India: A Top Testing Ground for Omidyarism and Impact Investing

Last fall, we wondered whether Omidyarism was going to conquer philanthropy. By that, we meant whether the Omidyar Network's fully integrated blend of nonprofit grantmaking and for-profit investing would eventually become the norm among large philanthropic players. The embrace of this model by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan is what prompted our musings. That couple, along with other emerging funders, like Laurene Powell Jobs, clearly see the need to employ a wider array of tools to make change than is possible with a traditional foundation.

Related: Will Omidyarism Conquer Philanthropy?

Meanwhile, we're keeping an eye on the Omidyar Network itself, and how it's pressing forward with its approach. One thing that's becoming clear is that the organization sees India as an all-important frontier for advancing Omidyarism. 

The Omidyar Networkwhich, of course, is backed by the eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pamhas long worked in India. Now, it's aiming to ramp things up there, with plans to invest $350 million in India.

Omidyar has had the Indian market in its crosshairs for some time now, having already targeted as much as $160 million in investments by the year 2020. Only now, it's decided to more than double its initial investment, by pledging the aforementioned $350 million to the country during the same time span. 

This pledge is in line with Omidyar's previous work in the area. For years now, through grants and investments, the Omidyar Network has focused on issues of Indian governance, property rights, citizen engagement, entrepreneurship, Internet and mobile access, and finance. Recipients of capital have included the employment company Aspiring Minds, travel startup RailYatri, and Quikr, an online classifieds company (kind of like an Indian Craigslist). Recently, Omidyar put money toward Indus OS, a company attempting to make the Android interface more accessible and easy to use for those living in rural India.

This new doubling down will be aimed primarily toward those companies that are just getting off the ground, or struggling to do so. Not to mention, it also comes on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour across the country, as he attempted to drum up support for fledgling tech companies in need of additional investments.

India has been a focal point for American philanthropy for many decades, and a testing ground for any number of ideas. Right now, for example, the Rockfeller Foundation, which has a long history in the country, is financing a major effort there to provide cheap, clean energy. 

Omidyar, meanwhile, has recognized that India represents a unique opportunity for impact investors, as much of India's population is low to middle class—meaning they have reasonably steady income, yet still represent the demographic target of innovative products and services that aim to improve lives. Per Paula Goldman of the Omidyar Network, "Our experience after 11 years in impact investing in emerging markets is that one can get strong returns and make a tremendous difference in people’s lives by focusing on the low and lower-middle income populations." She added, “There are a range of investing strategies investors can explore directed at those earning between $2 and $8 per day as they make impact investing a truly viable part of their portfolios.”

With such a bold and ambitious pledge to both Indian small businesses and nonprofit organizations, this could be a significant focus of Omidyar and his team for a number of years to come. 

We should note, of course, that the Omidyar Network is not the only impact investor focusing on India. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is another notable player in this regard, making a growing number of investments in Indian startups. A range of other funders is also on the scene. 

Related: A Foundation Puts Capital Behind a Push for More Skilled Workers in India