Shyam Krishna Iyer

The hardest part about being an entreprenuer is waiting, ceding control (especially to time), and having faith as the clock ticks.


Shyam Krishna Iyer is a finance professional who founded SKI Charities in 2010. Alongside his work overseeing the charity he manages a finance company that invests in frontier markets. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur he worked as a hedge fund analyst, management consultant, and strategic advisor to Fortune 500 companies. As much of his coporate experience involved travel, Shyam took the opportunity to build a global network that would eventually allow him to realise his dream of founding a charity that delivered economic empowerment to those most isolated from the financial system. To this day SKI Charities has assisted hundreds of females and their families in the developing world. Shyam lives in California with his wife Colleen. In his free time you can find him playing tennis, reading about history, or of course traveling!

Where did the idea for SKI Charities come from?

The idea for SKI Charities came from my desire to use finance for positive outcomes. Following the macroeconomic challenges of 2008-2009 I still believed finance could empower people and create opportunities for those most in need.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

A typical day begins with anything and everything my global team has sent to me overnight! For example, one of our students in the SKIPGO scholarship program may have just won an award and I will direct my team to share that on social media and make a note to encourage the scholar and her family as well. On the other hand we may receive a note from our SKIMFI microfinance program manager that one of our beneficiaries needs an extra month on her microloan term to adjust to lower than expected demand. I leave that decision to my team on the ground but they expect me to weigh in.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Bringing an idea to life requires a healthy tolerance for risk. Creativity is the foundation but nothing comes to life without hope and luck. When I first contemplated SKI Charities I was faced with a high degree of skepticism. Most thought why take a risk in a country like Zimbabwe and others felt if the idea was worthwhile it would already have been done. These are fair challenges so I set out to take a chance by building a small but dedicated team and self-financing the project. 8 years later hundreds of families have benefitted at our locations.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I am most excited by the trend of devolving management and control from top to bottom. Oftentimes organisations become top heavy, particularly where the founder is looked to for all decision-making and direction. While an idea may spring from the founder, nothing is possible without a team of like-minded individuals who believe in the same vision and take ownership of the idea.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My habit that has led to more productivity as an entrepreneur involves carefully managing my work environment. I divide my work between home and shared office space. This allows me to manage costs carefully while also changing my “scenery“ as I juggle different projects and responsibilities. The habit of shifting enviroments has been so effective that even within my home office or shared office I find different areas to work in order to refresh my perspective and inspire new ideas and approaches.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would preach patience to my younger self. Patience with taking risks, with the pace of progress, and with turning a vision into reality. The hardest part about being an entreprenuer is waiting, ceding control (especially to time), and having faith as the clock ticks.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Most people struggle to agree with me that it’s best to go after “high-hanging fruit.“ Put another way, I find the mainstream view is to achieve what is in front of you or whatever has the best-trodden path to success. While I understand this outlook, I have always believed that life is about pushing the limits of yourself and the world around you. Going after those hard to reach goals that others seem to eschew is about impact and changing the world for the better. In the situation of my charity, going to Zimbabwe was thought of as too risky especially when better-known countries such as India or Uganda needed support. But I knew the impact in Zimbabwe would therefore be much greater, and I have been fortunate to see us change lives that would otherwise be untouched.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

As an entreprenueur I am constantly deferring my financial rewards. Each year I have set financial goals and despite meeting them I find a growing company requires increasing levels of investment and staffing to maintain the trajectory. This has forced me to wait on achieving the wage and benefits I left behind when I left the corporate sector over 8 years ago.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

The one key strategy is delegating and allowing true employee autonomy with the understanding that long-term progress will be predominantly driven by participants closest to the market. As a social entrepreneur I have learned to hire and empower staff and beneficiaries from the community being served. While an entrepreneur may drive early success, I have found successful entrepreneurship to be far more “bottom up” as local level ownership and buy-in will determine the success of any project or enterprise. Autonomy and control must devolve from the entrepreneur to the field.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I would say my biggest mistake was hiring local managers and not staying in touch. I earlier mentioned devolving power to local partners but that does not mean losing touch with the team. In Zimbabwe I hired a promising young woman to manage our microfinance program and for the first year the results were outstanding. I decided then to give her more responsibility for more beneficiaries which she readily accepted; however I did not couple this with the same level of engagement and availability of the previous year. In the end we grew too fast and other distractions affected my manager’s life and she was unable to cope. When she left the program we were left to recover in an already challenging market.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Whether you have traveled to the developing world or less- developed parts of the USA, speak to the people you have met and build a non-profit to deliver economic empowerment to the locals. Your friends in those places will be able to link you with local partners and even beneficiaries that allow you to build an organisation even without much funding. Start a scholarship fund or provide small loans to those who just need a little fishing lesson and will soon be fishing for themselves.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent $100 on a painting made by a local artist in southern Chile. She came from the Mapuche community and many of their stories are told through art. The piece speaks to me every day and reminds me that communication comes not just through words but sights and emotions. It has taught me to be a better communicator and more appreciative of lesser-known cultures and histories that we all share.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I have found the smartphone application Whatsapp to be invaluable. Across the world, whether mobile networks provide consistent or infrequent connectivity, Whatsapp is ideal for keeping in touch. It is incredibly easy to send messages, share photos and videos, and help the team feel like they are listened to and a part of something larger than just themselves.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Losing My Virginity,“ by Richard Branson taught me early on to enjoy taking risks and that determination is the sole factor in achieving success. I learned to take pride in my ideas, build like-minded teams, and give my vision a shot. Most importantly, if you fail there is always another chance as long as you keep at it.

What is your favorite quote?

“The most dangerous risk of all is spending your life not doing what you want “ (Lao Tzu, Taoism)

Key Learnings:

  • Trust your team and give them the freedom to shape your organisation. It is impossible to push the boundary on your own.
  • Be comfortable taking calculated risks. Entrepreneurship is inherently about beating your own path, and if it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
  • Above all focus on the impact of your decisions on your participants. Ask yourself what opportunity your bringing to others no matter how few your resources are.


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