Entrepreneur & Alternative careerists

Sachin Malhan, Co-founder and CEO, HumLab on being a good entrepreneur, the challenges of starting your own venture, and his involvement with the Agami Prize

Sachin Malhan is the co-founder and CEO of HumLab. Before that he was the Executive Director of the Changemakers global program of Ashoka, the world’s leading social innovation network.

Before his work at Ashoka, Sachin co-founded three ventures in India – Law School Tutorials, the leading law test-prep outfit, currently present in 60 cities and training over 30,000 students annually; Rainmaker, a learning and talent platform for the legal industry that ultimately spun off Vahura, the leading talent search firm for the legal industry and mylaw.net, the pioneer in online learning for legal and adjacent industries; and Inclusive Planet, a venture focused on greater literary access for the visually impaired, which succeeded in effecting national policy change but failed to sustain the digital platform required to enable that access. For his work in technology, media, social impact and education, Sachin became an INK Fellow in 2010.

Sachin is a graduate of the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru and began his career with Amarchand Mangaldas in their Mumbai offices.

In this interview he talks to us about:

  • Studying at NLSIU
  • Converting internships to PPOs
  • Challenges faced as an entrepreneur
  • Ashoka Changemakers, network of social entreprenuers
  • His latest venture HumLab, and their first initiative the Agami Prize

 

 

HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO OUR READERS?

In the 21 years since I joined law school I’ve played many different roles, some better than others! I’ve been a law student, a lawyer, a teacher, a business entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur and the CEO of a few different organisations. This is not counting the many more roles I’ve played in my life outside of ‘work’. If I had to pick one way to introduce myself to your readers I’d say I’m someone trying to do work that’s creatively fulfilling, meaningfully impacts other people’s lives and helps me live a life beyond the fears, insecurities and compulsions that otherwise govern our lives.

 

WHAT FACTORS INFLUENCED YOU TO CHOOSE LAW AS A CAREER?

I chose to go to law school in the most bizarre of circumstances. I took the NLSIU entrance exam as a secondary choice in case my admission to medical school didn’t come through. I wouldn’t even had made the examination if a school friend hadn’t taken me to the venue on his scooter at breakneck speed through Calcutta by-lanes. When the results came I was 57th i.e. the last of the selected 57. My medical admission results were pretty poor and I ended up staying in law school. I am so thankful for this series of most fortunate events because I loved the law school experience and the college-mates who shared that experience with me. Law school helped me broaden my understanding of society, develop new skills, and, most of all, put me in touch with a set of peers who helped me develop as a human being.

 

YOU HAVE STUDIED IN ONE OF THE PREMIER INSTITUTES IN INDIA. PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR TIME AT NLSIU. WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES NLSIU STANDS OUT AS COMPARED TO OTHER LAW SCHOOLS IN INDIA.

I cannot compare NLSIU to other colleges today because I don’t have the facts But I can speak about NLSIU during my time there. I think the single biggest driver of value was the quality of students. The process pulled together students from different streams, skill sets and interests, parts of the country and social backgrounds. What most of us shared was a general uncertainty about who we wanted to become in life. Some of us were very certain about ‘the law’ but most were on a journey of discovery. That explains why the batch produced entrepreneurs, restauranteurs, journalists, a policeman, and a professional poker player, besides many accomplished lawyers themselves. When you put such a group of people together and you give them a pleasant campus on the outskirts a city in big transition (Bangalore), access to curricular and extra-curricular opportunities, and a decent academic experience you usually get good things as a result. Note that I refer to my academic experience as ‘decent’ – which I think it largely was, but there were also islands of excellence, teachers who not just helped us understand a subject in a new way but helped us think better and empathise. Their contribution can never be quantified or compensated. They balanced out other academic experiences that were sub-par. I believe NLSIU still offers the above combination of things.

 

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR RECRUITMENT AT AMARCHAND MANGALDAS. HOW DO YOU SUGGEST SHOULD YOUNG LAW STUDENTS APPROACH LAW FIRMS FOR SECURING A JOB AS ENTRY LEVEL ASSOCIATES?

I was recruited as a result of an internship in my final year. I was very lucky in that I got to work closely with the senior partner – Mr MP Bharucha – who ultimately recruited me. He was a demanding boss, especially for an intern, but it was quickly clear to me that he was an incredible lawyer and personality who would help me learn and grow. I don’t know if interns today get to work closely with partners but it definitely helped to get him to see that I had the attitude to do well. The market is so competitive now and I know that its hard to get into good law firms. There are many others who are probably much better informed about what it takes for law students to crack good law firms eg. my dear friend Ritvik Lukose who heads Vahura. What I can say is that unless you have the benefit of being the graduate of a top law school and have a great resume you’ll have to use the combination of relationships and differentiators. From early in your law school life you need to start building and nurturing relationships with seniors and others in the field. Being a part of a large community, that you care for and cares for you, is an incredible asset. Skills, knowledge and achievements that differentiate you powerfully are the other key tool. Getting that good job, if that’s what you want, requires you to start early.

 

WHAT LED YOU TO LEAVE AMARCHAND MANGALDAS AND START YOUR OWN VENTURE?

I had already co-founded Law School Tutorials, popularly known as LST, when I was in my third year (1999) at NLSIU. I had tasted the incredible highs and lows of entrepreneurship and had something to compare to my experience as a corporate lawyer. After a year at Amarchand, despite having an incredible mentor in Mr Bharucha, and enjoying a very positive experience at the law firm, I knew that I was an entrepreneur and had to be true to that. I’d come home late from work and despite being pretty wiped out still find the energy to do my LST work – replying to student emails, revising materials, scoring tests etc. I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I could also see that the audience for law schools was growing and that LST could really become something. So when I left I was terrified about what the future would hold, but I was also ecstatic about the creative possibilities.

 

YOU HAVE BEEN THE CO-FOUNDER OF VARIOUS VENTURES INCLUDING THE LST AND RAINMAKER. WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO TAKE UP THESE NEW VENTURES?

To me there are few things more satisfying than helping an idea come to life. Those early steps of imagining something, building a team, creating the first experiences etc are very rewarding. In some ways entrepreneurship is my compulsion. Yes, social impact and market opportunity are drivers of these initiatives but in many ways I’m attracted by the process of creating something lasting with other people who share that passion. The experiences, successes and failures of my ventures have taught me more than a dozen college degrees could ever do. I remember one conversation with a young class 12 student in Allahabad where he spoke so lucidly about what it was like for him to break free from what his father wanted him to study and find his own way. When I asked him why he was willing to fight with his father when so many others just went along, he said ‘because life is more, sir, I can feel it.’ Each venture that I am a part of takes me on a new journey, to meet amazing new people and, hopefully, leave a lasting impact.

 

PLEASE TELL US WHAT ASHOKA CHANGEMAKERS IS ABOUT? WHAT WERE YOUR ROLES AND RESPONSIBILTIES IN THE SAME?

Ashoka is the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs. It doesn’t market itself very much but it is ranked amongst the five most influential non-profits in the world. In the social impact field it is highly respected. Many Nobel laureates and Magsaysay awardees are Ashoka Fellows – Mohd Yunus, Kailash Satyarthi, Jerry White, Anshu Gupta and Bezwada Wilson, to name a few. More recently it is confused with the excellent Ashoka University but Ashoka is a global organisation in 80 countries that’s been around for 40 years. Out of its headquarters in Washington DC I was the Executive Director of a large international program of Ashoka, Ashoka Changemakers, which was focused on building networks of social innovators around challenging social issues. I had the chance to work with amazing international colleagues and entrepreneurs on how complex social issues can be solved by creating ecosystems that nurture social innovation around those issues. I moved back to India last year to start HumLab, a longtime dream of mine.

 

WHAT ACCORDING TO YOU DOES IT TAKE TO BE A GOOD ENTREPRENEUR?

That’s a tough one, and I answer it with the awareness that I may not be equipped to do so! Here’s what I’ve observed –

  • persistence (trying and trying again);
  • resilience (getting up when you fall down, taking criticism and doubt);
  • working in community, which requires you to trust and to believe in the capability of others;
  • an ability to see possibilities, connect the dots and be comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty;
  • a practical side that helps that problem-solve and mitigate existential risks (no money to live, pay salaries etc.);
  • I’d also add what I think great (as opposed to good) entrepreneurs have –
  • they can empower a lot of other people to discover their full potential;
  • conviction around a certain imagined reality and ability to pass that on to others. Even if that exact vision doesn’t come to pass they still come upon something great by virtue of having sensed the pathways of the future.
  • a healthy disregard for the opinion of ‘experts’, overly convergent or linear thinkers;
  • a connect with younger people who have all the energy.

 

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR LATEST VENTURE HUMLAB INDIA. WHAT IS IT ABOUT AND WHAT SERVICES DOES HUMLAB OFFER?

HumLab doesn’t have one product or service. It is trying to build an ecosystem to catalyse innovation and entrepreneurship in legal industry, law and justice. An ecosystem is not one thing but possibly a combination of different enabling initiatives, ideally with a strong community layer. So we’re slowly starting to develop these different things in collaboration with different organizations. The Agami Prize, which we are co-creating with justice innovation catalyser Vayam led by former Ashoka co-leader and NALSAR alum Supriya Sankaran, and in partnership with some other amazing organisations including Ashoka and Trilegal, is the first such initiative. A national prize that can showcase innovation and entrepreneurship in the field would have the effect of driving interest in the bigger vision itself. We are hoping that once we establish the Agami Prize we can also look at driving more funding and expertise to new startups and promising ventures in the space.

 

HOW CAN A LAW STUDENT APPLY FOR INTERNSHIP AT HUMLAB?

Just email me at sachin@humlab.in and tell me why you think yourself to be an entrepreneur. Focus on what you’ve built or significant problem you’ve solved – however small – in your life.

 

PLEASE TELL US THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN STARTING YOUR OWN VENTURES?

Every kind of problem! Still, the ones that were most persistent were inter-personal. I worked a lot with co-founders, some fantastic entrepreneurs themselves, and we did all sorts of things wrong – didn’t define roles, didn’t clearly align on what the vision was, didn’t talk about about the hard stuff, and so on. I strongly feel that if you’re in a team and you’ve done that bit right i.e. built trusted relationships through strong communication, then everything else is easy. Even then, despite the challenges, my former co-founders remain my closest friends. The adversity brought us closer and our friendship forced us to confront our demons. Because we’ve shared so much we know the challenges that each of us have faced, or our still facing, in growing our ventures.

 

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?

I’ve got my hands full with HumLab. I want to first focus on establishing Agami Prize as a powerful platform for innovators and entrepreneurs, and slowly but surely build a community of people committed to transforming the field. It sounds a bit crazy because law and justice has always been done in a certain way but I think that the big trends of the world – tech, individual empowerment, and the growth of cross-border business and trade – will change things in ways we could’t imagine. I’d like to build HumLab on the learnings I’ve had in the last 20 years of entrepreneurship – develop trust, work with amazing people and organizations, think bold, and have great fun.

 

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR WORD OF ADVICE TO YOUNG LAWYERS AND LAW STUDENTS LOOKING TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT?

I have a question for every young law student or lawyer – do you really believe that the jobs we covet will stay the same 10-15 years down the line? In a world where everything is changing so fast we must make change our friend. We must be comfortable with constant learning and initiative-taking. I know its scary but once you embrace the mindset it gives you strength. Trust me on this part. I guess the way I’m trying to answer the question is to say that those who want to do something different are at least half-way into the future versus those who think everything will stay the same. The latter run the greater risk – of not being in control of their destiny.

To those who want to do something different, I would also say – don’t do it just because its different but because you want to do something fantastically and create value – for yourself and for society. Once you’re convinced of that put all your energy and something good will come out of that.

I’ll be writing more on this soon!

 

 

 

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