Kuldeep greets me warmly with a broad smile that reaches his eyes instantly. Kuldeep Kumar Arora is a student from the pioneering batch of 1998-99 of Post Graduate Diploma in NGO Management (PGDMN) of EDII. He comes from a Punjabi family and admits that education was not high on his priority list. Youngest in his family, Kuldeep spent his childhood happily and lazily imagining how he could make India better. Army men films truly inspired him. Although Kuldeep aspired to join the defence services, he was unable to do so as he had a knee lock problem. This was disappointing but now he knew that he had to find a different route to contribute to the society.
While he was searching for meaningful options he came across the NGO management course of EDII. This piqued his interest and he applied for it. He remembers his first visit to EDII very fondly. The green campus with peacocks and the Neem tree lined avenue was totally enamouring. But it was not an easy task to settle in. Within the very first week, his lack of English abilities almost made him pack his bags. Strong support both from his batch mates and faculty made him continue, and this turned out to be the best decision of his life. However, now when you see his accomplishments and talk to him, you fail to understand why his linguistic skills were ever doubted. As a foodie, fondly known as ‘Dhabha’ among friends, he states that the best food ever was what was served by EDII canteen then.
It was during his academic grooming at EDII that Kuldeep got an exposure of entrepreneurship and NGO. Both these words had been alien to him till then. He had now realised that social entrepreneurship was his calling.
He fully appreciates the support and guidance he got, both in and out of the campus, through he rich curriculum of the course. However, he first chose to work with an organisation. He started as a project officer through campus placement in a well-established and growing NGO called Indian Institute of Rural Development (IIRD). He was promptly sent to Jhalawar, one of the most backwards districts of Rajasthan on a project for cluster development. Almost ready to quit, Kuldeep was encouraged to persevere by the faculty at EDII and rightly so as he obviously succeeded. Every day was a challenge both in existential and work terms. While food and living was not easy, promoting rural entrepreneurs & securing loan from banks was equally tough. His ability to facilitate with rural areas & promote entreprenurs was noticed by the administration, and he was given the independent charge of handling a new intervention of the World bank – IDA and the government of Rajasthan. In 2002, Kuldeep received an appreciation letter from the Chief Minister of Rajasthan for drought releif work in Jhalawar district.
Identifying rural entrepreneurs, groups of women, and helping them prepare project reports and securing funds from the banks was not an easy task. The feather in his cap was IIRD being declared best entreprise service provider agency across India and receiving award from the Union Finance Minister. In FY 2003-04 & subsequent year, Kuldeep & his team organized thousands of poor women into SHGs & IIRD received the ‘best SHG bank linkage agency award’. Taking into account the significant work done by IIRD in Jhalawar in 2003-04, Union MSME Minister appointed IIRD as Nodal agency and Kuldeep became Nodal officer to the ministry. Thus, Kuldeep got an exceptional opportunity to work closely with senior bankers & GoI officials. During this peiod, he hosted numerous events, which were graced by MSME Minister, Chief Minister of state, Chairman IBA, Secretaries of various ministries of state and central government. Thousands of poor rural women were covered with micro insurance and Kuldeep received the ‘best micro insurance seller award’ at a convention in London. Now there was no looking back and Kuldeep was working from 7 am in the morning to 1 am. Promotions and projects kept him on his toes. From a small team of two, by 2005. Kuldeep boasted of a diverse team of more than 100 people who were veterinary doctors, civil engineers, legal professionals etc.
In 2003 he got engaged and was to get married within a fortnight. He remembers amusedly that the short duration did not give his bride enough time to change her mind as his life was no bed of roses.
Lack of medical facility and erratic schedules created problems and led Kuldeep to take up an assignment in urban Jaipur with Tata AIG instead. This also brought a hike in the salary by 4 times. However, within a year Kuldeep started missing his interactions with farmers and poor people and was invited by IIRD to join them, again, and that too as the Director. This is when Kuldeep initiated a separate division called Arth Microfinance and his own entrepreneurial dream came true in partnership with the promoters of IIRD. Later in 2009 IIRD took over a NBFC and renamed the company as ARTH Microfinance, which is NBFC-MFI in 2015, he received international awards from Union Agriculture Minister, Govt. of India for ‘best pasture land development’ at the 23rd Grasslands Congress at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. Kuldeep got a special assignment from state government to design community operational manual / guidelines for one of the most ambitious projects namely AJVEEIKA, supported by World Bank, IFAD & DFID. Kuldeep has designed many innovative schemes for rural poor, especially for farmers & women, and his efforts are appreciated at various levels. He is also a member in many district level, divisional committees.
Presently, Kuldeep is focusing on expansion of his micro finance business. Arth provides microfinance to both urban and rural women, and has already supported about 84000 active women borrowers.
Kuldeep shares that his parents were not very happy with his choice of a program on NGO management but did not object as at least it was socially relevant. However, they were taken aback when he left his fortune 500 company well-paying job and started his own venture and that too in a very risky sector. With his gentle smile and a twinkle in his eyes, Kuldeep acknowledges that he has had his share of challenges in business but they are in any case inevitable. Though he appears soft and gentle, he has a spine of steel. While he did think of giving up temporarily due to political interventions, his grilling from EDII days kept him resilient. It has also taught him the power of visioning. From a mere 20 Lakhs that he managed with own savings, loan from friends, family and market, his venture has reached a turnover of Rs 107 Cr in FY 2016-17. He hopes to scale up and convert it into a small finance bank. We wish him all the success and leave a much larger footprint on the development of women.
Kuldeep’s message to budding entrepreneurs is “Business is nothing but acquiring, retaining and growing your customer”. He strongly believes that customers and your team are two most important people in business. An entrepreneur should always invest in technology, training of team and strengthening relations with customers. Never mind the place or scale, get started. No idea is 100% viable. His motto is “Act and see the impact.”
EDII wishes him all the success in all that he envisions for doing.