It’s not every day you get to meet a former president of the United States. And it’s certainly not every day you get to pitch your product to that president, and then spend 20 minutes discussing it.
But that’s exactly what happened when Savitha Sridharan, the Durham-based founder and CEO of Orora Global, attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Exchange Forum in Tempe, Arizona in 2014.
Sridharan had been working on a reliable, renewable energy solution for impoverished individuals and communities since entering Babson College’s MBA program in 2012. She was among only 1,000 students from universities across the country accepted to the CGI U meeting. She also earned a spot in Babson’s yearlong Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab’s inaugural class of women entrepreneurs.
But even after a year of creating and testing prototypes and pricing structures, she still had major doubts about the company’s potential. And it was largely because she felt like an outsider in the male-dominated energy sector.
So the serendipitous meeting with President Bill Clinton was a pivotal moment in Orora Global’s formation—Clinton’s interest provided Sridharan a sense of validation. She’s moved fast ever since, just last week earning recognition as one of 30 best worldwide projects by Gifted Citizen. She’ll pitch to win $100,000 from the global organization at their annual festival, La Ciudad de las Ideas, in Mexico City in November. Sales are projected to hit $250,000 this year, and Sridharan was recently featured prominently in Babson's Entrepreneur Action campaign.
“You can think and dream about something but when somebody validates it you can realize you’re not stupid,” she says. And when that person validating your dream is Bill Clinton, the validation is all the sweeter.
So what is this product that Clinton was so intrigued by? And what does Orora Global do with it?
In short, the product is several products—all solar powered—that provide off-grid energy sources for those who do not have electricity or other sources of energy. But the product itself is just one part of Orora Global. The social enterprise has lofty goals to provide clean, renewable energy to developing countries all while empowering the countries’ local entrepreneurs—specifically women—and encouraging participation in supporting the clean energy movement here in the US.
Here’s the full back story:
Engineering, running and entrepreneurship
Sridharan grew up in India where she became interested in technology and electrical engineering at a young age. After she graduated from Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) she worked as an electrical engineer for a startup in India until she came to the US to obtain her master’s degree in computer architecture at North Carolina State University. After graduating, she moved to Austin and worked as an electrical engineer at LSI Logic (acquired by Avago Technologies in 2014).
While there, she began running ultra-marathon races through which she raised money for non-profits focused on uplifting local organic farmers in India. After a few years, she realized that the money she was sending to India wasn’t solving underlying poverty-causing issues like a lack of electricity or clean water, which hurt the local food supply. She wanted to address at least one of those issues, and with an electrical engineering background, energy poverty seemed a natural fit.
Sridharan then applied to MBA programs, and ultimately chose to attend Babson College because of its strong history supporting and empowering entrepreneurs. She particularly liked its emphasis on female entrepreneurs—she craved a strong community after being immersed in the male-dominated engineering and telecom industries.
At Babson, Sridharan jumped head first into its entrepreneurial activities. She met her co-founder and mentor Sharon Kan there. Kan had founded the lab and also started and sold several companies to the likes of Microsoft and Oracle. She helped Sridharan perfect the product and build the company’s business model.
Under Kan and the WIN Lab’s guidance, Sridharan created a “Commitment to Action” for the CGI, submitted it, and was chosen to present at the 2014 CGI U meeting where she met Clinton. Her commitment was to eliminate the use of kerosene lamps—which have significant health and safety repercussions—in 10 rural Indian communities. Although a daunting task, she and her team were successful in achieving this goal in just 15 months.
After graduating from Babson in 2014, Sridharan moved to Durham with her husband who works for another Triangle startup. Since then, she’s traveled back and forth to India to set up operations there.
Low cost electricity for impoverished communities
Now with offices in Boston and Durham, Orora sells a range of solar-powered products—from a single lamp to an entire system that provides clean energy for those left off the power grid in rural or urban communities. So far, products are sold exclusively in India and Bangladesh.
Orora’s signature product is the Home System, which is powered by a simple solar panel that charges itself when placed under sunlight for six hours. Once charged, the system provides light, air circulation (via an attachable fan), and a cell phone charging outlet. The products are built by a third party manufacturer called Teletech Technology in Bangalore, India.
Sridharan tested different prices, but ultimately landed on $95 per system based on customer feedback. The lantern sells for $40 and larger systems that can power air conditioning units or ceiling fans are also available at higher prices. They’re popular among businesses, schools, churches and other organizations housed in larger buildings.
Orora’s lean hybrid business model is unique in that the company partners with local non-profits to identify the markets where the product is most needed and find women to sell them. Once the markets and the women have been identified, Orora trains them to use and sell the products. The women receive a 10 percent commission from Orora for each item sold.
Sridharan believes that providing additional income and leadership training to empower women is important because it helps build a strong infrastructure of leaders within the local communities.
While other similar products exist, Orora’s are available at half the price of competitors. Orora also offers on-site customer support and a three-year warranty.
However, as the company scales, the hands-on customer support becomes more costly and challenging to provide to each customer. So Sridharan and her team have considered ways to connect the devices to the Internet so they could more easily monitor use and provide support.
When Sridharan learned of the recent Internet of Things hackathon hosted by NC RioT, she decided to compete so she could spend 48 hours fully dedicated to thinking about how to solve this specific problem. Orora won an honorable mention for integrating sensors into the products for real-time monitoring. Sridharan will spend three months in Groundwork Labs developing a business model around the findings.
Orora is also developing an ambassador program to support and partner with stateside non-profits committed to clean energy or empowering women. The details of the program are still in development, but it will soon launch in Boston, Durham, New York City and Washington DC.
Selling, fundraising and eradicating poverty
Energy poverty in India is so dire, Sridharan says she could keep working there forever. 22.3 percent of the population—or 272 million people—didn’t have access to electricity in 2012. But Sridharan ultimately wants to expand Orora to at least 10-15 other developing countries. She is testing and building the company in India with hopes of replicating the model in other countries in the future.
She’s also starting to raise capital. Orora hopes to raise a $100,000 seed round by the end of 2015 and $400,000 by the end of 2016.
The recent awards and acknowledgments should help. Pictures of Sridharan are now posted all over Boston, and her video has started to be distributed around the Internet.
Sales are also on the rise. But perhaps the more important benchmark, is that Sridharan expects Orora to positively impact 5,000 lives by year’s end.
And with every award, sale and life impacted, the idea that at one time seemed crazy to Sridharan is further validated.