Leadership is not a privilege reserved for a select few, it is an opportunity for everyone to discover their true potential and in turn, benefit society in their own way.

Vidyadhar Prabhudesai, our next pathbreaker, Co-Founder of LeadCap Ventures, a firm focused on the development sector, aims to build a strong network of young achievers working on impact areas such as Climate Action, Diversity & Inclusion and Education & Skills.

Vidyadhar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his guiding vision built on the belief that leadership is a decision, and hence anyone bold enough to take that decision could transform himself/herself into a leader.

For students, fear is the biggest enemy of leadership. But when you can channelize your fear into positive energy, it becomes a driving factor pushing you to greater heights !

Vidyadhar, Your background?

I was born in a typical middle class family setting in Thane, Maharashtra. Both my parents worked in public sector banks. My father held a managerial post; my mother worked in clerical. While they were working during the day, I was looked upon by my grandparents. My grandparents had a huge influence on my early years of life. They taught me values, ethics and responsibilities through stories. I lived a carefree life as a child. I studied in an English medium private school. In my kindergarten classes, my parents dropped me off at school while my grandfather bought me back home. As a child I had learning difficulties until I was 10 years old. I was slow in grasping numbers and often got confused with characters, digits and alphabets. I am also pathetic with my motor skills even today. My handwriting was poor and I never attempted to improve that. When I was scolded by teachers, I jokingly gave them back stating that I aimed to be a doctor and hence there is no need to improve. As a child I never had any specific plan or dream to chase, but I was attracted by music and space. I began my music lessons when I was in my teenage. l used to play Tabla and joined my school band too. As I grew older these dreams faded away, and I got dragged into the rat race of high scores and grades. I was an average student and missed distinction in my 10th boards. I wanted to take science as a career following all my friends, but I had to settle with commerce due to my poor scores. Later on, I completed my graduation in commerce.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my graduation in commerce from Mumbai University. Immediately after my graduation I enrolled for post graduation in commerce. However I got an apprenticeship opportunity under the government’s employment scheme and I worked in a scheduled cooperative bank and multinational conglomerate for a year. Hence in between I had to convert my full time post graduation to distance learning.

Tell us , how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I had no birth penalty, so I didn’t have to struggle to make ends meet. I was born lucky. I have wonderful parents who gave me all the freedom to pursue what I wanted to do; they never demanded or put any pressure on me. Like any other parent, they wanted me to be well educated, work in a good organization, progress well, marry, and settle in life. I had other plans. During my school or college days, I was an average student. An average student is somebody who always feels that toppers or rankers left him out in his class, teachers ignore them, and he cannot join the backbenchers because he feels he is superior to them. I belong to this average group. But while growing up, some instances in my life changed my perceptions and approach to life. After my graduation, I immediately started working and got stuck in the so-called corporate world. When you work for a large corporate, you are just a small part having a nut bolt value which is just a part of a large machine. Usually, your work is just a routine and mundane work without any challenges. My life was just another routine. And whatever said and done, at the end of the year, you have to prove your worth each time and get an annual hike or promotions, which is always unfair. There were some exceptions in my case, where I screwed up and even got kicked out a couple of instances during the early days in my career. I was an absolute newbie stuck in the corporate ladder. My mistakes had cost these organizations a few hundred thousand dollars –the monetary losses and other collateral damages, and I soon realized I am a misfit in this type of work culture. I thought it would be better to part ways rather than cause further damage. One beautiful day while I was enjoying my annual leave at home, I saw my younger brother working on his college project. He was doing some posters for his college project. I asked him why he was putting in so much effort when there was an easy way out. I told him he could search the internet, download stuff and cut and paste the whole stuff and get it done. He patiently listened to my argument and said, “If I am doing the same stuff like all other students, what is the difference between them and me?” This shook me entirely, and I could not answer him. This was my first defining moment when I started thinking about how I could be different and make a difference. One of the early moves I made is to enroll myself in the community development program of the company I was working with and started teaching basic computers to the students who were from deprived families.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As I progressed in my career, I started getting frustrated with my corporate life. It is not that working in corporates is terrible, please don’t take it that way. I was employed in employee centric and caring companies, but I failed to live up to what was needed. Frustrated one beautiful afternoon, I remember it was my mother’s birthday; I was flying back home – Before takeoff, I forcefully got out of a flight – I was stopped at the airport and could fly the next morning. I realized that I had wasted five years of my life, and while I was on a flight to Mumbai, I texted my boss – “I am not coming back. Good luck”, that was a final goodbye to the corporate world. I did not have any plan at all about what to do next. I knew I had committed corporate suicide. I had already resigned from my well-paid corporate job . After getting promoted every year…my boss said to me I had gone mad, it will be difficult to survive outside. I had no idea what I was getting into. But I was continuously made aware of what I was losing by giving up a well-paying job. A house, a car, maybe nobody would even dare to marry me. These are the trade-offs, and I thought it was better to compromise than carry the baggage for the rest of your life.

As I ended my corporate journey, I relocated back to Mumbai. There I started my first company. It was an HR recruitment consulting cum placement agency. Wrong time and wrong business. With my contacts, I could strike initial breakthroughs, which helped me survive for 3-4 months. It was 2007-08, and the recession just started showing its ugly head. With nothing to fall back on and to avoid the embarrassment of failure, I took an educational loan and enrolled in a management program, thinking I would get placed somewhere and get back to the sludgy corporate life. I got a job in one of the renowned business houses at that time. But the entrepreneurial streak in me didn’t let me work there.

I declined the job offer, after which the most exciting part of my journey started – LeadCap, started with a million-leader mandate – transform the lives of people who battle everyday chores, to make them the next generation leaders who could be role models like we have heard. The inspiration came to me when I was working, and I realized that youth who live in tier 2,3 districts of India, have immense potential and can challenge anybody from tier 1 cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. It is just that they do not have access or the right opportunities to prove their potential. We decided to build India’s first Leadership Village in a small village of Wayanad district in Kerala.

How did you get your first break? 

Soon after my graduation, my mother advised me to enroll in an apprenticeship program of the government under employment guarantee scheme. Luck favored me and I got three interview calls, two of them rejected me while the third employer selected me as I was the only graduate in the lot who turned up for interviews.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I remember those days when we slogged for 16-18 hours a day, skipped meals, had no weekend, and even slept in the office. To sustain, we started a consulting practice; we were new. We struggled to get clients, convince others, prove credibility, etc. I also learned that to sustain, we need to develop multiple sources of revenue – started exploring international markets. 

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

I am co-founder of LeadCap Ventures, which is focused on the development sector, research and public policy. I am also the Inclusive Development Policy Fellow at the United Nations and Founding Curator of the Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum. I have almost two decades of industry experience of which 15 years is in conducting research, policy, baseline, end line assessment, impact evaluations, monitoring and stakeholder mapping across regions South Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

As co-founder I am leading my organization, and have completed more than 3500 research projects for our clients, many of them in the developmental sector. Some of our clients include, governments of various nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iran etc., institutions such as National Council for Applied Economic Research, Confederation of Indian Industry, National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development, Indian Council of Social Science Research and international development agencies such as United Nations, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, World Economic Forum, World Health Organisation, British Council, International Foundation for Sustainable Peace and Development, Institute for Global Environment Strategies etc. 

In the past one decade I have worked on projects such as Global Competitiveness Index (WEF), Global Sustainability Index (IFSPD), Global Gender Gap (UN), Travel and Tourism Competitiveness (WEF), Energy Efficiency (ADB/IGES), Covid-19 Impact on SMEs (Word Bank), Behavioral Determinants to Covid-19 Vaccination (WHO), State Competitiveness and Climate for Manufacturing (CII), Rastriya Gram Swaraj Abhiyan RGSA (NCAER/Ministry of Panchayat Raj), Impact of Rural Urban Migration (ICSSR/Welingkar) and Impact of Minimum Support Price Program (CII/NABARD). 

LeadCap Ventures is the regional partner of the World Economic Forum and supports their research, policy interventions, programs and other engagements to strengthen relations and economic cooperation within the region. As a UN fellow, I actively advocate Sustainable Development Goals and conduct impact assessment on measures implemented in Asia and Europe. 

As a curator I am involved in building a strong network of young achievers under 30 years in India and drive their work in India on the impact areas such as Climate Action, Diversity & Inclusion and Education & Skills. I received the World Bank’s Prize on Youth Employability for impacting more than 10 million youth through public private partnership programs under LeadCap Trust. I am the board member and managing trustee. This unique model received special mentions across international forums such as The Doha Forum, UN Youth Envoy and Peace Child International, UK. I established the World’s first Leadership Village in Kerala, India for which I was nominated as Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum. I am also the board member at International Foundation for Sustainable Peace and Development, an international institution, with consultative status with UN – ECOSOC, promoting dialogue and mutual understanding across the world.

While I was on my first trip to Europe in 2019, where these big international agencies are housed, I started looking back on my journey. I had heard about WEF or the UN for the first time when I was in the second year of college. I had even asked my economics professor if he knew anybody there and could refer me since I was curious about getting a job there – it was my dream job. Though I never got a chance to work there, I am happy that I am associated with these organizations.

How does your work benefit society?

LeadCap is built on the belief that leadership is a decision, hence anyone bold enough to take that decision could transform himself/herself into a leader. The movement believes that if they can encourage more Indians to make this decision, then many of these transformed individuals, with their newfound potential, would drive others. LeadCap believes that this would soon help more Indians to embrace the leadership mantle, in small and big ways, in personal and professional spheres, transforming the world’s largest democracy into the first leadership democracy.”

LeadCap is defined by three beliefs;

  • Teaching how to fish is better than providing fish: Helping marginalized individuals discover their true potential would help them more in the longer term than any other aid. This way they would help themselves, as well as the society.
  • Leadership is a decision, not a position: Individuals who emerged as some of the greatest leaders had nothing extraordinary about them. Anyone could be a leader irrespective of birth or living conditions, if willing to decide.
  • Leaders breed more leaders: More individuals would embrace the leadership mantle, if they are made aware that leadership is a decision. Hence, true leaders are those who nurture more leaders, not followers, and that could change our nation to another level.

LeadLab is one of the innovative programs undertaken by LeadCap with a mandate of creating a million empowered leaders in the next five years. This is conceived as an innovative online interactive session, where a pertinent topic on leadership is dealt with by an expert. This programme is unique in the sense it does not look at leadership as a position that you adorn in the society or office, nor does it look at it as a set of skills like communication or negotiation. It looks at leadership as a rational decision that any individual can take, and hence focuses on enabling individuals towards taking this decision. Hence the topics dealt with give a peek into human nature, psychology and why we do certain things and avoid others. For example, one topic talked about the role of fear and how people can use the power of positive fear to do extraordinary feats, rather than run away from it.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Here in the Wayanad district of Kerala, India, we are transforming an entire village into the first ever “Leadership Village”. Kalpetta is a village with abysmally low opportunities for a person to live and grow. But this will no longer be the case, because whatever the constraints of village life, there is also lots of untapped human potential. We want to create the first leadership democracy, where every individual, irrespective of birth or class, can make an impact. That’s the aim of LeadCap, an organization where I’m a trustee, in partnership with the AFRC Local Educational Training Institute.

Most of the families here are conservative and they do not want their daughters travelling an extra mile after school to get exposure to the outside world. They do not want their daughters to use the internet at home. But after villagers heard of the Leadership Village project, they started sending their daughters here. The girls not only got exposure to the world outside their village, they also became aspirational. They have dreams of becoming designers or engineers. Some families are even ready to send their daughters to bigger cities like Bangalore or Chennai to pursue higher education. 

The project started in Kalpetta and then spread to the rest of the region and also across India. It has the support of villagers, students, parents, teachers and civic associations. It intends to bring about a revolutionary change – a change that can only be achieved when people are pointed towards their true potential and when they are shown the true change that they could create in themselves, and in their communities.

It focuses on young people aged between 15 and 25, aiming to show them that leadership is not reserved for a select few, but is for everyone who wants to discover their true potential. Its aim is to show them that leadership is a personal decision, rather than a position or a set of skills. Having achieved this self-awareness, we mentor these individuals to help them discover their hidden skills: in the areas of communication, self-motivation, problem-solving and decision-making. We support these leaders in implementing larger changes that add value to their society.

Between 1995 and 2004, 90% of farmer suicides in Kerala were from Wayanad. While tourism is one of the sources of revenue, this has never been to the same extent as in some other commercially developed places. With the knowledge and exposure gained during the programme, students went back and shared their experience with their parents and families. This united several families within the community. They started exploring possibilities of generating extra income through tourism. The concept of ecotourism emerged and Wayanad became the first district in India to launch this scheme with the support of  the government of Kerala. The scheme created more employment opportunities for women.

The concept behind Leadership Village is an interesting one. Young people ride around the village on bicycles with bags full of inspirational books. In their free time they visit homes and schools to distribute leadership and personal development books, empowering them and providing inspiration. The results have taken time, but they are quite convincing. The language, communication and confidence levels of these rural leaders are on a par with any student living in a major city. This is indeed the most exciting of all the journeys that we have undertaken. Let us build our nation together.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

One of the drawbacks of the young generation today is that they are born in secured states where their parents have built a safety net around them. They didn’t have to struggle or face any real challenge in their school or college days. They have access to cheap data which is largely misused and rather wasted than using it for information gathering, knowledge or skill building. The only way to correct this at grassroots level is to adopt mass free education and skill building programs. These programs must be part of a skilling mission at panchayat level not just state or national level. There must be a strong tracking mechanism put in place to measure output and outcome at all stages.

Let me narrate an interesting anecdote of my life. While I was on an official trip I had an interesting conversation with a fellow co-traveler. He asked a question, who am I? For anybody, it would mean his identity or his job. I told him as anybody would say. I am so, so I am a co-founder, entrepreneur, UN, WEF, etc. He disagreed with all I said and told me that these were just peripherals and would fade away with time and what stays with you for a lifetime; is your real identity. I thought about this throughout the journey, and when the flight landed in Mumbai, I said, “I am the son of Anand and Sulabha. I inherited chromosomes from my mother and father, which would be the only thing that would not change. Whatever I do or get recognized for now or in the future, I owe the credit to them.  

Future Plans?

We are collaborating with international institutions to scale our impact in India. We have already tied up with more than 300 institutions in India. We are also planning to convert our curriculum and programs into online and local language so that we can reach those at the real bottom of the pyramid.