The founder-CEO of D.light Design, Sam Goldman, 30, grew up in different countries, spending four years in the 1990s in New Delhi. There was also a four-year stint with the Peace Corps in Benin in east Africa, where Goldman lived and worked with farmers in a village that had no electricity, running water, phones or roads. At the time he saw himself as an environmentalist who hated capitalism and globalization. While helping the village set up an agricultural training centre and introducing a Moringa plant-based nutritional supplement for expecting mothers and malnourished children, he saw the benefits economic liberalization was bringing to Benin, just as he had seen it earlier in India. “Businesses came in to the nearest town and its effects were fast— roads, Internet, infrastructure,” he says. “Much more than financial aid had ever achieved.”
Bright spark: Sam Goldman feels India can’t be treated as a single market. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
More like three moments—he saw his 12-year-old neighbour in Benin suffer third-degree burns from head to toe because of an accident with a kerosene lantern. He himself got bitten by a snake in his house as the light from his kerosene lamp was insufficient. Another time, the dancing and drum beating at a death ceremony came to a standstill when the power generator conked out and it became pitch dark. “I switched on my LED headlamp and held it up,” Goldman recalls. “There was this 1-second pause and then the drumming and the dancing resumed.”
Pursuing an MBA at Stanford University, US (2005-07), Goldman took a course in “entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability” at the university’s new design school. As part of a team of five students, he came up with a rough prototype for a solar-powered LED lantern. The big boost came when they won the prestigious Venture Challenge contest for the best business idea and received funding of $250,000 (Rs1.25 crore now) in 2007. Turning down attractive job offers, Goldman, his partner Ned Tozun and three others set up D.light Design, based out of a garage in Palo Alto, California.
Soon, Goldman was coming to India every four months, travelling to villages in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In January 2008, D.light decided to shift its headquarters to India. Their reason—it is a huge and complex market that is evolving rapidly. “It was time to get out of the bubble and get into the reality of UP, Bihar and India,” he says.
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Currently, D.light has two products in the market—Nova, a durable solar house light that also has a charger for mobile phones; and Solata, a solar study light.
Four months into his Indian stint, Goldman realized, “India is not a market—it is a dozen markets.” Also, Goldman’s notions of an India infused with entrepreneurial spirit ran up against reality. “This isn’t Silicon Valley,” he says. “Not many people are taking risks.”
Goldman has no Plan B but expansion plans for D.light are in place. Two new products are in the offing. “One reason why I am spending so much time in India is because a lot of what we are working on and learning here is exportable,” says Goldman. “I want to take the lessons learnt here to the rest of the world.”
Hard work. “Ned and I are working our tails off. Long, hard hours to get this company off the ground.”