Evaluate and improve—not just yourself but your processes.
Prashant K. Khetan is CEO and general counsel for Born Free USA. Inspired by the movie “Born Free,” Born Free USA is an organization working to end wild animal cruelty and suffering, and protect threatened wildlife.
Where did the idea for Born Free come from?
Virginia McKenna and her now late husband, Bill Travers, were actors in the U.K. They were in a movie called “Born Free” with Elsa the lioness, and they realized that the conditions Elsa had as an “actor” in the movie were deplorable. That encouraged them to think about animal care. But actually, Born Free, and its predecessor, Zoo Check, began because of another animal – an elephant named Pole Pole. When Virginia and Bill learned that Pole Pole was suffering in a zoo, it moved them to start an organization intended to focus on keeping wildlife in the wild. Born Free Foundation grew out of that.
Born Free Foundation focused on animals in Europe. When Virginia decided that the plight of animals in the United States also needed their attention, Will Travers, who is the son of Virginia and Bill, came to the U.S. to start Born Free USA.
My involvement with Born Free USA began in 2011, when Born Free USA was in the midst of a lawsuit involving the use of elephants in circuses. I was a partner in a law firm who did a lot of pro bono work, so Born Free USA reached out to see if I could represent it in the lawsuit. Although that did not work out because of a conflict, I was asked to join the Board of Directors in 2011. I was Chair of the Board between 2012 and 2017, when I was appointed CEO.
My respect for all living beings has always existed, as a part of my upbringing, culture, and religion. But my passion for animals has grown exponentially the more involved I got with Born Free USA.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
This is why I love the job—every day is different. In a single day, I can be focused on preparing for a debate on trophy hunting, getting ready for an interview on CNN, finalizing a report on fur or trapping, or I could be working on our budget or five-year strategic plan. It really runs the gamut.
There’s no real shortcut for productivity. It’s just prioritizing, because there’s no shortage of work at a small business, which is effectively what we are. It’s a matter of prioritizing what needs to be done today and what can wait. And then at night or on the weekends is when I take care of stuff that can wait.
Outlook is my best friend, specifically the calendar function. I wouldn’t be able to function without it. It’s my to-do list, my reminder of meetings, my reminder of when something is due. It’s everything. I rely on it pretty heavily to get through my days and my weeks.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The majority of my ideas come from my reading. I read a lot. I spend large chunks of every single day reading anything I can get my hands on that’s related to animal issues. I try to use that as a constant way to think of ideas that might be of interest to Born Free USA.
Once we have an idea and decide we want to do something with it, then the question is, what can we do? We can try to activate people, we can do an article or a report, we can go to the media or someone on Capitol Hill, we can do a lawsuit. But in order to decide what we will do, we have to think about our capacity—what we have the ability to do, how much it’s going to cost, and what the value is going to be, not just for Born Free but for society.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I think there is a fundamental shift that has happened with respect to animals being used as a resource for fur. Fur isn’t something that most people want. But what’s really interesting is that companies are changing, too.
Maybe that’s intentional. If public perception has changed, then companies need to change or else it’s going to impact their bottom lines. But it is happening. When you hear Donatella Versace say she’s not going to use fur anymore—that kind of evolution is so important to see. If you get the designers and manufacturers to stop producing, then your supply is gone. And the demand should follow the (lack of) supply, so you’ve effected change.
We’re also starting to see something else that is remarkable for the anti-fur movement (and can be replicated on other issues). A big bank just announced that they’re not going to do business with companies that are engaged with fur. They don’t have a direct involvement in the fur trade chain, but they supply the money. If they cut off the money from companies that would otherwise produce fur or sell it, now you’re effecting change in another way.
I’m really excited about what we’re seeing happen with fur, and I think we’re going to start seeing similar movement in other areas that are really important to Born Free and the compassionate conservation movement.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
At the end of the day, we’re providing a service. For an organization providing a service, communication is so vital to our success — with our donors, with our supporters, whether it’s on Twitter, whether it’s returning a phone call, whether it’s meeting them in person, all those things are so important.
What I’ve always tried to do is never let anything go more than 24 hours. You have to acknowledge a reach-out by someone within 24 hours. It doesn’t matter if your response is simply to say, “Got it, I’ll get back to you—I’m swamped” or “Got it, I’ll get back to you—I’m traveling today.” And that goes tenfold when it’s your customers. For us, that’s our supporters/donors, the companies we partner with, and all the other stakeholders. If you’re not getting back to them within 24 hours, there’s going to be someone else who will.
There are other animal-rights organizations out there that our donors can go to. When they reach out to say, “There’s this crazy thing happening with trophy hunting. What are you doing?,” if you don’t get back to them, the next animal-rights group will. And the donor will give their money to that group. The same thing applies to corporate partners, celebrity endorsers—all these folks are very busy and in high demand, and there are plenty of organizations like ours. As a person trying to run a business, if you’re not on top of your communications or not doing it professionally, you’re going to lose out.
A challenge for me is that the way people communicate now is very different than it used to be. People are communicating in short spurts. It seems like the younger generation prefers to communicate electronically rather than on the phone or in person, and many in this generation don’t handle personal criticism or confrontation. And, oddly enough, despite communicating heavily electronically, I find that some in this next generation are not responsive (in a timely manner – because they are selectively responsive), and some are not professional, in the traditional sense, in their electronic communications (saying things that would never fly in person). To me, as someone running a small business, it’s imperative to work with the next generation on good and positive communications.
What advice would you give your younger self?
If I went back to 20 years ago, when I was getting out of law school, it would be to keep in touch more with everyone. When I got out of school and started practicing law, I viewed relationships very differently—I wanted to stay in touch with my closest friends but not all of the other people who I knew from high school, college, law school, and others whom I met during those years.
When I graduated from law school, I did not know that eight years later, just after turning 30, I’d be a partner in a law firm with an overwhelming demand to bring in business. It would have been nice to have stayed in touch with all those people who are now running companies or serving as general counsel. And now, at a non-profit where we run on donations, it would have been really nice to be in touch with those lawyers, many of whom are interested in conservation issues and have the resources to impact a small non-profit like Born Free USA.
From a business standpoint, it takes so little to stay in touch with someone, but the benefit can be so significant. That’s something I would tell my younger self. It’s something I tell the class I teach every single semester: Keep in touch, not just with the people in this room but with all your classmates, and everyone else you meet.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
It’s not that no one agrees with me—people who run non-profits and understand how they work will agree with me. It’s this: Other than the fact that there really isn’t a traditional profit-loss concept, in terms of operations, a non-profit is no different than any other business. You need a strategic plan, you have to hold staff accountable, you have to think about a budget—all those things apply. The only really difference is that you don’t have profits and losses that are divided up between owners/stakeholders.
The reason I think that’s important is that you can get in this mindset that non-profits are completely different—the way they operate, the people they hire, how they measure success. And then you think that everything you learned at a for-profit company can go out the window, or that there are exceptions to all the rules that otherwise apply to any successful business. And I just think that’s false. I’ve even heard people say, “You spent most of your life at a for-profit, so can’t possibly run a non-profit that cares for animals.” And yet, here we are in the middle of one of our most successful years as an organization.
That’s one of the big things I’m trying to do—to bring that for-profit background into our non-profit world.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Evaluate and improve—not just yourself but your processes. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I ask someone, “Why are we doing X?” and they say, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it,” or “That’s how we did it last time.” And you ask “Why?” and they don’t know. That, to me, is unacceptable. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, then why are you doing it that way?
I’m constantly trying to evaluate how I’m doing, whether it’s as a CEO, as general counsel, as an employee, as someone who reports to the board. I’m constantly thinking about how I can do this better. And that’s the only way, as a business, that we grow and get better—we have to constantly evaluate the people and the processes.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Breaking things down to basics and growing from there. When I came in, we were doing tons of great work, but we were stretched thin and we weren’t developing ourselves as experts on any single topic.
What I decided to do, after talking to the board, is to break it down to the basics: Figure out what our core areas are and then grow from there. But grow intentionally. That’s allowed us to become experts on our core topics: trapping, fur, the Endangered Species Act, wildlife trade, and animals in captivity.
With an organization like ours, a small organization, you have to decide at what level you’re going to do different things. You can be an expert in four or five different things but still be a resource in 10 other things. But you can’t be an expert at 20 things if you’re a small organization. It doesn’t work.
That’s a common problem that small businesses have. It’s a problem that we’ve worked really hard to overcome. That scattered approach can work in the short run, but I’m interested in building a long-term profile for us.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
This may be unique to when you go from a for-profit to a non-profit. Our biggest expense, and our biggest asset, is our people. But there is a difference in the expectations that you have at a non-profit and a for-profit.
I’m coming from a for-profit where only the best survive. At a non-profit, there’s this thing that happens where people can be around for 20 years without adding that much value. They just clock in and clock out. But that’s just not productive for a business. One of the failures I’ve had was coming in and trying very quickly to put that for-profit model in place in a non-profit. What you have to do is take baby steps. That’s something I’ve learned and I’m working on right now. When you come in and strip everything away and say, “We’re going to do it this way,” it causes a lot of anxiety among the staff. And the staff is your biggest asset—you have to have a good staff or it isn’t going to work, and you can’t have staff worrying about their jobs. When morale is low, everything else falls by the wayside.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I’m willing to give this away because I would love it if someone did it. People are realizing that while you may not make it to a safari (many people simply can’t afford it), you shouldn’t go to a zoo/aquarium to see animals. So there is a market for the experience of interacting with animals, without doing it.
I would love to see someone take virtual-reality technology and basically bring a safari to you—an interactive, 3D, immersive experience where you’re actually in the wild, seeing real things in real time. Probably not in your home, but in some kind of setting that’s not intrusive to the animals.
If we agree that the big benefit of a zoo is education, especially for children, then what’s more educational than seeing these animals in their natural environment?
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought an iPad 2 almost 10 years ago. I don’t even know what generation they’re up to. And it sat for years and years. I wasn’t using it at all. And then I came into this job and I use it all the time now.
The two biggest things I do day-to-day are e-mail and social media, and an iPad gives me the ability to do them so easily, because it’s larger than my phone and it’s not my laptop. I travel everywhere with that thing. It’s probably only worth $10 now, because it’s that old. But it’s fantastic.
And I mentioned that I’m constantly reading—I do that on my iPad. Every morning, as soon as I get up, before I get out of bed, I’m reading, and every night, after I put my kids to bed, I’m reading. I’m sure there are other tablets. I’m sure there are some really good ones out there now. But I don’t need to spend $700 because I’ve got this $20 clunker that works fantastic. And if the good people at Apple read this, then they should feel free to donate a new iPad to Born Free USA …
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Outlook. I know most people use Outlook but I can’t stress enough that I live off that thing. My entire day is scheduled based on my Outlook, even all of my personal engagements. In fact, I should make sure that today isn’t my anniversary …
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I firmly believe that Born Free USA, and animal-rights issues generally, are nonpartisan, so I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve been reading Hillary Clinton’s autobiography, “Hard Choices.” It is amazing when you think of all that she accomplished professionally, regardless of what you think about her as a person. I found the book valuable to me as a parent, leader, and someone interested in the greater good for the future – all things that the book discusses. And for someone with two daughters, it makes me proud to see that even though as a society we need to keep moving, people like Hillary Clinton paved the way for the next generation.
What is your favorite quote?
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Mohandas K. Gandhi. If you have any emails from me, you know that’s my favorite quote right now.
• Prioritizing is the key to productivity. Decide what needs to be done today and triage the rest to later.
• Respond to phone calls, e-mails, or other messages within 24 hours. Always.
• Stay in touch—it doesn’t take much effort but the benefits can be significant.
• Constantly evaluate the people and processes in your organization—including yourself.
• Become an expert in a few areas. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
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