire, I was never one to give up.
  4. Humility – Working with the govt. and running an independent project that impacts millions is something to take pride in. However, humility is something that I have had to learn the hard way in the past. 

Whats a typical day like?

This is almost impossible to answer as there is no typical day! 

The beauty of running my project like a startup is that my work varies every single day from going door to door conducting surveys, working with my tech team, analyzing data, meeting municipal leaders, traveling to different cities, attending conferences, giving press conferences, meeting citizens, negotiating joint ventures and just waiting all day for someone to call you back!

What is it you love about this job?

The people I work with are brilliant! All 40 fellows are highly accomplished and there is an immense amount of learning from each one as they come from diverse backgrounds such as policy, investment banking, consulting and architecture.

The opportunity to create something new through which I can impact the lives of millions of Indians is amazing. Seeing how my incentives toolkit was adopted by Thane city and is on its way to being scaled across 100 cities and will someday impact 400 million Indians is extremely satisfying.

The leadership! My Joint Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Directors are the biggest champions of this project and have supported us at every step of the way. They have never let work been bogged by red-tapism and have firmly encouraged innovative thinking.

The opportunity to  interact with stakeholders such as bank leaders, municipal leaders, industry experts and global champions. 

How does your work benefit the society? Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

The work i did at Promethean is very close to me. It was there that i got an opportunity to work with farmers and understand their day to day issues. Sitting with them and talking to them inspite of not understanding their language, helped me think through practical solutions and this experience motivated me to work on such issues at scale . Nothing is as satisfying as the impact that can be created at the grassroots level.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Ignore the limits anyone puts on you. They don’t know you. Only you do.

Experiment. A LOT! It doesn’t matter if you can’t answer the “What do you want to do when you grow up” question yet. Focus on sampling bite sized experiences of anything that interests you.

No, your friends aren’t better or worse than you. They are just on their own path and you are on yours. Comparing yourself will break you.

Keep upgrading. You don’t want a machine take your job in 10 years 🙂

Find tons of hobbies and invest in people. Not in things.

Chase happiness and contentment, not money and fame.

Future Plans?

Right now, I am applying for MBA programs as I believe I am limited by the knowledge and skills I have. Through the MBA, I really hope to learn more about product design, consumer psychology and operational strategies. In the long run, I am eager to weave technology, policy and business together to continue creating impactful solutions for the masses.