A Conversation with Jyoti Sharma, Social Entrepreneur in Residence
Kristin spoke with Sharma in her office at the Swearer Center for Public Service in early March—as it happened, on International Women’s Day. Sharma, who lives in Delhi, is the first Social Entrepreneur in Residence, a partnership between the Swearer Center and the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy.
Sharma is the founder of the award-winning nonprofit FORCE, a water conservation and policy organization that promotes sustainable, equitable water management through “Modern Technology, Traditional Wisdom, and People’s Participation.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristin Moe (Swearer Center): Was social justice part of the conversation in your family growing up?
Jyoti Sharma: I grew up in Delhi, mostly. The path that was laid out for me was to get a business management degree, and get a workspace, and be successful. So social justice was never part of the overt dialogue.
But my mother was a teacher—and it was very much a part of her work. And, all our families were involved in the “village upliftment” programs, making decisions collectively about village development and governance. So I learned a lot just by listening to those conversations around me.
KM: By your parents’ definition, it seems like you were very successful. You were in advertising and marketing for almost a decade. What made you leave something so lucrative and move into nonprofit work?
JS: When I was taking time off after my daughter was born, I came across a report on water. I realized that water was possibly the biggest problem the world was facing. But it’s a problem that has a solution, and it’s actually a very good mix for the person I am: traditional value systems, but very modern in how you look and analyze—and very result-oriented.
So at the time, we had just moved to a new part of town that had a huge water crisis—we only got water delivered about once a week. About 20,000 flats were not given municipal water connections. And there used to be big fights when people came to get water from the tankers, and a lot of bribery.
After I got involved, we started to organize a system to make sure that everyone got a base level of water. That was my first experience of managing water. All that I learned became the basis for FORCE.
KM: So you’ve been working with different communities all over the region to help them self-organize. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned?
JS: One, people put their self-interest first. So if you want to scale up what you’re doing, you have to connect with their self-interest. That’s not necessarily bad—it’s just a given.
Second, no nonprofit should aim to make a parallel government—governments are the biggest change agents, and they need to be brought along.
Third, you need to be constantly changing. You should never afraid of stopping, closing, and starting with a new model at any stage.
And fourth, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of falling in love with your own creation. If you get into that trap, the vision gets lost.
KM: Maybe it’s because it’s International Women’s Day, but I’m curious about how gender has functioned in your life.
JS: You know, I never thought about all these things until people started asking me. A couple years ago I was called to give a talk about women and management. And I thought about it, and I realized how much being a woman played a part in why FORCE was so effective.
In India, there’s a premium on having a son. But my father and mother were unusual: they took a decision to limit the size of the family to two children. They had two girls.
There was so much pressure to have a son— I can only really understand how now that I’m a mother myself. But my parents said, “Our daughters are like our sons.”
That decision made us much more confident as individuals. And my parents focused on our education, rather than telling us to cook in the kitchen.
Now, in India especially, I’m in a field that is very much dominated by men. So I came into a male domain—but I work in a very female way.
In FORCE, we’ve had a lot of policy impact, but if you asked people, they wouldn’t know that we were behind it. That’s what being a woman meant to me: you stay in the background. That’s the world I grew up in; it’s male-dominated. So you learn to let others feel good about themselves, but you go around planting seeds.
KM: Is there a specific example of how this played out?
JS: Actually, I think FORCE’s biggest single achievement is because of this.
In India, every state legislates separately. One of the things that we’d been lobbying for was more holistic water management. So in 2013, the central government decided that they wanted to create a framework water law for the whole country.
They needed to create a panel of experts. Now, FORCE is a small organization. But to the utter shock of everyone, I was called to be on that nine-member committee.
I got called in for all the wrong reasons. I got called because I was a woman, and because I was the kind of woman that they thought they would have no trouble with. I was knowledgeable—but also respectful. Back home, most knowledgeable women become assertive in a way people don’t like.
Now, they probably also called me because we were doing a lot of ground work, and they knew I was speaking not from opinions, but from experience. But I didn’t kid myself—I knew why I was really there.
Once I got there, though, I realized I had the opportunity of a lifetime. And I also knew that if I were to assert too much in front of these eight big shots, I could end up doing the opposite of what I wanted.
So I made a “wish list” of things that I knew were needed; groundwater management, basin level management, water security, everybody getting a certain number of litres of water—everything.
Then, during individual conversations over tea, I’d say, “You know, last time, when we were talking, you said this. I thought about it and, wow, that’s brilliant. Yes, we should do it like this.” So instead of it being my idea, it became their idea.
And you know what? 100% of my list is in that law.
I have, like water, always chosen to create my way without going overtly against the flow. It has worked well for me and empowered me without threatening others much.
But by not choosing to draw attention to the need to make these choices, I may not have served my gender well. Young women should learn the lessons of not needing to submit to an unequal norm. That is my hope.
Kristin leads the Storytellers for Good program at the Swearer Center for Public Service.