Sriram Bharatam on Being That Happy Failure

Sriram Bharatam
Sriram Bharatam. PHOTO | COURTESY 

He is Sriram Bharatam, but everybody calls him Sri. The social entrepreneur runs a company in India called Iridium Interactive and he partnered with the Health ministry and USAID to build a tuberculosis patients tracking system called Tibu. In 1999, he helped raise $1.5 million in 45 days online to support victims of a killer cyclone in India. In Kenya, he runs Kuza, a mobile platform offering young and women from informal communities opportunities to learn and grow. He is also a writer. He met JACKSON BIKO for lunch at Asmara Restaurant for a long-winded conversation full of idiosyncrasies. Vintage, Sri can be best described as ‘‘different.”


What is your greatest success so far as a professional?

(Pause) I hate the word “empower” but my biggest success has been helping the guy who is earning two to three dollars [Sh200-Sh300] a day to find purpose and just stay focused. We can have technology, but it's about how we’re able to solve the social problem for a man at the bottom of the pyramid.

What's your biggest passion outside this? What makes you tick when you are not working?

I only do this.

You don't have any other interest?

My only interest is to observe people, to look at their behaviour. We have a mama at out office, very meticulous, she would be 68 years old. She works for us two hours a day. But there are some things she doesn't know. The day before, one of my colleagues sat down with her and told her of the places she wasn’t cleaning. She said she needed three different types of clothes.

She was given money to get them and the next day the office was shining. She has a potential, she knows what to do, and she never had the tool to make that happen.

So as much as all the big economies and everybody is speaking about creating jobs, I think it's a very simple thing. Within the communities, the people know their problems and they have their solutions. It's just that they don't connect the dots. My passion is connecting the dots.

You don't watch sports, you don't …

You'll be surprised, I don't have a TV at home, I don't read the newspaper, for me that's too much negative noise.

So who is the fun you? The one who's unhinged and out of his element?

You see, people are stuck in life. When I “unstuck” something for somebody, that's what gives me the kick of life. It's difficult to articulate, but most people always think for I, me, myself. But the fun you get when you see somebody doing things differently is priceless.

You have children? What fun things do you do with them?

Yeah, I have one girl, she’s 20 years old. We just get into a car and drive, without having a destination in mind. The last time, we did about 800 kilometres in three days.

What about your wife, does she also live her life this way?

(Laughs) Yes. So my daughter dropped out of high school because of health conditions so she can't clear A levels and all of that.

She said, ‘I think I learn so much by being outside the class than being inside the class.’

She's just moved to India to do fashion design and art. She's doing consultancy already, helping others and teaching them.

What's the most conventional thing you've done?

Going to university. Actually, that was unconventional. I have always been an outstanding student … to mean “standing outside the class.” I always stood out of the class, not inside the class. I was always punished for breaking the rules. (Pause) I went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] by the way, for an entrepreneurship programme called the “Birthing of Giants.”

They handpicked like 60 people globally, 60 mad guys like me. The qualification for you to be there is you should have done something crazy.

What crazy thing did you do?

Oh! I have impacted 18 million people directly. I'm using technology to make a difference. So right now, I’m scaling, we're close to 25 million people.

Would you call yourself a geek?

(Pause) Social geek, who is not social. You will not see me partying, I don't take alcohol or smoke. I'm so blessed that I can sit in a disco and then sleep happily. I like my company.

Do you have friends?

Lots of them.

But do you meet them?

I do, in a very structured way. They say you are the average of five people you spend time with. Those friends tell a lot about you. I've been a part of organisation called Entrepreneurs Organisation, it's the most influential community of entrepreneurs globally.

What do you use your money for?

(Pause) For my own development. I like to pay to participate in conferences. I went to World Economic Forum, now I'm going to New Agenda Assembly, where I spoke in last year.

Are you spiritual?

Extremely. Magic happens in my life every day.

Has it happened today?

You're here. (Laughs)

What’s your greatest belief?

I believe in today. I believe in this moment. The other day on my way to the airport, I almost died. The taxi driver dozed off, a car hit ours, and we spun thrice while I was on phone with my wife.

Both of us came out safe. Why am I telling you this story? Which faith do I need to believe for that to happen? I have seen death three times like this. Most people are not in the current moment. Religion was created by different leaders at different times, for their own reasons.

So do you believe in God?

There is definitely a force. I don't know what you call it. It's a force, an energy. I do believe in energy. A lot of people who meet me say ‘how can you be so calm?’ It’s a state of low frequency, where your thoughts are low. You've seen people fidgeting because their thoughts are so high. They're restless, they're anxious.

What agitates you?

(Pause) I usually don't get agitated.

When have you ever failed yourself?

Oh, today morning. Mine is a 98 per cent failure story and two per cent success story. Every other day we fail. This morning I was reflecting on how two per cent success can make a world of difference. Mine is a two per cent success story and I don't shy away from saying I'm a failure.

This has been a very strange conversation, Sri …

(Laughs) I told you, I’m not conventional. This is who I am. I don’t want to be led into thinking in one way when I can always freely think in another way.