On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused infinite devastation in Nepal. The earthquake left more than 4,800 people dead, 9,200 injured, and affected more than 8 million people. While the international community rallied to support Nepal in whatever ways it could, money eventually started running out, making long-term relief a significant problem for many Nepali citizens.
Like any good entrepreneur, Cornell student Shaibyaa Rajbhandari (’18) hears the word “problem” and immediately thinks, “opportunity.” Shaibyaa is the proud founder of Utthan: a multidimensional investment company designed to create long-term recovery following the destruction of the earthquake in Nepal. Utthan, which means “uplifting” in Nepali, has since received an award from Entrepreneurship at Cornell to continue its efforts to support income for people in Nepal by donating goats following the earthquake.
Since she was raised in Nepal, Shaibyaa has a personal mission to help the country and its people. Hear more of her story below:
Why did you decide to start Utthan?
Growing up, I saw a lot of inefficiencies in the system in Nepal. My drive to make a better change translated into everything else that I did, whether it be in a club position or in school, and coming to Cornell, I realized there are certain industries people are “supposed to do.” There are clubs people are “supposed to join.” I wanted to get away from this set path and make a difference. Following the earthquake in Nepal last April, I saw a lot of people focus on relief and rescue, but there was no focus on long-term rehabilitation. That’s what’s necessary for a country to bounce back. I saw that as my opportunity to make an impact. I knew the people in my country needed a continuous cycle of income as opposed to a one-time relief donation.
What does Utthan do?
I wanted to do something different, and I noticed that people were only focusing on human lives. That said, a lot of cattle were lost during the earthquake, and cattle are very important to people’s economic, social and cultural lives in Nepal. To fix that, I give two female goats to a village of twenty households in Nepal, and I buy two male goats to breed. The idea is to create income-generating opportunities for people in Nepal.
Can you explain what happens after you’ve given the goats to a family in Nepal?
The goal is that once they breed, the female offspring will help the herd grow, and the male offspring can be sold off for $300, which goes a long way in rural Nepal. This provides a continuous cycle of income, and that’s what I’m focusing on. Cost-cutting is also a key part of any business, so the way that I do it without harming the people is once the goats breed, I get one female offspring back from each household. This doesn’t harm the households, because a female goat can give birth to up to two goats per year, so they still have many other goats to breed with they wouldn’t otherwise have. If I want to go to another village, I get to cut my costs.
How are you structuring the business?
My goal is not to be non-profit. I think for-profit models are actually good so long as the profit is handled in a good way, and following that model actually helps you raise more money. With the non-profit model, there are a lot of restrictions I would have to breakeven, but by using the for-profit model, I can take the money and use it how I need it. I pitch Utthan to businesses by saying they’ll get good publicity by partnering with a business like Utthan. That said, social entrepreneurs need to keep in mind that investors expect to get their money back.
How do you see Utthan growing in the future?
I want to focus on one or two products for now, and I want to stick to Nepal because I don’t want to spread myself too thin. Keeping it in Nepal also makes it personal to me, and I want to keep that authenticity.
What’s it like running a business?
It’s important to be efficient about it. For a project like this, you do need a good local partner. In countries like Nepal, they trust international organizations more than they trust the government. I’m working with the Lions Club in Nepal to implement the project, so it’s important to have a local partner helping you out.
How do you balance school, clubs, and having your own business?
It’s tough because I serve on three e-boards and I sometimes feel like school is my extracurricular. Academics are obviously very important, but I want to leave a lasting legacy when I leave Cornell. I don’t want to be a generic student. It’s my drive to leave a mark behind that is forcing me to make a difference.
Can you talk about your partnership with Cornell Social Business Consulting?
Cornell Social Business Consulting is Cornell’s premier pro bono consulting organization, and I’m an analyst for them. We are very open to working with different projects on campus, and when I told the president what I was doing, she asked if we could have our new members work with me as a client. They get face-to-face interaction, and get to do some hands on research.
Are there any other resources you want to highlight within Cornell that have helped you?
Professor Deborah Streeter has been a great mentor for me personally. Other resources like Engaged Learning at Cornell have been helpful for students to go for new projects. People don’t tap into these enough, so go out of your way and submit that last application. Student mentors can also be a big help. Juniors and Seniors hear are great. I’ve loved all my classes and learned a lot, but I really learn from upperclassmen.
Do you think Cornell is the right place to start a business?
I think so. Where else will you find an architect to do your design, an engineer to design your app, and a businessperson to do your marketing, all for free? My logo for Utthan was designed by my best friend who’s really good at Photoshop and did it for free. Now we have Blackstone LaunchPad at Cornell, so while you’re getting everything on a silver plate why not do it now? Even if you don’t want to start a business, join someone else and get that new experience.
What role do you see corporate social responsibility playing in business in the future?
I think one of the biggest problems we have right now is we don’t have enough socially responsible thinkers in the business world, and not enough business thinkers in the social world. I’ve noticed that corporations do a lot for philanthropy, but it’s mostly donating money and they typically spread themselves too thin. I’d recommend focusing on one thing and making a tangible impact in that one thing. It’s not just about the image.
What will it take for you to define Utthan as a success?
One thing that I’ve noticed at Cornell, is that success doesn’t make you permanently content. You’re happy for a split second when you get an internship or a good grade, but then you check it off and then the next day worry about something else. This summer with my goat farm, I helped people and saw how they smiled when they realized they could send their kids to school. That smile still sticks with me and brings me happiness, so I already feel like a success.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don’t be a sheep; don’t do something that everyone else is doing. I’ve seen the drive for entrepreneurship in so many students here, but they’re just scared. Set yourself apart, and there will be a lot of people that won’t believe in you, but the best feeling is proving those people wrong. Just go for it.