Varun Sheth is the South Asia regional honoree for the 2022 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
“The ‘why’ is all around us,” says Varun Sheth, YPO member and Co-Founder and CEO of Ketto.org. “As an entrepreneur, ‘why’ is a question you constantly ask yourself — ‘Why do I exist? Why am I doing what I’m doing?’ The answer today, given the incredible struggles of the past two years, is because people need a way to come together to help those who are less fortunate.”
Since launching in 2012, Ketto has become Asia’s largest online crowdfunding platform, with fundraisers seeking support for a wealth of causes, including education, women’s empowerment and natural calamities. Year over year, donor numbers have grown incrementally, totaling 387,702 in 2019 and 1,140,885 million in 2021. Money raised has also increased, from USD14.6 million in 2019, to USD51.7 million in 2021. In the health and medical emergency space alone, between 2019-2021, the platform has hosted more than 20,000 campaigns, enabled more than 10,000 surgical transplants and critical surgeries and impacted 52 million lives.
This monumental reach began on a micro level, with Sheth taking note of the lives of the people around him.
The goal was to build an easy, transparent platform, that not only allowed users to see where their money was going but gave them the opportunity to get to know the person behind it. ”
— Varun Sheth, YPO member and Co-Founder & CEO of Ketto.org share
Inspiration is all around you
From a very young age, Sheth took inspiration from those around him — the man at the railway station dropping a dollar into a blind woman’s hand, the woman donating coins at a temple, an office worker on his third 24-hour shift hoping to make ends meet.
“I am of the philosophy that every individual can learn something from every other individual,” explains Sheth. “That there is something about each and every person, that if you pay attention, can help improve your own life.”
Through his observations, he learned that people gave generously in India, despite his experience that many did not believe this was the case. The way they gave was just different from those in the United States or Europe.
“Even the person in India who’s making USD200 a month is usually giving USD1 a month,” says Sheth. “But they are giving it to someone or something familiar to them.”
Growing up in a family in which philanthropy was an essential part of the culture, it was natural that Sheth make his living doing something that would help make the world a better place. He volunteered with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) throughout college, but when he graduated, he found himself taking a job in financial services. Not a terrible thing, but not exactly philanthropic.
“I realized that I could continue in the financial services world for the next 10, 15, 20 years and that would not be a very meaningful life,” Sheth recalls. “Did I want to make a lot of money and then decide to do something meaningful with my life after my best days were behind me, or did I want to make less money and do something impactful now?”
Psychology and radical transparency
Sheth chose door number two, and started looking for funding for Ketto, a concept inspired by his old observations about giving, updated for the new generation that would likely want to give in a different way (online), but retain elements of personal interactions.
“The goal was to build an easy, transparent platform, that not only allowed users to see where their money was going but gave them the opportunity to get to know the person behind it,” Sheth explains. “The challenge was bringing together all the facets of giving and philanthropy in one place, making it extremely easy, engaging and transparent. But we knew if we could build a community of people invested in a better tomorrow for their city, country or world, that somewhere down the line, we would be able to achieve our mission of bridging the affordability gap.”
With a comprehensive AI engine capable of mapping results of a campaign’s outreach across Google AdSense, YouTube, Facebook and even organic posts inside the platform, Ketto is able to identify which promotional strategies are the most impactful for the campaigners. This has resulted in a growing number of users exceeding their crowdfunding goals long before their deadlines. Most importantly, it allows those seeking funds more time to focus on caring for those in need and shows that AI-driven analytics are increasingly efficient when mapped proportionately against the level of criticality.
Naturally, all of this didn’t happen overnight and while Sheth expected growing pains, some were a surprise. There were the typical struggles of being a young, unproven entrepreneur seeking funding and securing his first 1,000 customers. But what he hadn’t anticipated were the psychological challenges of running a startup.
“When you see other people making more money, buying cars and houses and getting married and you are struggling to keep your head above water, you start to question yourself,” admits Sheth. “You start asking if it’s all worth it, if maybe what you’re doing can be a side gig instead of full time and keeping yourself focused on what you believe can become difficult.”
Sheth turned to his support system — his family, friends and mentors — and refocused on his belief in himself and his “why.” This, together with continued self-education in the form of business books and podcasts and a healthy workout regime, allowed Sheth to keep himself and Ketto growing in a sustainable manner, evolving into the success story it is today.
Birth and rebirth
“The last 60 days have changed my life,” says Sheth.
In November 2021, Sheth’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. Born prematurely, their daughter ended up in the ICU for 44 days. During that time, Sheth met numerous patients going through the same ordeal — some of them were using Ketto to raise funds.
“Speaking with these parents, doctors and nurses, and hearing firsthand the impact we are creating changed my perspective completely,” Sheth says. “Before that, I had only heard stories secondhand, but when you speak to the people who are actually affected by what you’re doing, your purpose becomes so much clearer.”
In the hospital, Sheth spoke to so many parents whose children fell ill and they turned to Ketto to raise money to pay for their medical care. Now, they told him, their child had a chance to live. Sheth realized how impactful it would be for those who donated on Ketto to be able to follow the patient journey. It will be an opportunity for the donors to celebrate the good, they did and the lives they touched.
Once Sheth’s daughter was home from the ICU, he started building out a series of new programs.
“We launched a monthly subscription program for loyal donors, which allows them to give on a monthly basis as well as an entirely new social rewards program for those who transact regularly,” says Sheth. “We believe that we have a large donor base who not only want to give to individuals but be part of brands that are creating an impact in the world. For the next two years, we are going to focus on this new series of rollouts.”
All in the family
While Sheth only joined YPO in early 2021, he grew up hearing “fascinating stories” about the organization from his cousin Harsh Gandhi who is a YPO member.
“I am extremely happy to have the chance to be part of this organization,” Sheth says. “I’m so involved in the online tech world that I don’t get to meet a lot of people outside of it; I don’t get to hear what happens in the real world,” Sheth laughs. “My community in Mumbai is very supportive and active and given me that chance to meet people from different walks of life with totally different mindsets — from yogis, to politicians, to people in the art world — when you have this kind of diversity, space opens up. I think I’m just getting started.”