We’re driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of the South Asian diaspora going global!

As she moves into a non-executive, mentorship-based role, Abha Thorat-Shah reflects on her journey with the British Asian Trust – one that is deeply intertwined with the organisation’s own growth story. 

I came to the UK from India 25 years ago. Part of leaving your country and becoming a part of the diaspora is to hold both countries in your heart and your head. So, when the opportunity came to work at an organisation envisioned by His Majesty The King to connect South Asia and the UK through philanthropy, I had to say ‘yes’.

I was delighted to join Hitan Mehta, now my fellow traveller of 17 years, in leading the organisation. We were guided by an inspiring board of directors, helmed by the unrelenting Manoj Badale. My first job was to set our impact strategy.

Today, we talk about local-led development and on-ground expertise but at that point, development was being led by large global actors. We thought the British Asian Trust could move away from that and find local champions in South Asia to support. The King has been a steward of many ideas that are ahead of their time – whether with climate change or with social development like this. I knew that by joining the founding team, I would be coming to an organisation with a future-forward approach.  

Abha Blog 2

As we set off on our impact journey, we set up an Investment Committee and along with a handful of colleagues, began to identify our first few on-ground partners. Rather than reinventing the wheel and supporting problems in an isolated manner, we recognised that collaborating with local funders and other philanthropic partners who shared our values would be more impactful and allow our money to go that extra mile for deeper impact.  

We stood firmly by our approach of ensuring we don’t push development ‘at’ any country but rather, act as enablers for development led ‘from’ the countries. I cut my teeth on some of our early partners – Mann Deshi, Educate Girls, Aangan, Masoom, Sehat Kahani, BRAC and others in the sub-continent. By working alongside these organisations, we were able to learn a lot about ground realities and barriers to development, but also about how strong leadership works to overcome these challenges.  

Enter social finance and our next stage of growth

About seven years in after our first phase of impact, we began to stall, and it was time to hire a CEO. That’s where Richard entered the story, and the organisation began to move forward with renewed effort.  

We began to approach the challenges at hand differently, recognising that some of the biggest barriers to change in South Asia such as fragmented collaboration or insufficient and ineffective allocations of funding required a paradigm shift in the way we approached our impact. We began thinking more expansively to seek new, effective solutions. The role we played evolved to include everything we did best – leveraging our South Asian diaspora, engaging the private sector, testing new funding approaches, collaborating with government, building and sharing evidence, growing localised partnerships, and providing sustainable programmes.  

Abha Blog 6

My leadership journey also evolved as Richard joined and the exciting realm of social finance began to emerge as an extremely promising approach for us to explore.  

In the realm of social finance, focusing on the goal and end outcomes – and not the ‘how’ of it – resonated deeply with me. It tied in firmly with my early philosophy and beliefs that local development organisations are the experts, they know what needs to be done to progress, and we should enable them with the freedom and flexibility to innovate and arrive at outcomes, unfettered by rigid restrictions. It’s really simple, actually. Good development organisations on the ground know what good development is. 

Through our conversations with other funders, we began to form ideas on how to operationalise this. Serendipitously, both the UBS Optimus Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation were as eager as us. Together, we began laying the groundwork for the Quality Education India Development Impact Bond (QEI DIB), building on the success of the Educate Girls DIB and thinking about how we could take this wider so that not just one non-profit, but a good handful of leading education organisations could unlock outcomes-based financing.  

That was the beginning of our journey with social finance. As convenor of the group powering the QEI DIB – just one of many hats we wore in our role – I realised that I am a big people person and have a natural affinity for it. I was able to deal with conflict, move past the discomfort of it, and broker solutions effectively. I was also able to empathise deeply with different stakeholders within the group and put myself in different shoes. Even with the technical aspects of this work, I realised that nothing was insurmountable and with a genuine degree of curiosity, I was able to become familiar with details I had never dealt with before.  

The diaspora driving us forward

At every stage of the journey with social finance, the board guided us, backed us, and gave us the confidence to move forward. Providing us with the canvas to think bigger and take on risk, embodying the Trust’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

Chutzpah and the ability to innovate are embedded in our DNA. I think this should be woven into the fabric of every development organisation because that’s how you really change lives. Of course, you can have impact without this, but then you miss the ability to be truly transformational. The diaspora support we have ensures we keep this front and centre – and they’re also an incredible resource base that we’re able to tap into.  

For example, when we were setting up our social finance projects which included partners from across the globe, we needed to understand currency risk. We reached out to a currency trading company, led by one of our diaspora supporters, who carefully helped us navigate the intricacies of buying and selling currency to ensure that we protected our funds. Similarly, Partners of British Asian heritage at leading law firms stepped in to provide us legal guidance and helped us navigate our early structuring work. 

Abha Blog 1

In this way we found that as the British Asian Trust, we had access to this immensely wide, diverse, and talented resource pool that was steadfast in its support for our work, especially in the early days when we were exploring and navigating unchartered territory. We also found that our diaspora support base loved being involved like this! The level of engagement and enthusiasm we saw, the number of supporters encouraging us and cheering us on as we trialled these ‘new ways of doing development’ was incredible.  

Moving from pioneers to leaders

Our work in social finance has grown significantly and now, seven years into building the market in India, we have successfully laid the groundwork for outcomes-based finance to thrive and have launched three of India’s five impact bonds to date. What has also been a huge step forward is how we have now set the ground for Pakistan’s first social finance project with the support of partners like the ADB & the World Bank. What has been most heartening is to hear conversations move past the question of whether outcomes-based finance works – we now have an evidence base to prove it does – and instead, turn to bigger, bolder questions around the scale and depth of impact of these approaches. 

While early evidence for our work in social finance came from the education and employment sectors, the learnings from these pieces of work are now ripe and ready to be applied more laterally to potentially address challenges in climate and beyond. 

Abha Blog 4

Our unique approach and vantage point enable us to convene diverse stakeholders like nobody else – and now it’s time to hand over the reins, I look forward to the British Asian Trust’s continued leadership of this sector. Driven by our excellent in-country leaders across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The best is yet to come. 

I have one final closing contribution to make before I go. Over the next few months, on request from our Board, I will seek to identify what impact the British Asian Trust as a diaspora-led organisation should make in the UK, the country we now call home.  

As part of this work, the first stage is to listen and learn. I will be travelling around the UK to meet British Asian charities, leaders, local government representatives, social investors, and foundations, gathering thinking, understanding problems and assessing opportunities amongst a diverse spread of the diaspora. 

This is serendipitous, truly a full circle moment for me. After 17 years of innovating how we drive maximised impact outcomes ‘back home’ in South Asia, it’s now time for me to consider how we can make a difference in my new home, ‘this home’ here in the UK.  

It is unchartered territory for me and for the British Asian Trust, but we will, as ever, build on the same principles of how we work here and what we do best – by convening great minds, drawing on existing resources and listening to our community.