Solomon Darwin Takes Corporate Innovation to Rural Villages in India

The UC professor, born into the so-called group of India’s “untouchables,” thinks one great idea can change rural lives, and is proving it with his Smart Village Movement.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Solomon Darwin was born in a rural village in southeast India to a family of so-called “untouchables,” a group of people designated by the Hindu religion as cursed because of sins in former lives and thus historically subject to poverty, discrimination, and oppression.

Darwin nevertheless went on to successful careers in U.S. banking and academia after his family converted to Christianity and moved to California, where he was able to get an education. He’s now a UC Berkeley professor.

“America has been extremely beautiful for me,” said Darwin, an unassuming man with jet-black hair, bushy eyebrows, beard, and mustache as well as jarringly intense eyes and a kindly voice. “The equal opportunity which I experienced in America brought me into prominence because it has given me the chance to prove myself. It’s a place where hard work can be rewarded.”

A life of comfort and ease, however, was not Darwin’s reward. Instead, Darwin has embraced personal sacrifices and threats from Hindu extremists to spread prosperity in his former homeland, particularly for those at the bottom of society.

As an academic, Darwin has become an increasingly influential promoter of U.S.-India ties, meeting with government officials up to India’s president and prime minister, and becoming the leader of a Smart Village Movement that aims to bring technological and economic development to India’s rural villages. There are some 650,000 such villages in India, and they are home to nearly 70 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens.

Though virtually all of his extended family long ago emigrated to the United States, Darwin has also consistently gone back to his native village of Mori Podu on the Bay of Bengal, a town of 8,000 where he built and runs a school, an orphanage, and a hospital, all of which serve the poor and outcast, regardless of religious persuasion or social status.

“We are all blessed because of him,” said Harish Pindi, a 27-year-old Mori native who attended Darwin’s Riverside International School. He recently graduated in computer science from California State University, Northridge, and now lives in Fremont. Pindi recalled Riverside as an egalitarian oasis, and said Darwin counseled him to success when he  almost failed college.

Darwin explained his motivation to help others by quoting Abraham Lincoln’s adage that almost anyone can go through life’s challenges and succeed, but gaining power will truly test a person’s character.

“I see lot of old friends, even my own relatives, and they are so forgetful and lacking in gratitude now in America. Remember where you came from,” he said. “Even to today I am always remembering.”

This year, Darwin published two books. One, The Untouchables: Three Generations of Triumph Over Torment, is about his own family’s journey over three generations to escape caste oppression. The other, The Road to Mori: Smart Villages of Tomorrow, is about his campaign to digitally empower villages, which, over the past couple of years, has been officially adopted by two Indian states and received support from numerous universities and tech corporations like San Jose’s PayPal, Google in Mountain View, and Ericsson, Sweden’s networking and telecommunications giant.

PayPal chief technical officer Sri Shivananda, for example, dispatched staff to work with Darwin’s students in Mori interviewing local citizens about how to help them sell saris, cashews, and other goods over the internet.

Ericsson in May was touting how it has developed applications of sensor technology in Mori to help shrimp farmers improve harvests and improve water distribution.

Those efforts have already produced tangible benefits for Mori’s residents, and last year the state of Andhra Pradesh approved funding to help Darwin spread similar innovations to the rest of its 470-plus villages, said Venkatesan Ashok, India’s consul general in San Francisco.

“We saw how the villagers were thriving with the improvements that had come in,” Ashok said. “We need many Solomon Darwins to make change in India.”

Andhra Pradesh has given Darwin the honorary title of chief innovation officer. In June, the state of Arunachal Pradesh near the Himalayas in the northeast followed suit with its own deal to develop Smart Villages, shortly after Darwin hosted state officials in the Bay Area and introduced them to executives at PayPal’s headquarters. Darwin is now planning a trip with UC Berkeley students for next year.

Throughout, Darwin has continued to raise money for his school, hospital, and orphanage he started in Mori, relying heavily on church and service groups, like Rotary clubs, which have provided cash, materials, and volunteer services.

Vivek Wadwha, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering at Silicon Valley, said what Darwin has accomplished both personally and professionally is “incredible.”

“These are complete extremes,” said Wadwha, who met Darwin about a decade ago through another academic but did not know until recently that Darwin was born into India’s Hindu underclass. “You are talking about going from the poorest of the poor in India to the height of academia in Silicon Valley. How does that happen? He didn’t hit the lottery. He worked his way to where he is.”

Darwin was born a member of India’s scavenger caste, the members of which have historically been expected to take jobs like cleaning public toilets and sewers, burying the dead, or working virtually as indentured rural slaves. Such “untouchables,” also called Dalits by activists, are among an estimated 200 million people that the government designates as “scheduled castes,” and though affirmative action programs exist and discrimination was officially banned when India adopted its constitution in 1950, prejudice remains, economic opportunities are often limited, and incidents of oppressive violence continue. Deaths of Dalit men manually cleaning out sewage equipment have been commonplace in recent years, for example, even though the practice was outlawed in 2013, and inter-caste marriage provokes killings.

Fortunately for Darwin, he had a remarkable role model of resilience and entrepreneurism in his grandmother, a woman known as Subbamma, who rejected caste distinctions, converted to Christianity and ran restaurants, a lace-making export business and a community bank while also acting as schoolteacher and midwife to countless local children.

“Entrepreneurship is a liberator. That’s what my grandmother proved,” Darwin said.

Opportunity proved nonexistent for Darwin’s academically inclined father, however. He could not find a job despite completing an advanced degree in marine science — a fact he attributed to caste discrimination.

Incredibly, Darwin’s father eventually got hired by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, and after four years’ separation, Darwin and his mother joined him in La Jolla. The family later relocated to San Bruno.

Equipped with at best a fifth-grade education, Darwin was overwhelmed by culture shock and depression. He tearfully pleaded his way into community college, working as a janitor at the school. Three years later, he transferred to San Francisco State University, where he got a bachelor’s degree, proceeding then to get an MBA from Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Darwin got a job as a financial analyst for Motorola Inc. in San Mateo, worked at a bank in Tulsa, Okla., and then got a job at Glendale Federal Bank in Southern California working as a cost accountant in a crowded basement in a warehouse-like building. In his spare time, he wrote a report identifying how to cut costs.

The report made its way to the bank’s president, who pulled Darwin from obscurity and sent him to Harvard University for an executive training program. When Darwin returned in 1984, he was named corporate controller for GlenFed and given a corner office with a stunning view of the Glendale hills and spreading metropolis.

Darwin bought some nice suits. He worked a lot, went to church, bought a large new house.

Then, in 1988, Darwin’s grandmother died, and the trajectory of Darwin’s life again changed dramatically. Subbamma had come in her twilight years to live near relatives. In her final days, she asked Darwin to take her body back to Mori Podu for burial. Darwin told her he could not commit to making that journey, as he was very busy, but his boss urged him to go.

So in 1988, Darwin traveled with Subbamma’s embalmed body by airplane, rail, truck, rickshaw, and finally in a small boat poled by hand across the Godavari River.

Darwin had not been back to Mori Podu since the age of 15. When the boat carrying Subbamma’s casket landed at the water’s edge, hundreds of people were waiting for her arrival. One held a sign in Telugu reading “Subbamma, a friend of the poor.”

Upon returning to the United States, Darwin sold his big house and moved into a communal home for Christian missionaries in Pasadena, where he shared a room with four other men. He sent his savings to Mori to begin rebuilding Subbamma’s mud hut school.

On the professional front, Darwin continued to advance, ultimately becoming a senior vice president of corporate finance for Bank of America in San Francisco. But when the bank was sold to NationsBank and the headquarters was moved to Charlotte, N.C., Darwin resigned. He had fallen in love with a ballet dancer of Swedish descent whom he met at his church, and the two got married and moved to Mori to supervise construction of the school and an orphanage on land Darwin bought when an upper caste farmer had a heart attack and needed money. It opened in 1996 and today serves nearly 800 students a year. The nearby medical center Darwin built similarly sits on land from which Darwin recalled being chased as a child by an upper caste man who yelled that he was unclean.

Darwin moved back to Southern California when his wife was going to give birth. He was broke and exhausted, but one day received a call from former Harvard Business School professor Ken Merchant, who had tracked him down to offer him a teaching position at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Elated, Darwin worked at USC for nine years, where Merchant said he was an outstanding teacher, before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley.

Today, Darwin and his wife, with whom he has three children, live in Pacifica. He is executive director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, part of Haas’ Institute for Business Innovation.

From that perch, Darwin teaches about business innovation, hosts conferences to promote U.S.-India commerce, the most recent being in September, and supervises student research aimed at using technology and global trade to develop villages around the world, where 3.4 billion live.

“I’m very excited about the work I’m doing. Otherwise, I would be depressed. Most of my life, I’ve had a lot of setbacks. At times, I have not wanted to live anymore,” Darwin said. “At this moment, God has blessed me to a point where I can give something back.”

It’s not all roses, Darwin is quick to point out. Caste and intersectarian tensions in India remain, with violence and other outrages occurring regularly. Despite his own accomplishments, Darwin feels discrimination from Hindus in India and in the Bay Area.

Darwin’s name has even appeared on a Hindu radical target list.

As a result, Darwin said he is careful about broadcasting his whereabouts when he’s in India, and his goal is never to inflame opposition, though he has taken stands at times to ensure staff at his school treat students equally regardless of caste.

“I want to live peaceably with everyone and work with everyone no matter who they are,” he said.

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