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2019 IFC Sustainability Exchange
At 35, Inderpreet Wadhwa left his job in Silicon Valley to build a business around his passion for clean energy, becoming the first entrepreneur to sell solar power commercially in India. At the 2018 Sustainability Exchange he spoke with Nikunj Jinsi of IFC about the risks he took to launch his company Azure Power.
Inderpreet Wadhwa: I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do — like many other teen kids – growing up in India, you could study mathematics and become an engineer or you could study medicine and become a doctor. And believe it or not, the night before I had to make the decision, I literally flipped a coin and I became an engineer, and became a software engineer. I worked for Oracle Corporation in Silicon Valley, I went to UC Berkeley for my MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship.
And it is in those days, I want to say early 2000s, that I started thinking about social entrepreneurship. I started thinking about what could I give back to the community where I came from. And I would have these conversations with a lot of Indians working in the Valley, that in India you have a lot of challenges around infrastructure, there’s a lot of poverty, and what can be done.
US India Clean Energy dialogue Inderpreet Wadhwa with Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and Fred P. Hochberg Chairman US EXIM Bank. Courtesy of Azure Power.
Courtesy of Azure Power.
Inderpreet: And then it so happened that there was an extended family litigation of real estate that I got involved in, and I decided to go back to India to deal with this. I ended up chatting with a gentleman who had just returned from California and they were doing research on biofuels. And they seemed to be doing a lot of things in renewable energy. I said ‘are you doing anything in solar’? And the guy said ‘no we are not but we would love to hear about what can be done in solar in India.’ This was 2007, so people were not taking solar as a mainstream source of energy, being very expensive – and I explained what can be done, that over time the cost of solar will come down.
A few weeks later I met the minister of renewable energy who had heard about the meeting and said ‘we understand that meeting went really well, are you serious about doing something in India?’ And that was I think maybe the inflection point for me, that I said ‘hey, I’ve always wanted to do something socially conscious.’
So, I, literally within 48 hours set up a company in Delaware — I looked for Sun Power it was taken, Sky Power was taken, and then I said okay how about Azure Power, right? So I got the domain name registered, I got the company incorporated, I made a proposal, and from then on the rest is history.
– Inderpreet Wadhwa
Nikunj: Firstly, you didn’t become an engineer, you didn’t become a doctor in the end, and being an entrepreneur in India was not a common path, let alone being a social entrepreneur, and then on top of that you took a path into the field of renewables, you were the first of your kind. How would you explain yourself to your family?
Inderpreet: I respect my father a lot. He migrated from Peshawar during the partition of India and Pakistan. He was three or four years old. My grandfather had to start from scratch, my father got employed in the insurance sector and he worked there 40 years and retired as the chairman of the company. So when I first came back from the U.S. and I told him ‘this is what I want to do’ he said ‘you’re being extremely stupid.’ He said ‘forget about your plans, tell me how much time and money are you going to waste before you go back to California.’
Nikunj: This is what you expected, right?
Inderpreet: Most of the choices I made in my life were not really along the lines of a conservative Indian family. I said, ‘I appreciate your concern, but I’m extremely passionate about this and I believe I’ll get there, but if I build India’s first grid-connected solar power plant, would you come work for me?’ Because he is the most experienced person I know in the regulated sector, because insurance is regulated in India. So I built the first plant in 2009, he is the Chief Operating Officer of the business and also a director on the Board.
Inderpreet Wadhwa and H. S. Wadhwa Meeting. Courtesy of Azure Power.
Courtesy of Azure Power.
Nikunj: Very good. Looking back, if there’s one thing you would have done differently, what would it have been?
Inderpreet: Nothing, really. I don’t think I’d change anything. Everything I’ve done I think I’ve done with conviction and passion, and that’s an extremely important thing that once you believe in something just follow it through and in the end you will see success. And if you don’t see success, it’s not the end.
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With support from StoryCorps, a U.S. nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. For more information, visit storycorps.org
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