Business Today

What is Vikram Akula up to these days?

SKS Microfinance's founder and ex-chairman says he's busy advising entrepreneurs, playing angel investor and writing a book, but SKS Trusts have sought a seat for him on the company's board.

twitter-logo E Kumar Sharma        Last Updated: September 9, 2013  | 21:17 IST
What is Vikram Akula up to these days?

E Kumar Sharma
There is a certain disarming and persuasive charm about Vikram Akula's modest demeanour and soft-spoken American accent. His detractors, however, see him as being unable or unwilling to let go of SKS Microfinance, the company he founded and later quit.

Nearly 21 months after he quit SKS Microfinance, Akula says: "I see myself today as a former social entrepreneur who is advising current social entrepreneurs."

He was once the poster boy of Indian microfinance, in the limelight for getting SKS Microfinance listed. This was significant, because it is the only listed microfinance company in India. He was, however, later criticised for his pursuits at SKS, which encouraged other players to expand aggressively, with little regard for poor borrowers - their original purpose - a trend that eventually proved detrimental to the entire industry. The state then intervened, and finally the Indian microfinance industry collapsed in its hub - Andhra Pradesh.

In November 2011, Akula quit SKS and withdrew from the glare of the media. His detractors remain wary, some even to the point of arguing that there is perhaps more than meets the eye in the SKS's mutual benefit trusts - Akula's creation at SKS - becoming the single largest shareholder with a 12.6 per cent stake and seeking a seat on the company board. The wariness persists despite Akula saying he has sold almost all of his stake and retaining only a nominal 10 shares or so, "so that I get shareholder reports, because I am interested and care about it".

On Sunday, September 8, Biksham Gujja, Akula's mentor and the chairperson of the company that is the trustee of SKS Trusts, sent a letter to SKS Microfinance, seeking a seat on the company board for Akula. He said: "As an initial step, the trusts have urged the board to induct Dr. Vikram Akula, its nominee, immediately. The appointment could be regularised at the ensuing annual general meeting." SKS has, however, not yet responded. Its spokesperson said on Monday it had yet to see it, as it was sent over the weekend.

In fact, the release to the media sent by the trust quotes Akula as saying: "I am truly honoured that the trusts have asked me to serve on the Board of SKS Microfinance. I will do my best to help SKS Microfinance achieve its mission and to contribute to enhancing long-term shareholder value."

The SKS Trusts are five mutual benefit trusts whose beneficiaries are self-help groups of SKS Microfinance's borrowers. The trusts are the original promoter shareholders of SKS Microfinance Ltd. The sole trustee of the trusts is SKS Trust Advisors Pvt Ltd (STAPL). The chairperson of STAPL is Gujja, an environmental scientist and founder of AgSri Agricultural Services Pvt Ltd. Akula sits on the board of AgriSri, and is an angel investor in it.

Just days before Gujja's letter, Akula told Business Today that these days he spends most of his time working on his second book, provisionally titled A Story of Love and Loss: Lessons for Social Entrepreneurs. He says he is writing it to tell people about his experiences at SKS. "People can learn from my mistakes and it is my responsibility to share those lessons," he says.

He says he spends a quarter of his time on AgSri, a venture driven by his mentor Biksham Gujja, which is focused on innovating, packaging, implementing and scaling agricultural technologies that are farmer-friendly and ecologically sustainable. Two such technologies are the Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative and the System of Rice Intensification.

The technologies emphasise improving productivity while conserving water at the same time. Akula says he encouraged AgSri to go commercial so it could bring more capital into the company and the drive scientific growth.

He says he has played angel investor to the company, but is unwilling to say how much he has invested. "I own 26 per cent of the company" is all he lets on. The company is currently raising its first round of external funding.

Akula also keeps himself occupied with his involvement in the initiatives of the SKS Trust. It runs 15 schools and serves 3,000 children, and organises health initiatives such as deworming programmes for children.

He is an advisor to six entities, of which only three only have a presence in India, in the areas of rural healthcare, agriculture and rural retail. The other three operate in Africa, where they focus on low-cost sanitation, agriculture and eco-friendly energy solutions.

A US citizen, Akula divides his time equally between India and his home country. He says four or five entrepreneurs reach out to him for consultation every week. He has held eight workshops in the past two years, in Mexico, Ethiopia, China and New York.

He does it for free. "If there are people doing interesting work, I will help them. In some cases, I advise and in some rare cases - like with AgSri - write out a small cheque," he says.

On his personal wealth, he says: "I am not running for President, and there's no reason for me discuss my personal wealth." He adds: "I have, through the sales of SKS shares over the years, earned enough that I can live comfortably without having to take up another job, and I can pay my mortgage, pay my son's school fees in the US and for the car that I took on lease."

He says the aim of his most recent move to sell his remaining SKS shares was not to make money. He says: "The papers have said that I got Rs 12 crore from the sale of these shares, but I must tell you that I sold them at a loss, because when I bought them, the share price was Rs 218, and when I sold the price was Rs 132. But I wanted to sell them, as I wanted to get out of the equation."

Akula recently met venture capitalist Vinod Khosla in Delhi. Khosla and Akula have known each other for years, and the former was among the early investors in SKS. Akula says the recent meeting had nothing to do with his investment plans or proposals.

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