Neel Ghose (HBS’ 19) is one of the co-founders of the Robin Hood Army (RHA), a “disruptive startup that uses food as a medium to bring out the best of humanity at a community level.” RHA is a volunteer-based organization, which collects excess food from restaurants and distributes it to the less fortunate. In a little over two years, the RHA has served over 5 million people through over 12,000+ Robins across 12 countries.
Prior to starting RHA, Ghose worked in New York-based hedge fund (D.E. Shaw) and Zomato, an Indian unicorn startup. He has been a bit of a nomad and has lived in 5 countries setting up Zomato’s global operations.
In an interview with The Mittal Institute, Ghose shares how he is helping to reduce hunger through social media outreach and zero cash transactions.
How did the idea for Robin Hood Army first emerge?
I was living and working in Portugal where I came across a volunteer organization called Refood with a unique model — the team would collect excess food from restaurants and redistribute it to the less fortunate. I loved the idea and spent some time with the founder trying to understand the workings. It makes obvious sense in a place like India, where there is more of a need. A few months later I returned to Delhi, I spoke to my co-founder and we decided to try out the idea at home.
Could you describe your team and some of the collaborations involved with RHA?
The team for the RHA is formed by largely young professionals and students who do this in their free time. Our Robins come from extremely diverse backgrounds — there are students, lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, teachers, government employees, and folks taking sabbaticals. The common threads between everyone on the team are passion, a deep commitment to make their community a better place, and a strong bias for action.
We have a strict no-funds approach, so growth in the Robin Hood Army is largely funneled through social media and partnerships. We have routinely collaborated with companies and media houses to channelize their resources to helping and generally spreading smiles to the underprivileged community. Some examples are BookMyShow.com (helps us take children who live on the street for movies and entertainment shows), Uber (provides transport to help mobilize food across the city), and Viacom (created a music video featuring Bollywood artists to promote the cause).
Besides corporate collaborations, the local partnerships tend to be as, if not more, impactful. Our Robins in Pune partnered with a local hospital to provide free cataract operations to 50 senior citizens who live on the streets of Pune; food is a medium by which we interact with forgotten sections of society, and the idea is to figure out and execute on how we can bring happiness and relief to these people.
Could you please describe a meaningful encounter that you have had as part of the Robin Hood Army?
One of the most special parts of our RHA journey has been the project #Mission1Million — we teamed up with our Robin Hood family in Pakistan to mobilize citizens on both sides of the border through the private sector and media house to serve 1 million hungry citizens on Independence Day (August 14-15, 2017). Given the political situation in our countries, this was not the easiest thing to pull off — but the idea was to make our countrymen aware of the acute hunger problem in both countries.
We ended up serving 1.32 million citizens across both days, but #Mission1Million was honestly not about the numbers — but the fact that any kind of societal change is possible if we bring together citizens, media houses, and the private sector as one team. Some of the moments across cities in the project can be followed here
How do you plan to grow your presence in the next few years?
The immediate focus is growing into smaller towns across India, expanding into Africa and Latin America, and growing the Robin Hood Academy, an initiative to get children who live on the streets enrolled into public schools.
We currently serve 200,000 people a month across 59 cities — and have chalked out plans to grow to serve half a million people a month across 100 cities by the end of 2018. We have a simple philosophy of “1% Done,” which basically implies that disruptive growth is the only way we can create a tangible solution to the hunger problem.
How are your studies at HBS supporting the Robin Hood Army?
I have always looked at the RHA less as an NGO and more as a disruptive startup that uses food as a medium to bring out the best of humanity at a community level. Given the focus on growth — we plan and prepare in the RHA with an acute focus on strategy, metrics, decentralization, mission, and leadership development. Almost the entire curriculum at HBS is geared towards developing clarity of thought in these fields.
Besides this, we have been actively diving deep into the Harvard networks to spread into Africa and Latin America. Kenya, Chile, and now Mexico are three countries where we have identified our leaders and teams through fellow students in Harvard. My professors are extremely supportive — and it is very easy to bounce off ideas and decisions and get perspective from a different lens.
How is RHA working across borders between India and Pakistan and what has been the impact?
My friend from London, Sarah set up RHA Pakistan in 2015 after following its progress on social media. Our countries have very similar patterns — massive inequalities and young educated populations who are passionate about giving back to the community. In three years of operation, our Robins in Pakistan have served more than 200,000 people across Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore.
It has been a surreal experience working with a team across the border who think and are like us. The only time we have intense arguments is when India plays Pakistan in cricket, and the banter on our WhatsApp groups is very memorable.
How do you use social media to accomplish your objectives?
Since we have no funds involved, the metric to grow our impact is constantly bringing on new volunteers. We share our experiences and stories on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where our viewers can see Robins wearing green going out and serving the local community. Through social media, we have been noticed by the media and platforms like TEDx talks, and now it is a strategic part of the RHA engine which gets us 1,400 + new volunteers requests a month across the world.
Could you describe some challenges that you have faced and how you have approached problem-solving them?
Since everyone does this in their free time, the constant challenge has always been time. To counter this — as a culture we are constantly decentralizing and looking for the next generation of leaders to replace the work we do, this is a long-term strategy to ensure sustainability of the mission.
Even though we have served 5 million people till date through a network of 12,000+ Robins — this is still barely scratching the surface of the global hunger problem, hence growing fast enough is always a problem. We try to work on that by creating flat, decentralized structures and making knowledge sharing of best practices real-time via metrics, documentation, and expansion teams. We have a WhatsApp group called the Boiler Room, where city heads of all 60 cities are constantly sharing best practices.
As we continue growing in an environment where all views are valued — confrontations within the team are an inevitable part of our journey. Through defining our culture and what we stand for as a team, it is possible in most cases to proactively keep these confrontations healthy and help us constantly reinvent ways to maximize impact.
What advice do you have for other young people who are interested in starting a non-profit?
Hit the field running as soon as possible — all strategy, plans, and processes will take shape once you know what is happening with the people you are trying to serve. Also always, always be empathetic. That is more likely to open more doors and create a difference than any corporate strategy on an excel sheet.