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Changing the World One Life at a Time

Svetha Janumpalli, CLA alumna and entrepreneur
January 6, 2015
The company:
New Incentives, Inc.

The mission:
Changing lives with
conditional cash tranfers
offering accountable,
incentive-based aid
for people in poverty

On the annual Forbes magazine list of “30 under 30” social entrepreneurs, you’ll find some awe-inspiring 20-somethings who have launched companies to fight poverty, improve health, produce clean energy, and build homes for orphaned children—for starters. Svetha Janumpalli, a 2008 CLA graduate, is on that most recent list. And she’s already changing the world.

Janumpalli has started a company called New Incentives, Inc. Now nearly three years old, the San Francisco-based group operates on a simple but unique formula called conditional cash transfers (CCTs): money goes directly to people in poverty on the condition that they meet certain agreed-upon goals.

“The excitement of being at
Minnesota, in the College of
Liberal Arts, was to experience
so many things,” Janumpalli
says. “Instead of being at a loss
for what I wanted to do, it was a
matter of narrowing it down.”

“The problem is that for someone living in extreme poverty, spending a dollar on food is a dollar they can’t spend on health care or education,” Janumpalli says. “Daily needs are so great that they can’t invest in the long-term efforts that could actually lift them out of poverty.”

To make a donation to New Incentives is not to give to a faceless organization. Instead, it goes to the people you can meet on her Web page. There is 13-year-old Rutuja, for example, who wants to be a teacher but whose family lives on less than a dollar a day; there is Nishika, who wants to be a doctor but who lives in the same dire poverty; and there’s Aniekan, who wants to deliver her baby free of HIV in Nigeria, where one of three babies is born with the virus.

Starting a company was not something Janumpalli had expected to do, even after she graduated from the U. She did, however, have face-to-face encounters with poverty when she traveled with her parents to their native India as a child. She became passionate about that, as well as about a broad array of interests that actually helped her make the decision to come to Minnesota.

“The excitement of being at Minnesota, in the College of Liberal Arts, was to experience so many things,” she says. “Instead of being at a loss for what I wanted to do, it was a matter of narrowing it down.”

Always having an interest in global studies and international relations, Svetha majored in global studies but felt that she was missing something. In her classes, she could see how specific situations around the world were bad, but she didn’t have the tools to address them. By adding economics as a second major, she was able to understand how economic principles could be used to help developing nations and solve some problems. Janumpalli was inspired by people like economics professors Simran Sahi and Fatih Guvenen, and after graduating with degrees in global studies, economics, and art, she went on to join Berkeley Policy Associates in California. Before settling in the Bay Area, she traveled again to India to study microfinancing, a process that loans money to people who might not otherwise be eligible for loans.

“Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus had just won the Nobel Prize for his work on microfinance,” she says, “and, at the time, it was a popular thing to do. There was a lot of money for it, and it was almost faddish. But people still had to pay back the loans.”

So she started researching conditional cash transfers. Research showed that this was a very effective type of lending, but to her surprise, she couldn’t find any nonprofit organizations that were taking this approach. It became a cause.

“It was a strange obsession,” she says. “I would just spend hours Googling and found that nobody was doing this thing that worked. Governments were doing it in 13 countries, but no independent agencies were doing it. I was astonished.”

She started from scratch, with e-mails, cold calls, conversations, and the occasional nod from someone who would say, “Oh sure, I’ll help you out…” To date, she’s formed articles of incorporation, received seed money and established a small staff and an advisory board. Janumpalli has done pilot studies in India, Kenya, Cambodia, and Nigeria, and is beginning to see initial fruits from her efforts.

“We hope that in five years, we will have raised millions and helped lots of people,” she says. “Instead of donors giving to a few organizations, they’re able to give directly to hundreds if not thousands of individuals and see the impact of their gifts.”

What she says:

“I would say to students: Reach out to your advisor early on...don’t be intimidated. Tell people what you want. Set clear goals for yourself. Aim high.”

“Expose yourself to different things and different people.”

“Start now! Don’t wait until you graduate!”