How a software engineer-turned-entrepreneur ended up running one of the hottest social enterprises in the country
It’s all about doing good in the world, and if we generate profits, it’s about giving it back to doing more good." -Aseem Das
As we process applications for the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States. One that caught our eye was Palo Alto, California-based World Centric.
In 1981, Aseem Das—then 18 years old—moved to the United States from India. He enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, and, like many Indian immigrants of his generation, focused on computer studies. In 1984, he graduated with a degree in computer sciences. Five years later, he completed his master’s degree in computer programming, putting him on the fast-track to success in the midst of 90's tech boom. Das worked for a series of high-profile companies (including NASA and Boeing) and eventually moved to San Francisco, where he continued work as a software developer for nearly 15 years. The money was good, he says, but he felt something was missing.
"I didn’t see how my work was being applied," he says. "I didn't see how it affected the world."
Then the dot-com bust happened. His employer, Vertical Net, suffered a loss of over $300 million in 2000. Das was laid off shortly after.
Das took the year off and spent the time mulling over his next move. He had never started a company before, but his year of contemplation left him eager to start something that could have a positive effect on the world. He tossed around a bunch of ideas—a mattress recycling company, a composting business, a wind energy company. None of them stuck. Eventually, he settled on an idea that was influenced by his childhood in India, where "social disparities and poverty exist right in your face," he says.
With the help of a few friends, Das launched World Centric in 2004 "with a mission to reduce economic injustice and environmental degradation through education, community networks, and sustainable enterprises." Initially, the company, based in Palo Alto, began as a nonprofit that offered educational information about social and environmental issues around the world. They hosted a film series that featured documentaries on a wide range of topics, from workers’ rights to mineral depletion.
But hosting a film series wasn’t exactly a winning business model. The company had grown organically by word of mouth, but revenues languished. Das needed to rethink the original plan.
In 2005, Das started flirting with the idea of selling compostable products, like biodegradable plates and utensils. He had a feeling that there was demand for organic, Fair Trade products that wasn’t being met. Few big-box retailers carried them, he reasoned, and specialty stories were often difficult to find.
He threw a few products up on his site, not sure of what might happen. Almost overnight, sales exploded. In 2005, the company generated $85,000. By 2007, they were up to $2.2 million in revenue. In 2010, they surpassed $9 million.
"The growth has been pretty astonishing," he says.
Das has been reluctant to take on any type of venture funding, though the company does have one benefactor that has made an investment.
In 2009, the company transferred from a nonprofit to a for-profit enterprise, and registered as a B-Corp., a legal status that's conferred to companies that have a socially-beneficial business model.
For Das, the work has satisfied his lifelong itch to strike out on his own and do something positive for the planet. "It’s not about me getting rich," he says. It’s all about doing good in the world, and if we generate profits, it’s about giving it back to doing more good."
Looking for ways to take your social entrepreneurship to the next level? Join us at the Inc. 500|5000 Conference, taking place September 22-24, 2011 in Washington, DC. Visit inc5000conference.com for more details. Be ahead of the curve and register by August 8 to save $400.