[Name]: Anu Sridharan
[Areas of Expertise]: Civil Engineering, Mobile Technology, International Development, Women’s Empowerment
“You know how you listen to music sometimes and it just brings you back to a certain time and place? I was listening to Pink in the car the other day, and I was brought back to when I was in middle school. And I just started crying. Because I realized that when I was younger I always just wanted to work in India– nothing job-specific, just that I wanted to make an impact there. And here I am, doing exactly that, full time. Thanks to Hub Ventures and just being very lucky, I am one of the few people that I can say I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do when I was little.”
Judging from the daily “Berkeley odors,” (go ahead, laugh Hub SoMa…) some of us didn’t shower this morning. But most of us did. Imagine your horror if you had dragged your sleep-deprived butt out of bed (pre-coffee), shuffled (eyes-closed) to the bathroom in your slippers, and turned the shower handle only to find that– lo and behold– not a single drip came out of the shower-head. No water from the faucet to brush your teeth either. None to brew your morning coffee or tea. Imagine your rage, frustration, disappointment… Now imagine if this were an every-day occurrence.
Anu Sridharan, CEO of NextDrop and 2011 Hub Ventures participant, seeks to address this exact problem, which is a sad reality in emerging economies around the world. “Where people would otherwise wait around their houses all day for intermittent water supply,” Anu says, “Our system tells people 30-60 minutes in advance when water will come.” NextDrop crowdsources information about water availability and timing, and provides this info to key players. NextDrop also allows water utilities to track their water, so that they have more control over the supply and can tell when it’s being used or not.
“It’s funny, before I visited Hubli, I didn’t see why the work NextDrop was doing was so important,” Anu explains. “I thought, ‘Oh, does it really matter that the women have to wait at home for water? Aren’t they just at home anyway?’ But then I visited and saw how ridiculous it is that people there, not just women, completely run their lives around the timing of the water.”
Water scarcity disproportionately affects women and the poor. But it’s by no means a problem limited to low-income households. Anu remembers talking to a professor who had missed dinner with her daughter the other day because the water hadn’t come yet. “She usually doesn’t venture out far from home, so she can come back every hour and check to see if the tap is running. And she’s a professor! If the middle class is this reliant,” Anu laments, “You can imagine how difficult it must be for the poor.”
During her travel for Phase One of NextDrop’s pilot, Anu learned that staying in larger and more developed parts of India does not guarantee uninterrupted access to water. “Even at fancy hotels, they have to turn on water and fill a tank up– nowhere in India has 24-7 water supply. Sure, you can take a shower, and it seems like it’s just there, but in truth somebody woke up at 4 am to fill a tank to provide water for you,” she realizes aloud.
This translates to a culture of constant adaptation. “In India, it’s so normal to call a dear friend and tell them ‘Sorry, I can’t come to your wedding because I have to stay and collect water,’” Anu says. “It’s crazy! That was a real shock to me.” I try now to imagine saying to my sister, who’s graduating this weekend, “I’m so sorry, I can’t make it down to Santa Cruz, I have to wait for water to come out of the tap so I can do my laundry.” Somehow, it doesn’t sound quite right.
This will be Anu’s reality in a month. Having completed the Hub Ventures program, Anu is moving to Hubli in July to run NextDrop’s Pilot Phase Two. “Our pilot last year relied on individual consumers to tell us when their water was on. As of July, though, we will have a partnership with the water utility that closes the feedback loop such that now the person who is turning on the valve can directly call people to let them know their water will be coming on.” Through mobile technology, NextDrop is taking the guesswork out of survival.
Anu thinks having a direct connection with the valve-man may spur a shift in habits for Hubli’s residents. “We’re trying to incentivize people to give information. This requires behavior change, which is a huge thing,” she explains, “In this case, all people have to do is make a phone call, but you’d be surprised how difficult that can be.” This summer, NextDrop plans to devote time to understanding what is most effective in getting people to switch from listening for the sound of running water to using the mobile system. “We’re thinking of using ads, and possibly a Facebook “like” system so that users can thank the valve-man for letting them know when water was coming.”
A Hubber after my own heart, Anu believes that connecting people in direct ways is extremely powerful. She postulates:
“Leveraging social networks is really somewhere we can have value added. NextDrop is often classified as a tech startup, but really we’re about people. In development work, people don’t understand how important it is to figure out what really motivates your population. For example, people in our pilot didn’t respond very well to offers of money– money is not necessarily the answer for incentivizing good behavior. Maybe they want to feel they’re making a difference, but you won’t know until you study social dynamics. We have a great system, but we haven’t focused on the social aspect enough.”
A $375 K grant may help them do just that. Anu and the NextDrop team are awaiting confirmation, from a yet-to-be-named organization, that they will receive a large grant to continue their work with NextDrop and water availability information systems in emerging economies. “It’s going to mean everything for us,” Anu gushes, “Our pilot will be funded for two years. If that happens, I can concentrate on the actual execution of the work and not on funding. How many founders get to say that? I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much if I didn’t go through the Hub Ventures program because I wouldn’t have realized how much time we have to devote to keeping the lights on. I’m so blessed.”
Having worked in the water and sanitation sector throughout her six years at Cal (Undergrad: Civil Engineering, Masters: Civil Engineering), Anu seems perfectly ready for the challenge of taking NextDrop to the next level as CEO. But she didn’t always know what specific career she wanted to have:
“I’m young, but I’ve learned a lot from connecting with other entrepreneurs in Hub Ventures. It’s been great to have a support network: for example, when I wanted to quit my job to pursue NextDrop full time, everybody at the Hub encouraged me.” Anu knew that she wanted to work in India, where she has memories of visiting as a little kid, but she never dreamt she would be heading her own company at the age of 24. “In undergrad, I met the people who started NextDrop. I’m now the CEO, but I’m also the janitor– I play all the multiple roles.”
What inspires Anu? “I love reading biographies and memoirs of people who make change,” she admits, “For example, this might seem random, but I really liked Jay Z’s book ‘Decoded.’ It inspired me to do what I’m doing: to make change in communities that are important to me.” While Anu looks to Jay Z for “eyes on the prize” motivation, she also loves Tina Fey’s go-get-em attitude. “She’s a female comedian in a male-dominated field, just like I am, but she just does what she does no matter what people say.”
Though her time in Hub Ventures is coming to a close, Anu remembers the moment when she realized how special the experience was. “We listened to all the other pitches, and took a mock-vote for who would get $75,000. That’s a lot of money, but I remember thinking to myself ‘I don’t care who gets it.’ All these people are so amazing, and they’re all making a difference in the world in so many different fields. I am sitting with 16 other people who are really making it happen, and showing me that it’s possible to change the world. It doesn’t even matter who gets the money, that to me is inspiration enough.”
Catch Anu if you can, before she jets off, and wish her luck on her next “venture adventure.” But if you can’t, Anu wants to say thank you: “It’s been so awesome to be at the Hub and meet an incredible group of people so passionate about making the world a better place. I wouldn’t do anything differently.” Don’t forget to check out NextDrop at http://nextdrop.org/, and look out for the announcement of Hub Ventures Finalists, coming at you next week!
As always, thanks for reading,
Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent
Samantha is a staff blogger for the Hub Bay Area. She designed and launched the Hub Stories Project in January of 2011 in an attempt to capture the unique narratives of Bay Area change-makers as they help to build a better world from within the Hub community. She also writes a travel blog and is currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel.