This interview was conducted by Shelly Malik, a student at the University of Chicago Law School. 

In a book-lined office with sweeping views of the University of Chicago, I met with Anup Malani, the co-founder of the International Innovation Corps and the Lee and Brena Freeman Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. As a second-year JD student at the University of Chicago Law School with a passion for international development and socio-economic innovation, I was curious to hear Professor Malani’s insight into the International Innovation Corps. During a lively conversation, Professor Malani shared his thoughts on the founding of the IIC, the program’s influence on his research, and the IIC’s impact on the entrepreneurial culture in India.

Shelly Malik: What motivated you to create the IIC and bring it to life? 

Anup Malani: Two things. The first was a need and the second was an opportunity. Before starting the IIC, I organized a large field experiment to study the value of expanding India’s public health insurance system. In the process of setting up that experiment, I encountered a number of government officials who were really motivated and worked incredibly hard to get their government programs off the ground. But, I noticed they were always short staffed and overworked. That’s a recurring issue you see in India: the government begins mammoth projects but can’t get enough top talent to run them, partly because it’s really hard for the government to compete on wages with the private sector. I grew more confident in this assessment during a lunch with Sanjay Bhargava, a member of the PayPal founding team. He relayed similar experiences and we concluded that there was a great need in India, as in many middle and lower income countries, to have innovative, high-skilled teams working on these government projects.

At the same time, when I was back at the University of Chicago, students often asked me, “Do you know of any jobs in the public sector, or in the public interest space? Particularly, jobs that give me serious responsibility and have a big social impact?” There are such jobs available, but they are limited and very hard to get. So, I thought, wouldn’t it make sense to employ this supply of people looking for serious public interest opportunities to address the demand for high quality human resource in the Indian government?

Of course we had to solve the economics of the problem first.  As I mentioned, the Indian government, for various reasons, cannot pay wages that compete with the private sector. So, not only did we need to find the right people and match them to the right projects, but we also needed to find a way to raise philanthropic dollars to pay those individuals the sorts of salaries that are required to enable them to run down private sector opportunities entice them to work on development projects in India.  So that’s what the IIC does.  It identified ambitious projects in need of top talent, recruits that talent, and raises philanthropic funds to pay that talent a competitive wage to work on those projects.

SM: How has involvement with the IIC impacted your research?

AM: What I find is that, when I’m developing projects for the IIC, I get a ton of research ideas—way more than I can realistically work on, especially given my regular research load and the time I spend building out the IIC.  In some cases I jot down the idea and file it away to perhaps work on down the road. 

In many situations, the IIC team working on the project may be able to move the idea forward. In the process of understanding their project, the team needs to first figure out what exactly the project need is, what the economics and the sociological background to the problem are, or what technical hurdles the program faces. The team has about a two to three month window to figure out what the problem and identify solutions. That’s not an academic timescale; that’s a real world, we-need-to-get-things-done-now timescale. But that doesn’t mean that there is not an opportunity to have a more in-depth look at the problem and to write about it after the fellowship.

One of the hopes that I have is that over time, when we find projects, we will pair teams with academics. While the team has to quickly diagnose the problem to get to its solution, the academic will have the bandwidth and capacity to begin writing up a paper on the nature of the problem and perhaps solutions as the project is ongoing.

SM: How do you envision the work done by IIC fellows over the course of the year to have a lasting or sustainable impact?

AM: Let me answer this in two ways. First, we try to put some structural features into the program that enable it to have a long-term impact. We try to identify projects that are long term priorities for the government, leaders that are likely to stay in their posts for some time, and solutions that are scalable and persistent. For example, one of our project partners, DMICDC, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, is planning to build 24 cities in a corridor between Delhi and Mumbai over the course of the next quarter century. That’s a huge, long-term investment. Talleen Kumar is an inspired and committed leader.  He took over from Amitabh Kant, another visionary leader, and looks likely to stay for some time.  Plus, the designs that the DMICDC-IIC team works up for the first of these charter cities, just outside Delhi, can be used in the other 23 cities in the corridor.  In short, we try to pick projects and leaders that have staying power, and then our teams focus on finding scalable solutions from the start.

Second, we don’t just send out a team of five fellows to work with the government. We ask the government entity to commit either one to two employees to the team, growing the size of the team six or even seven. We also ask that a top government leader take ownership over that team. These are things that make sure that the ideas from the team percolate up into the government organization and have a lasting impact.

Beyond that, I think that India is a changing place. You are seeing lots of innovation and scalable technologies and, importantly, entrepreneurship in social activities. I think that is starting to infect the government. One of our hopes is that we are on the forefront of getting social entrepreneurship to occur not just in the private sector or NGO sector, but to actually occur within the government. We would like IIC teams to be thought of as social startups working within the government to help the government become even more effective. If we are successful, that culture change will hopefully have a long-term impact on the way the Indian government operates.

SM: What have you learned from being involved with the IIC?

AM: In the past I took it on faith that faith our grads’ had a great capacity for hard work and innovation, but now I have proof. Our best sales pitch is to get potential partners, whether it is a government agency or foundation, to talk to our fellows and to the government leaders that they are already working with. These prospects glow about the hard work, dedication and creativity of the team, and that’s really amazing. I couldn’t be more proud of what our fellows are accomplishing.

The second thing that I have learned is that the main obstacle to getting something done is thinking you can’t do it. The important thing is to give it a shot; you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish – at a University or in government. Our program started after my lunch with Sanjay Bhargava in June 2013. By July of 2014, we had 15 fellows in training and about to go into the field. We are now halfway through our first cohort’s term, and we are recruiting a cohort twice that size for next year. We’ve had tremendous support from the University throughout, from crucial resources to strategic advice. USAID has come onboard as a strategic partner.  I wouldn’t have guessed that we would be growing this fast, and we are just starting. One of the great things about working with somebody [Bhargava] who helped build Paypal into a $1.5 billion company in 18 months is that, when he says you can do it if you try, you really believe. Seeing the results, I know he’s right.