Karl Mehta is an extraordinary gentleman with many feathers on his cap. He is a serial entrepreneur, investor, engineer, author and civil servant with over 20 years of experience in founding, building and funding technology companies in the U.S. and international markets.
He is currently the founder & CEO of EdCast Inc., which is a social knowledge network that powers social, mobile and cloud-based learning for world-class institutions, enterprises, governments and non-profits. Apart from being the Venture Partner at Menlo Ventures, he is also the founder of Code For India – a Silicon Valley-based tech-driven non-profit organisation. Its mission is to inspire millions of techies to volunteer their time and talent to give back to their communities and to the developing world. He is also on the board of several non-profit organisations that strive to impact education worldwide.
Previously, he founded a company called PlaySpan Inc., which was acquired by Visa in March 2011, for about $240 Mn. Karl also served as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, selected by the Obama Administration during the inaugural 2012-13 term. He was also appointed by California’s Governor Jerry Brown to the Workforce Investment Board of the State of California.
Karl has impacted the tech world immensely with his companies, but more than that, it’s his passion to give back and bring about a change in the world, that’s commendable. From the streets of Bombay, to the halls of White House, the journey of Karl Mehta is awe-inspiring. We caught up with him to understand this journey, his dreams and passion to impact over a billion lives. In this candid conversation, he talks about his all these aspects and much more.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Inc42: Tell us about your journey from the University of Bombay to Mountain View, California.
Karl: I graduated from Bombay University, in electronics engineering with a dream to go to the United States to study and make it big in the technology space. The first catastrophic failure I faced in that dream was right at the first step when the US Consulate in Mumbai rejected my Student Visa application thrice and consequently, I lost my admission due to missing the semester. I cried for several weeks and felt my 10+ year’s dreams shattered. I somehow figured out a way to go to the US through an indirect route by staying in Singapore and applying for a US visitor Visa there and starting my company across US-Singapore.
Eighteen years later, I went from a US Visa rejection to a Visa (NYSE:V) acceptance where the US multinational acquired my third startup in the US for about $240 Mn cash.
Eighteen years later, I went from a US Visa rejection to a Visa (NYSE:V) acceptance where the US multinational acquired my third startup in the US for about $240 Mn cash. Subsequently, I was appointed by the White House as one of the first Presidential Innovation fellow. And, it was a truly surreal moment for me.
Not so long ago, I was struggling on the streets of Bombay hoping and dreaming to make it to the US, and my dreams were destroyed and here I was in The White House working for the President, and I had accomplished my dream to build technology companies that are successful and impactful.
Inc42: When did the entrepreneurial bug bite you?
Karl: Entrepreneurship to me was a necessity from my college days, since my father, the only bread-winner in the family passed away when I was only sixteen (10th grade). I paid for my entire grad college education for six years by selling various gadgets and offering tutoring services to earn enough money for survival.
Entrepreneurship to me was a necessity from my college days, since my father, the only bread-winner in the family passed away when I was only sixteen (10th grade). I paid for my entire grad college education for six years by selling various gadgets and offering tutoring services to earn enough money for survival.
I learnt the virtue of hard work, determination and focus from those hardships, it gave me the self-conscious and courage to start my first company pretty soon after I graduated.
I always felt that I have seen the worst between losing my father and paying for my education that nothing can be worse, since I’m used to living with no money in my pockets.
Inc42: After creating quite a few disruptions in the technology space, what instigated you to enter the education space with EdCast?
Karl: My ultimate goal in life has always been to serve the people at the bottom of the pyramid, and help them spiral up just like what I have been able to do.
I believe that education is the ultimate equalizer and can help achieve that goal. I wrote a book on financial inclusion- ‘At The Bottom Of The Pyramid’, which is available on Amazon, and it has addressed the financial side of it. However, I wanted to build a large peer-to-peer learning platform that is scalable and brings lifelong learning as a habit forming culture to a billion plus people.
EdCast is building that large peer-to-peer knowledge network that allows anyone to learn from anyone without the need for instructors or expensive content. Also, in my life I have always learnt from my role models and people whom I consider role models, keeping it in mind, for the first time at EdCast we are building a large influencer network of successful people in various fields who are ready to give back through their knowledge and insights.
The EdCast, mobile app and website is super easy for anyone to share their knowledge, and also receive personalised insights based on their interests.
Inc42: How is EdCast different from the other educational technology platforms available?
Karl: EdCast is revolutionary because it is changing the way how people learn by leveraging a many-to-many model as opposed to 1-to-many model in education and learning for the past thousands of years.
Also, EdCast is built as a social media or a vertical social network because today’s millennials are used to spending a lot of their time on social media. EdCast leverages the social relationships of a user, and hence makes the learning experience fun, interesting and joyful as opposed to a very stressful experience and long-term commitment that the traditional course centric sites offer.
EdCast is also unique because it brings live streamed content from world leaders and global influencers who are experts in their fields rather than just academics.
And finally, EdCast allows organisations (business, educational institution, government bodies) to create their own private network on EdCast public network so they can create and operate a social learning network for their employees and partners/customers in a secure environment.
Inc42: Please shed some light on The Sustainable Development Solution Network.
Karl: The United Nations recently approved Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as its core focus for inclusive growth for the next 15 years and 193 countries worldwide signed off on these SDGs.
The SDGs replaces the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were approved by the UN in 2000 and had great impact for the past 15 years.
The SDSN group at the UN is leading the education initiative to build awareness and understanding of the SDGs worldwide because without education, we will not achieve the transformational powers of the SDGs to eliminate extreme poverty, reverse climate change, bring basic health to everyone, and achieve gender neutrality and many other goals.
EdCast has partnered with the SDSN group to provide social, mobile and online learning and awareness of the SDGs worldwide, and we are extremely grateful and honored to be part of this world changing initiative.
Inc42: What are EdCast’s expansion plans in India?
Karl: We are growing rapidly worldwide and also in India. The users from India currently account for the second largest country on our website and mobile app. We have an off-shore development center in Mumbai and we are setting up an office in Bangalore and New Delhi and looking to hire a president for the Asia Pacific who will be based out of EdCast India offices.
Inc42: Are you content with the journey of PlaySpan under your wings or do wish you could have done more and taken it to even greater heights?
Karl: Hindsight is 20-20, in PlaySpan we were ahead of our times and built a bitcoin style virtual currency platform even before bitcoin and became the largest micro transactional company that led VISA, the largest payment network to acquire us.
Given the growth in payment industry and in virtual currency in the past five years since I sold my company, it does feel that we could have taken PlaySpan to a 10x level growth and a successful IPO rather than an acquisition. However, VISA paid a fair price and I’m satisfied with the acquisition. It helped me to take a few years from running a business and do interesting work at the White House, launch my non-profit, CODE FOR INDIA and also serve Governor Brown at the California Workforce Investment Board.
Inc42: How did it feel to have won the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award for Northern California from Ernst & Young?
Karl: Ernst & Young runs a very competitive process and is one of the most prestigious awards in the entrepreneurship field of work. I was truly humbled and didn’t expect it, but was very satisfied and fulfilled to receive that award. I received the award when I turned 40 and in my entire life till that day, I had focused on nothing but entrepreneurship. It definitely helped open a lot of doors and access to the next orbit of networks.
Inc42: What all did you learn during your stint as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, during the inaugural 2012-13 term? How was the experience like?
Karl: I had always felt an obligation towards the United States, because I have received so much here in terms of wealth, success and happiness and so the opportunity to serve the government (and in turn the people) was my best opportunity to return the obligation. It almost felt like my inner wish just came true.
Working inside the White House gave me the opportunity to look at problems at a national level and the ability to make an impact even with small decisions which affects the lives of more the 300 million people or sometimes the entire world.
Every moment it felt like I’m on the top of the world and also a strong sense of responsibility to not make mistake that might get amplified 300 million times.
Inc42: How different was it to be a venture partner from being an entrepreneur? Which role did you enjoy more?
Karl: I went to the venture capital firm thinking that I can be a force multiplier in helping more entrepreneurs rather than building my own companies which I had been doing before that for the past 20+ years.
I went to the venture capital firm thinking that I can be a force multiplier in helping more entrepreneurs rather than building my own companies which I had been doing before that for the past 20+ years.
However, I found that the best entrepreneurs generally need the least of help from me as a board member/ investor. I felt that it is a great role for someone like me to do in my retired age and while I’m still more active my best contribution to the society would be by building impactful technologies and companies that can actually help people worldwide. So, although I enjoyed both roles, it is a matter of what stage you are in your game and when is the right time to transition from a player to a coach. I felt I still have some more years as a player.
Inc42: How did Code For India happen?
Karl: While I was working at the White House, I worked with Code for America for some of the government projects and realized that India needs a similar organization maybe with a different model and that led me to create Code for India as a non-profit both in the US and in India.
The concept of giving back in time and tech-talent was so compelling that we are now the fastest growing tech-driven social-impact driven non-profit in the US and in India. The most fulfilling moment was when PM Modi and Google CEO Sundar Pichai came to our Code for India on stage with me and recognised the effort of all of our volunteers and checked out our projects.
Inc42: Do you think startups should also focus on social good rather than just raising funds and earning revenues?
Karl: Startups have to decide early on whether they want to be a commercial only venture and do good for the society when they become profitable through CSR activity or they can start out as a clearly stated “impact-venture” with a double bottom line (DBL) objective. Booth types of companies can do good to the society as long as they can have a sustainable and viable business model if the intent plus culture is to give back.
Inc42: What are some of the key apps that Code For India has developed?
Karl: We have built over 50+ apps. It ranges from health, people empowerment, safety security, sanitation education and women specific issues.
Our voter registration app that was developed during the 2014 India Lok Sabha elections, has received an award from election commissioner of India.
Our women safety app has been recognised by UNESCO.
Our garbage spotting app for clean India called Spotter.in is being used by hundreds of people in Bangalore.
These are some of the highlights in the entire list of apps that can be viewed at CodeforIndia.org.
Inc42: Which all organisations and NGOs has Code For India partnered with in India?
Karl: Akshay Patra foundation, America India foundation, Pratham foundation and Volunteer for a Better India and many more NGOs from India.
Inc42: What are some of the key future initiatives that we can expect from Code For India?
Karl: We are working on supporting PM Modi’s Digital India vision as well as his Startup India and Smart Cities vision.
Later this month on the 26th of December, we are running a Code For India hackathon in Ahmedabad with specific focus on smart cities in partnership with Ahmedabad municipal corporation.
Inc42: Any words of advice for entrepreneurs who also aim to the tread the non-profit path and focus on social good.
Karl: India is at an inflection point, and it needs the talent and energy and dedication of smart people to fulfil its potential to become a developed nation in the next decade. This transformation from developing to developed nation so rapidly will not be achieved just by commercial industry and startups, but will require tremendous growth in social impact ventures that looks at the problem in a more inclusive and holistic way to address the needs of the bottom of the pyramid who are generally ignored as the target market by commercial ventures.
India is at an inflection point, and it needs the talent and energy and dedication of smart people to fulfil its potential to become a developed nation in the next decade.
My book on financial inclusion at the bottom of the pyramid highlights a number of such social impact ventures and innovations that are already helping the poor and even the extreme poor to get access of the tools to lift them out of poverty. Organizations like Code for India will be required to unleash the volunteering desire and energy in every India to build their motherland. Platforms like EdCast will connect a billion people so they can learn from each and skill up the country rapidly to earn a higher-quality standard of living.
One can clearly feel Karl’s passion while going through his responses, and it, quite frankly, rubs off on you. His journey is an inspiration for many and proof that dream do come true, if you are equipped with the right skills and mindset and fuelled by the true passion. Here’s a man who understands the true meaning of entrepreneurship. We wish him all the success in his endeavour to improve over a billion lives.