#159 Venkatesh Kini, Co-Founder of Ubuntoo

Venkatesh Kini is co-founder of Ubuntoo, a global environmental solutions platform that helps scale impactful innovations that address the planet’s biggest challenges. Venkatesh holds 30 years of experience in marketing and general management with some of the world’s most reputable brands and corporations.

Prior to founding Ubuntoo, Venkatesh served as President, India and Southwest Asia, for The Coca-Cola Company. In his 19 years with The Coca-Cola Company, Venkatesh led major brand launches and marketing campaigns in India and globally, including Sprite, Thums Up, and Minute Maid. Prior to Coca-Cola, Venkatesh worked for ITC and Asian Paints in India. 

Venkatesh is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He is based in Atlanta where, in addition to working on his entrepreneurial venture, he is an active environmentalist, an angel investor, and a startup mentor.

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Bigger Than Us #159

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels  00:44

I’d like to open the show by asking the following question. If you were asked to share something interesting about yourself, what would it be?

Venkatesh Kini  01:20

I guess the most interesting thing about me is that I’m an accidental marketeer. My passion growing up was sustainability, wildlife, and nature. And if I hadn’t stumbled into marketing as a career through an MBA, I might have ended up as a wildlife warden in a nature or game sanctuary somewhere in the world and been very happy doing that. But the needs of earning a living and having a stable home with the kids to bring up led me down a marketing career. But at heart, I’m still a naturalist.

Host Raj Daniels  02:00

What about marketing drew you to it?

Venkatesh Kini  02:03

Growing up in India, which is where I did my education—I graduated with a degree in economics and then did an MBA. The country was still a socialist country. In fact, when I graduated, even companies like Coca-Cola were forbidden from operating in India. So jobs were scarce. Careers were limited to engineering, medicine, or if you got a business degree, you might get a job in some big Indian company or some small multinational. And I discovered very quickly during my MBA stint that I was fascinated by marketing because of its focus on humans, human emotions, and creating big powerful brands. And I discovered I had a knack for it. So I chose marketing as a career.

Host Raj Daniels  03:00

Where did that career eventually lead you to?

Venkatesh Kini  03:03

So my career started off in India with a couple of Indian companies. And eventually, I found myself working for Coca-Cola, which I joined in 1998. I ended up spending 20 years at Coca-Cola, rising from the brand manager of price in India to eventually becoming the president of the South Asia business unit. And along the way, I ran the global bottled water business for Coke. I was Global Head of juice marketing and associated myself with brands like Dasani, Minute Maid, and of course, the entire portfolio of offering brands, Coca Cola, Sprite, Fanta. And it was a pretty wonderful and rewarding career.

Host Raj Daniels  03:49

Now, Coke is a marketing powerhouse. What are one or two lessons you learned from your time at Coke regarding marketing?

Venkatesh Kini  03:56

I think the common misconception that people have about marketing is that it’s all about the advertising. And the one lesson I took away from my years at Coke—and eventually coached and preached to a lot of people that—at Coke, the bulk of the brand is built through its everyday interactions with consumers. So every day, one and a half billion times a day, someone picks up a Coke and drinks it. That overall experience—the bottle, the temperature at which it’s served, the environment and the quality and collect and cleanliness of the coolers. Everything contributes to building the brand experience. The quality of the product. The consistency of taste, regardless of where you are in the world. All of these things contribute towards building the brand. The advertising, which is the tip of the iceberg, is what most people see and associate with marketing, but I believe the marketing of Coke is in the magic of delivering the product experience every day, everywhere in the world consistently for 100 years. 

Host Raj Daniels  05:05

You know, I love the idea of consistency. And in one of your interviews, I heard you say something that was very interesting specifically about consumers. And I think you said, consumers want to be loved, accepted, and how Coke wanted to, I think, ally itself with people’s mindshare about having a good time, is that correct?

Venkatesh Kini  05:25

That’s correct. I think for a brand to be successful, you have to love your consumers, and for any marketers. If they’re choosing a career in marketing, you got to first fall in love with consumers, fall in love with their needs, and then figure out how your brand can help them meet their needs better. Consumers just love brands that get them. 

Host Raj Daniels  05:49

I know Coke gets its consumers very well. 

Venkatesh Kini  05:51

Thank you. Thank you. 

Host Raj Daniels  05:53

Let’s switch gears here and move from your history at Coke to Ubuntoo. Can you share with the audience an overview of Ubuntoo and your role at the organization?

Venkatesh Kini  06:03

Sure. So Ubuntoo is a digital platform that helps convert ambition—sustainability or environmental ambition—into action. It essentially bridges the gap between what companies want to do—most companies that I know of, and their CEOs want to do the right thing by the environment. They want to be socially and environmentally responsible corporations. But the actual performance on the ground is usually not in line with the ambition. And often progress is very slow. And we set up Ubuntoo as a way to accelerate that conversion from ambition to action by connecting companies to thousands of startups and innovators that have amazing technologies and solutions to reduce the environmental footprint of companies. But the lack of connectivity and the lack of collaboration is what constrains the action. So you could call us a sustainability marketplace. With collaboration at its core.

Host Raj Daniels  07:09

I love the idea of moving from ambition to action. Can you perhaps share a story about a company that you’ve worked with where maybe someone in the company, a C-level executive, had the ambition, perhaps, to engage in sustainability, or broadly speaking, ESG, and you help them on that journey?

Venkatesh Kini  07:29

Sure, I can share with the audience a recent example that has been publicly shared. So I’m at liberty to talk about that experience. Mondelez, the global snack food company, has pledged to eliminate its plastic waste and reducing the environmental footprint of its packaging. So in India, where they have a large business, they are already neutral with regard to the packaging waste. However, they would collect almost more than the total volume of packaging that they were producing. Post-consumer waste was collected back by the company. They were looking for ways to utilize the recovered packaging material in an environmentally friendly way. And the material was predominantly multi-layer plastic waste, which is a mixture of plastic and metal. And that’s notoriously difficult to recycle economically. So they engaged us to help them find a solution. And not just the technology but an entire business model that could make it economically viable for an ecosystem to solve this problem without Mondelez having to invest repeatedly year after year in that space. So we’re going through our network of over 3000 entrepreneurs and innovators. We searched them, we narrowed it down to a few technologies that we thought could serve this need, and then identified potential implementation partners and created a business model that would use the collected multi-layer of plastic waste that is collected, on behalf of Mondelez in India, as a raw material to produce a plywood alternative. And the plywood alternative essentially converted waste material plastic into a building material that can be recycled indefinitely and helps reduce the environmental footprint of the built environment too. So there’s a win-win-win. Mondelez was able to responsibly dispose of its packaging waste. The material plastic waste that was typically incinerated or sent to a landfill in India found a second life, and then the construction industry in India now has access to a new kind of construction material or interior decoration material that has a low carbon footprint, does not use wood, and does not have harmful chemicals in it.

Host Raj Daniels  09:57

It’s a really interesting story. It almost sounds like—I come from a consulting world. It sounds like you’re doing a vendor qualification. Would that be correct?

Venkatesh Kini  10:06

That’s part of the story. Yes. So we have a four-step process where we enable discovery of technologies and solutions, innovations. We vet, qualify, and shortlist the ones that are best suited to us to our needs. And that varies from country to country, from situation to situation. So the best vendor for a problem in India may not be the best vendor for a problem in the US. So for each client situation, and each problem definition, we find the right vendors, or the qualification part. And then we also take it all the way to prototyping and testing and piloting, and we help with developing the scale of plans. So the four-step process ends up creating an end-to-end solution, driven mainly by small, enterprising, innovative startups and entrepreneurs.

Host Raj Daniels  10:53

So do you have an internal team that helps companies go through this business process?

Venkatesh Kini  10:58

Yes. At Ubuntoo, we have a base, which is a platform. There’s a free version of the platform that anyone can visit to search on their own for technologies and solutions. But that has limited functionality and limited content. Then for our enterprise customers, we have private collaboration spaces that we call “greenhouses.” And these are managed by our account teams or account managers and project leaders who curate for the client solutions, news, and knowledge that meets their brief. And then through an online collaboration process with a little bit of white-glove service from our accounting customer service managers, we convert the insights and knowledge produced in the greenhouse into a full-fledged project for implementation. And in some cases, we hand it off at the implementation stage to the client. In some cases, we take it all the way through to implementation. And in many cases, actually, we use local on-ground implementing partners, because we are a relatively small startup without a large number of people. And we find the best implementing partners in each country to help us with converting that ambition into action.

Host Raj Daniels  12:08

And I’m glad you mentioned startup because I’m curious to know, with your marketing background, how have you been getting the word about Ubuntoo out to your potential customers and clients?

Venkatesh Kini  12:19

We are fortunate to have on our team one of what I would consider the most brilliant marketing and social media savvy marketers, and our head of marketing, Yuri, has done an amazing job of spreading the word through a combination of content that we create, and we disseminate through LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and various other social media platforms, which celebrates the startups and innovators that we feature on Ubuntoo. At the same time, it introduces our platform for people to come and visit. We also do a lot of email marketing, direct outreach, and content that we create on LinkedIn. My co-founder, Peter, and I have collectively got 50,000 followers on LinkedIn, mostly professionals, and we create content that is then disseminated to that network. So it’s not your conventional direct marketing, email outreach alone. But there’s a whole host of tools that we bring to bear to spread the word about Ubuntoo.

Host Raj Daniels  13:21

Now, I know a little bit about platform technologies. And I know they often struggle with the chicken and egg problem. Getting the users getting the product, etc. What’s been the most challenging part for you building Ubuntoo?

Venkatesh Kini  13:34

You’re absolutely right. Platforms are notoriously difficult to build because of the need to balance the creation of supply with the creation of demand, and vice versa. And both sides are dependent on the other to grow. So the biggest challenge we faced was, neither Peter nor I had a technology background. Neither do we have a sustainability background. And we are first-time entrepreneurs. He is in his 40s, I’m in my 50s. And it was surprising how, after a 30-year corporate career, we were essentially clueless about how to actually start and run a business. So the first challenge we faced was how to be an entrepreneur, starting from scratch. The second and the biggest challenge as a platform is without a massive amount of initial funding, we would start at the beginning. You can’t create that large amount of supply and large amount of demand through either marketing or a push-type approach. So we decided to very narrowly focus on plastic waste and pollution as a focus area. And within that, we narrowly focused on the consumer products industry, and within that, we focused only on the packaging. So we picked a very narrow niche, but within that niche, we went a mile deep. Going a mile deep within packaging, plastic waste, and finding the best solutions for that allowed us to go and build 500 solution databases, which we built by hand and entered by hand and created profiles ourselves. We then went and pitched that to a company that we knew and convinced them to start reaching out to some of these startups and innovators, to help them with pilots and customers and stuff like that. So the biggest challenge was in, in any marketplace, where do you begin? And we picked a very narrow space to begin. And the second biggest challenge is, how do you invest to build the technology when you don’t have lots of resources? So we did almost everything physically, by hand, between us and a few of our early employees. And over the years now, we’ve been automating many things. We’ve been building digital tools to simplify the process and reduce the human intervention. But the early days have been, I can say, the most challenging in our life.

Host Raj Daniels  15:57

So you mentioned business model earlier. What is the business model of Ubuntoo? Revenue model.

Venkatesh Kini  16:02

So we decided very early to not use advertising or a charge for listing on the platform. The risk with advertising and paid promotion is that it becomes a pay-to-play platform, essentially. Then anything that’s listed on the platform is based on how much people are willing to spend in premium listings and featured listings. We also decided that we existed to serve the startup community and the innovators. So we decided to feature their profiles for free, and also to invest in building beautiful, visually appealing, and well-written profiles of each of the solutions. All the profiles in mobile, too, are written by us and our editors. So the revenue model is entirely driven by customers. We go to customers and clients, typically large corporations, and tell them, “If you’re looking to solve an environmental problem, let’s say you want to reduce your packaging waste footprint, then we will find for you the right partners through a curated solution software called our Greenhouse, and do it faster, cheaper and better than conventional consultants or crowd-sourced platform.”

Host Raj Daniels  17:19

So you said you—I think, I’ve got a paraphrase here—existed for the startup community. You said you and Peter, 30 years of corporate, starting a startup. Why did you both decide to start Ubuntoo?

Venkatesh Kini  17:32

After 20 years at Coca-Cola—my journey and Peters are somewhat similar, so I can speak on his behalf—we both were relatively senior in the company. We could have moved on to any other company or continued in Coke for longer. We both realized that we had a passion for sustainability and social justice that we felt we were not able to tap into or fully utilize in our corporate careers. We were also relatively frustrated with the fact that despite our best intentions, as leaders in the company, we weren’t making headway on sustainability and social justice as an organization. And we realized it was not for lack of intent on the part of the organization neither was on account of resources in the organization. And so when we both got an opportunity to leave the company, we both spent some time on a sabbatical. We interviewed nearly 100 startups and entrepreneurs in the space of sustainability, mainly in the space of plastic waste management, and were surprised to find, one, that there were lots of solutions out there. And most of the solution owners were frustrated at how long it took and how hard it was to get access to the companies who had the resources to scale the technology. That’s when he realized that there was both a market opportunity and an opportunity to do something good. And we set up Ubuntoo to solve a problem we faced at Coke, and also to solve a problem that we saw our startup community face.

Host Raj Daniels  19:15

Why the name Ubuntoo?

Venkatesh Kini  19:17

So about 10 years ago, at Coke, I was fortunate to travel to Africa. And there was a conference where we were introduced to some people who talked about the spirit of Ubuntu, which is a South African word that means, “I am because we are.” It was popularized by Nelson Mandela. And it essentially says, humanity is one. And I love the term. And so when Peter and I started Ubuntoo, we chose this as the name of the company. We also thought it was distinctive enough. There was a story behind it. We were constrained by the fact that there is a Linux-based open-source platform called Ubunto. But we loved the name so much that we  just changed the spelling to U-B-U-N-T-O-O and hope that eventually we will carve out a name and a space for ourselves. And so far it’s worked very well because the name Ubuntoo stands out in the midst of a whole host of green tech, cleantech, and other generically named platforms.

Host Raj Daniels  20:27

An old marketing professor once told me, “Define and design your own categories.” And looks like that’s what you’re doing.

Venkatesh Kini  20:33

Thank you. That is great advice from the marketing professor. We are often asked what is Ubuntoo like? Well, it’s a platform in its own right. And it’s a unique platform. So some people want to know, is it like LinkedIn? Is it like Airbnb? Is it like Uber? And you could say it’s got elements of all of those. But eventually, it will be its own platform.

Host Raj Daniels  20:57

You know, it’s interesting, you say that because I spent some time on the platform. And if I were to describe it, I would say it’s a cross between a LinkedIn and a very clean search engine. It fulfills both of those needs, where you can find organizations that you’re interested in, and you can do it very easily through your search feature.

Venkatesh Kini  21:17

Thank you. Thank you. And that’s the goal. We were inspired by the way that Airbnb’s user interface worked. If it’s so easy, that at the click of a button, you can find an apartment to stay at the other end of the world. Why couldn’t we make it as easy and as engaging to find a sustainability solution in any field or any geography?

Host Raj Daniels  21:41

I agree. You used the word sustainability a few times. You mentioned very early in your career you were interested in sustainability. Then due to needs, you took the MBA and went into marketing, etc. But let’s come back to a moment to the question of why. Sustainability you mentioned, social justice, humanity, you have these drivers. Where do they come from? What’s your why?

Venkatesh Kini  22:02

That’s a good question. It comes from a very deep love for nature. Growing up, and over the course of my career, I’ve always found myself happiest when I’m in a forest by the ocean or in the mountains. And I’ve also seen, thanks to the fact that Coke allowed me to travel to over 50 countries—my family and I love traveling—I’ve also seen the bleaching of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef, in the Maldives. I’ve seen the retreating of glaciers in the in the Himalayas and warming of the Arctic—I’ve been up to the Arctic Circle. I’ve dived in the oceans to see plastic waste in the bottom of the ocean. So I’ve seen firsthand—I’ve been to the Amazon, by the way, and I’ve seen some of the devastation that’s happening there—so I’ve seen firsthand the retreat of nature at the hands of humanity. And I fear that if we don’t all collectively do something about it, we’re going to have a much poorer planet. And honestly, the planet will be fine, it’s going to be humanity and civilization that will suffer. So once I had the financial freedom to be able to attempt an effort like this, I decided, better now than never. And I decided to spend the rest of my life pursuing something that I truly, really believed in.

Host Raj Daniels  23:25

I like that idea of, once you had financial freedom, but I’m gonna push a little bit harder. There must have been something easier you could have done. Why take the leap into entrepreneurship?

Venkatesh Kini  23:37

That’s actually a great question. When I left Coke, and I wanted to do something in this space, the options were to join a nonprofit, because the world of sustainability is really dominated by nonprofits. While I think nonprofits play an amazing role in advocacy and bringing attention to problems, I find they tend towards activism, and activism that’s usually antagonistic towards capitalism. And while some of the criticism of capitalism may be valid, I also believe that the solution to problems lies in capitalism. We can’t roll back civilization. So there was nothing out there that I felt was a good application of business fundamentals to the environment. And so we ended up creating Ubuntoo, because we felt there was nothing that really met what we thought was the solution, which is using capitalism to solve the problems that capitalism has created.

Host Raj Daniels  24:41

I like that. So you’re four years along in your journey. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself?

Venkatesh Kini  24:47

Well, I would say it’s actually three. Three and a half. And it feels like 25, but what I’ve learned about myself is that I am more flexible and adaptable than I thought I would be. When I left the corporate sector, I was at my peak earning capacity and had nearly 25,000 people in the Coca-Cola system in India who were, in some way or another, reporting up to me. And when I chose the entrepreneurial journey and to bootstrap my business, I had to do everything from being the janitor to the CEO role. My role in the business is Chief Operating Officer, and Peter, my co-founder, is the CEO, but we essentially are co-founders and we do almost everything together. And what I learned, the good thing, is that I can roll up my sleeves and learn new skills from scratch and apply them to a whole new space. The bad thing is that a 30-year corporate career did not prepare me for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship requires a whole different skill set than what you learn in a large, conventional, traditional organization. And if anyone listening in is considering quitting their job to become an entrepreneur, be prepared to start from scratch and learn everything afresh. 

Host Raj Daniels  26:14

That’s fantastic advice. And I agree with that. Let’s think about leadership for a moment. You mentioned you had about 25,000 people under you at the organization, What are some of the key traits of leadership that you think you had that enabled you to be successful in that organization?

Venkatesh Kini  26:29

I think for leadership, my personal journey as a leader, and for better or for worse, I wouldn’t say I was the best in the world, nor would I say, I was the worst. But I think the first and most important thing about a leader is believing in the people around you. The best leaders are the ones who inspire their teams to rise above what they think they could do themselves by laying out a vision, and then clearing the roadblocks so that the teams that report to you can achieve the vision. The second leadership skill, that I’ve consistently believed in and applied in my career, is that leadership is not bestowed. So what that means is essentially, just because you happen to be the CEO, or the CXO, or whatever is your designation, does not automatically mean that the team that reports to you, is beholden to you. All it means is that you have the organizational title. But you have to earn that respect and trust of the team around you. And that comes from a combination of selfless servant leadership. And it comes from a combination of knowing or believing in where you want to take the organization, or where you want to take the team, and then inviting them on the journey with you.

Host Raj Daniels  27:51

So speaking of journey, and you mentioned vision, as the co-founder of Ubuntoo, let’s fast forward into the future. It’s 2030. If Forbes or BusinessWeek were to write an article or headline about Ubuntoo, what would you like it to read?

Venkatesh Kini  28:06

That’s a great question, Raj. And we have grappled with that a couple of times because the vision has evolved. But at this point in time, what we would love Forbes or Fortune to say is Ubuntoo has helped solve some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. It’s made plastic waste history. And it’s helped dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of humanity. And it’s done that through a platform that’s made a profit, that’s actually been an economically financially viable entity, not through activism, and not through a donation-based model. But through a platform that people have been willing to pay for, and has made a difference in the world.

Host Raj Daniels  28:56

That’s a beautiful vision and just some commentary: like I said, I spent some time on the platform. And I feel like your market, going forward, is going to be huge, especially with the tailwinds of the recent administration, but also, as companies start to realize how important making decisions around ESG is going to be for them, whether it’s from a supplier supply chain, you know, cradle to cradle, cradle to grave, product lines. I think that going forward, like I said, I think your opportunity is going to be huge.

Venkatesh Kini  29:28

Thank you so much, Raj. That’s very heartening. And I really appreciate the words of encouragement.

Host Raj Daniels  29:34

Absolutely. Last question. And this could be professional or personal. And again, I’ve cheated because I’ve listened to some of your interviews. But if you could share some advice, and you did earlier about leadership, advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Venkatesh Kini  29:46

What my advice to anyone listening in is to figure out what your purpose or calling in life is. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to quit your job and suddenly go out on a mission. 

Venkatesh Kini  30:03

But a true calling is one where you can combine your passion, which is what you love doing with your skill, what you’re good at, with a bigger purpose in life. And that could be anything. It doesn’t have to be that you want to solve world hunger. But it could be something like you want to spread art. You want to make a difference in the lives of children. Or you want to do something in your neighborhood. It doesn’t matter. But whatever it is, have a bigger purpose in life than your own self or family’s needs. And combine that with a profitable model, where someone’s willing to pay you for doing that. So essentially, combine your passion, with the purpose with a profit, and with promise, which is your talent or your skill. So the four P’s: passion, purpose, profit, and promise. At the intersection of that is where you’ll find your calling. And it may take a year for you to figure it out, or you may already know what it is, and then start moving on that journey. And you’ll find that it will give you a new sense of renewed energy and focus and a reason to wake up in the morning and do something every day.

Host Raj Daniels  31:15

Well, I could be just reading between the lines here, but it sounds like you took your own advice. And that’s why you started Ubuntoo.

Venkatesh Kini  31:22

I did write an article about this on LinkedIn, which is about finding your ikigai. This is the Japanese term for finding your calling, or your purpose in life. And I do believe that I have found mine. I think in the past, I remember, I had to drag myself out of bed to get to work. And now I have to be dragged away from work to get to bed.

Host Raj Daniels  31:46

Well, congratulations on finding your ikigai. Congratulations on Ubuntoo, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Venkatesh Kini  31:53

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me on the show, and good luck with your podcast and your journey too.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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