Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Taubman Center

Jyoti Sharma Named Social Entrepreneur in Residence

December 2, 2015

In spring 2016, the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy and the Swearer Center for Public Service will welcome Jyoti Sharma as a Taubman fellow and Brown’s social entrepreneur in residence. Sharma is the founder of FORCE, an New Delhi-based nonprofit that works on issues of water security and sanitation, civic engagement, and sustainable development. We recently caught up with her to get her insight into social entrepreneurship and why she’s passionate about empowering local communities to manage their own water conservation and sanitation.

What drew you to Brown?

For almost a year, I had been feeling that I needed to step back from FORCE so that I could objectively revisit the vision with which we had started a decade back. The Taubman fellowship will give me the chance to broaden my horizons by interacting with academics, youth, and professionals. One of the biggest draws is the mentoring part. The deciding factor was meeting a young woman who had recently graduated from Brown. She had come to FORCE for a half-day interaction — she was in India as a volunteer. She was the brightest of the lot. That sealed the deal for me — I wanted to be where bright young people like her are!

What led you to start FORCE?

Before FORCE, I had been a manager in marketing and advertising. I thought it was sad that some of the brightest minds in India were racking their brains to make one type of washing machine sound better than another model that was just as good. I wondered what would happen if those same brains set their minds on real problems. The final trigger came when I came across a report on water. It said that water [scarcity] is the biggest problem the world faces today, but it could be solved if we put the right technologies, policies, and attitudes in place.

FORCE's goal is to “to return ownership of water demand decisions to the community and build a network that is capable of self-regulating consumption.” What can we learn from your focus on community empowerment?

We focus on community empowerment, alongside community self-regulation. One without the other creates imbalance. So, policy makers have to walk a tight rope when defining the rights, roles, and responsibilities of all stakeholder groups. These include the government and community as joint trustees of a scarce resource. For social entrepreneurs, the key lesson is that simply paying lip service to the term “community empowerment” is not enough. We need to recognize the community's right to participate in informed decision-making and purchasing decisions. Even more, we need to recognize that an empowered community can be a strong contributor to a social entrepreneur's implementation plan. Entrepreneurs must harness these trends and build them into their strategic plans, while policy makers must create an environment that allows these forces to develop organically.

You’ve pushed the boundaries of social entrepreneurship with your work on water conservation and sanitation. Where would you like to see the field go in the future?

Water is a scarce resource. Hence, there is an inherent economic motivation for it to be treated as a marketable commodity. At the same time, it is a basic human need, and there is an equally strong motivation for it to be treated as a social welfare good. These forces can be balanced only by a combination of two things: first, strong public policy that protects water as a “community welfare good,” available to all without discrimination; second, social entrepreneurship on a micro level that empowers communities to manage water in locally suitable ways for maximum benefit at minimum economic and social cost. This combined strategy is the only way forward.

You are co-teaching a spring course with Sonia Sarkar, the chief policy and engagement officer for the Baltimore City Health Department. What do you hope your students will take away?

The course, “Models for Sustaining Social Change,” is based on the premise that the objective of a social entrepreneur or change agent is to transform society, in that it develops internal dynamics that lead to adoption of the social change by different stakeholders. The course will explore how different strategies need to be employed at different stages of change, so that the transformation is sustained through its life cycle. We will examine this through the lens of several social movements that are globally and domestically relevant, including water and sanitation systems, health care and public health, and urban planning and resilience.

What will you miss most while you’re away?

The two men in my life — my husband and my father — who are my rock solid supports. And Delhi's warm weather! I am a creature of the tropics, and I like to feel the sun on my skin.

If you could impart one truth or idea on every policymaker in the world, what would it be?

Learn from water and “flow with the flow.” Policy must recognize community trends and harness it for the greatest good for the largest number of people, rather than try and change the flow of social dynamics.

—Edited by Mintaka Angell