First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sukhendra Rompally: India is one of the countries most affected by COVID-19. I live with my parents, both of who are in the high-risk category. I am a very outgoing person, and the lockdown changed my lifestyle overnight. My sister’s wedding was scheduled for immediately after the lockdown. We had to fly to a city in North India and prepare for a 10-member ceremony as opposed to a typical big fat Indian 1000-member wedding previously planned. Amidst all that, my team and the ever motivation that an entrepreneur has, kept me going not just to survive the pandemic but thrive in it.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Chezuba.
Sukhendra Rompally: I graduated in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). I had previously worked for a startup in Russia, which hardly took off, and then was in Taiwan working for a mid-sized gaming company. I founded the AIESEC chapter in the university days, which exposed me to volunteering for the first time. In 2017, I had applied for an MBA with INSEAD, and my application revolved around the dream of building Chezuba. I couldn’t get admission, but I decided to build Chezuba anyway. Three years, users from 100+ countries and a Forbes under 30 recognition later, it doesn’t sound like too bad a decision.
How does Chezuba innovate?
Sukhendra Rompally: We made volunteering easy, accessible, and global through online volunteering. The traditional Non-Profit sector forever lacks the digital media to showcase their work and skills to scale due to lack of talent. On the other hand, skilled people increasingly want to give back to society. So, we built an online volunteering platform where individuals can use their skills to volunteer online and help NGOs across the world. We also work with corporations who use the tool for their employee-volunteering activities. 4,500+ NGOs from 63 countries are registered on our platform as of date.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sukhendra Rompally: Essentially, we are an online volunteering platform, meaning which our solution is perfectly timed for the pandemic. So, the pandemic has actually fueled our growth. But the economic crisis also meant that the Non-Profit sector was hit heavily as their funds are usually sourced from corporates and governments’ profits. We previously used to charge NGOs an annual subscription fee, but since the pandemic, we made it free for them as they need it the most now and unfortunately do not have the money to pay. We have seen an exaggerated demand from corporates who now wish to engage their remote workforce in volunteering. Change in the revenue model meant delayed payments and smaller bank balances. So, we all had to take heavy pay-cuts to survive the pandemic. We can’t thank enough our existing investors who timely pumped in more money to extend the runway. Today, we are very well placed and are staring at a huge growth in 2021.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sukhendra Rompally: Surely! I don’t think any of us have ever seen something like this before, nor will any of us hope that we will see something like this ever again. As entrepreneurs, we are used to making agile and hard decisions on a regular basis. But the pandemic posed a challenge like none other. How do we survive this financially? How do we protect the health of our team and their families without affecting productivity? How do we seamlessly migrate to a different revenue model? How to engage the team even when working remotely? Then, add the compliances, immigration issues, logistical challenges, etc. One thing we were sure about was that we were all in it together. We took the route of transparency and honesty. We shared the financials with the team, conversed with them individually as to how much of a cut can each of them affordable, and we re-planned everything. The biggest lesson we learned was that “trust” is the biggest currency of all. Indeed, the trust of the team, investors, and customers made it easier for us to bounce back than any business metric.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Sukhendra Rompally: Meds and therapy? (Chuckles). I jokingly tell people that the only assured asset you earn from entrepreneurship is stress and anxiety. To be honest, as an entrepreneur, I will have a much clearer picture of how things are getting affected and what the future looks like. Having this information helps me plan the best for myself and the organization, so most of us were in an ultra-hustle mode as opposed to being worried about what was happening. And I must say that helps because you don’t have much time to think and frown upon it. Talking to the people you trust the most, being open and transparent, and asking for help where required has really helped me overcome these difficult times. In non-pandemic times, sport is a great way for me to deal with stress.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sukhendra Rompally: Catchafire in the US and Vollie in Australia list volunteering opportunities, and there are companies like Benevity and Goodera which cater to corporates to engage their employees. Aiming to uplift NGOs in India and Africa is our biggest difference. Unlike NGOs in the US, NGOs in these geographies aren’t technologically advanced and need a lot of handholding. We hope to stay true to our vision and expand rapidly, connecting NGOs in these underserved areas to highly skilled employees of corporations in India, the USA, and Africa. Volunteering projects being skill-specific, global, and completely online also makes us stand out, and all the more be relevant in these distressing times.
Your final thoughts?
Sukhendra Rompally: The pandemic has clarified to us how similar we are. It exposed to us how unified we must be to challenge the world’s problems and showed us how stronger we are than we imagined. You might have a number of thoughts that could be bothering you. Learn to prioritize what is most important for you and your organization. Be kind, be honest, be open – this is the best time to learn, don’t miss that once in a lifetime opportunity. Keep moving forward and help others to move forward as well, for if anything, the pandemic has taught us is “humanity.” Together, we can build a better tomorrow, and “this too shall pass.”