The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation was established in 1999, mainly to improve educational opportunities and healthcare for children in the Dells' home region of central Texas. The foundation has grown significantly since those early days and now awards grants to support education, childhood health, and family economic stability in the U.S. and abroad in India and South Africa. The foundation has made more than a billion dollars in grants.
Up until recently, the foundation’s program-related investments have taken a back seat to its traditional grantmaking. That’s not to say that Dell hasn’t made some hefty PRIs in the past. A couple of years ago, it put up a $500,000 investment in IntelleGrow, and company that offers customized debt financing to small and medium enterprise start-ups in India. In 2013, Dell had already made a sizable, $1 million investment in the company. The foundation was also an early-stage funder of Unitus Seed Fund and Menterra Venture Advisors, both located in India as well.
If you’re seeing a clear pattern here, you’d be right.
Dell has now announced that it’s upping its investment ante in India and has committed $50 million over the next three years toward impact investments. The foundation is initially planning to make direct investments in more early-stage ventures around the country while continuing to support its existing venture, the India Educational Investment Fund.
Debasish Mitter, country director of India at Dell explains that the lion’s share of the $50 million commitment will go to startups because, he says, “...while we are an extremely active impact investor, we are increasingly finding that the venture capital space is struggling to get money, and ventures in areas of our interest are even more starved.”
While I’m certain that there are a ton of funding gaps as well as funding opportunities in India, the country is hot when it comes to interest from Dell and like-minded impact investors.
Let’s start with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, along with other financial heavyweights like Bob Gay, former managing director at Bain Capital, and former Microsoft exec Mike Murray, led the charge to provide $8 million in funding in Unitus Seed Fund. This bottom-of-the-pyramid, or BOP-focused company believes that “for-profit companies have the potential to make a substantially positive difference in society.” Since this is a BOP-focused outfit, it concentrates its efforts on helping lift people out of poverty through its work.
And we can’t talk about Indian startups without mentioning the Omidyar Network.
Founded in 1998 and originally named the Omidyar Foundation, the Omidyar Network has been far ahead of most funders in branching far away from the traditional grantmaking model—and offers a glimpse of where a place like the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation might one day end up. These days, Omidyar's outlays are divided between nonprofits and for profits. And India is a major focus. In late 2015, Omidyar announced that it was planning to invest more than $350 million in both for profit and nonprofit organization in India.
Much like the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Vinod Khosla, the Omidyar Network will focus its investments on BOP populations. When speaking about the $350 million commitment, Roopa Kudva, managing director of Omidyar Network India Advisors said that they’ve learned a lot after investing in emerging markets for over a decade, finding 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.”
India has long been a top testing ground for philanthropy, a place where some of the biggest funders in the world have—for many decades—operated with grand hopes and dreams. That list of heavyweights includes the Rockefeller, Gates, and Ford foundations. It's interesting to watch as another wave of ambitious funders seek new and transformative ways to attack India's famed poverty.