The Time is Now

Rohit Malhotra 08C is a 2018 Emory Entrepreneur Award honoree, and the founder and executive director of Atlanta's Center for Civic Innovation, where he works every day to narrow the inequalities in the world.

By Elizabeth Cobb Durel
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We talked with Rohit Malhotra 08C as a part of our series getting to know the winners of the 2018 Emory Entrepreneur Awards. He took home the top prize in the Adviser/Entrepreneur Catalyst category. As the founder and executive director of Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation, he works every day to narrow the inequalities in today’s world.

“We're trying to bring innovation into the public sector,” says Malhotra. “Atlanta is a city that is growing and amazing things are happening but also inequality is widening, and when that happens you need better and more effective public sector solutions for poor people.”

The Center for Civic Innovations invests in community-based ideas with the potential to inform local public policy and advocates for greater community engagement. The work is structured in the same way an investment fund might be. Financial institutions, philanthropic organizations, or high-net-worth individuals put up capital to launch community-based solutions, and these solutions are measured like any other investment, such as growth in revenue over time.

“For us, it about reimagining the value of a public sector solution,” says Malhotra, who determines value based on cost savings or growth created for the local economy, then captures those savings as a return mechanism for investors.

“So, for example, if someone is designing something to reduce the number of kids returning to the juvenile justice system, we can measure how much money the county and local governments save by not locking children up for two years,” says Malhotra. “We can use that same dollar amount as a value proposition to invest in programming that helps children never reach the system in the first place. If you value social solutions with social impact, the economy will actually grow. But, for us to get there, we must have innovation in the public sector.”

The son of Indian immigrants, Malhotra worked at immigration law firms with thoughts of becoming an attorney. As an Emory student, thinking about the lessons of his parents and grandparents, his passion turned toward public service. “My grandparents are activists and teachers in India who operate in a post-World War circumstance, and in a country that was literally split apart,” he says. “They chose public service as a way to bring community back together. There's something a little bit poetic about that.”

What was your inspiration?

My high-level inspiration came from growing up as the kid of immigrant parents who used their entrepreneurial spirit to fight through poverty. I understand the resilience of people who are struggling. I also understand the entrepreneurship mindset, which can be one of the greatest tools for us to actually break through the way we think and the way we do things. So the spirit of my work comes from that.

Why the interest in public policy?

My love for public policy comes from working in the Obama administration and seeing how government can be good. I grew up with a mentality that government is not supposed to be a place for innovation. Although that's just not true, we've lost the ethics that drives innovation in government in the first place. The public sector said we should find business solutions to problems rather than putting problems out of business.

We're thinking about this work wrong. We're telling business school students and social workers and young people that they can do business for social good, but that's not what this is about. This isn't about creating a new protocol for business. It's about utilizing all the tools we have to improve the quality of life. And let's be smart about it: Let's use data. Let's use the same tools. It can be a true economic intellectual exercise of how we pull people out of poverty.

What’s a day in your life like?

No few hours are the same. At 6 this morning, I got a call from an entrepreneur wanting to share the great news of an email validating their business. This afternoon, I got a text from Atlanta’s planning commissioner and the deputy chief operating officer wanting to talk about participatory budgeting and whether neighborhood-based advocacy can support a new form of finance.

Then someone called to say, “I'm very interested in your work and would love to come see it in real life.” So I gave a tour and showed our physical space and everybody working out of it. Then we had a team huddle to discuss priorities for our fifth anniversary in September—What does that look like? How do we tell the world what it is that we want to be?

Then I got another phone call from a fellow who said, “Hey, I have another roadblock. Do you have a quick second?” Then I reviewed applicants for a new position. And right now, I'm heading to a meeting with small-business owners to talk about the amazing things going on in the neighborhood. Somewhere in there I'll eat some dinner and review some reading. Then I’ll go to sleep with pieces of paper on my chest and start over again the next morning.

How do you think Emory has influenced the work you do now?

Emory showed me my limited viewpoints on the city that I call home. A lot of my professors challenged me to think in a way that was unorthodox. They allowed me to be weird and not fit into any sort of box. Emory is so fascinating because it feels like it's trapped in old traditions and understandings of the world, but it's made up of people who so badly want to shatter that perception and drive students to think bigger.

Did any particular professor influence you?

In Goizueta Business School, Professor Steve Walton said, “You know you're not our traditional business school student, but with the mindset that you're bringing in, there are skills and science that will help drive you to build the world you want to see.” Professor Peter Brown, who at the time was teaching global health and social theology, said “We don't have anything called social enterprise, but I want you to read Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel peace prize winner, Bangladeshi economist, and microfinancing pioneer. He will change your perspective on the way that you think about social impact.”

How did Emory influence your life?

I'm just now learning how much my Emory experience has influenced my thinking and my way of life. At the time I thought, “Why can't someone just give me the answer about what am I to do next?” So, all of this prepared me for being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and now that's just who I am. Having the opportunity to jump from the school of philosophy to the school of religion to the business school was a part of my entire experience. Every day I am moving from philosophy to business. It really hasn't changed too much.

Best advice you’ve ever gotten?

It takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience. Fighting for what you believe in is the greatest form of social change, but you're going to learn a lot along the way. Give yourself a little bit of grace, even though you're going to want to have everything figured out now.

The “10 years” comment prepared me to grow and learn but not stop. I used to read in history books about the times when people needed others to step up. And I would say to myself that if I had been alive then, I would have stepped up. But damn it, I'm alive right now. We're living in history. This is the time when the world needs people to step up and do something. So if you ever wonder what you would have done back then, right now you have a chance to figure that out. That's a hell of an opportunity.

Worst advice you’ve gotten?

Wait until you're older. I've been told over and over again that I shouldn't do what I'm doing right now. This work looks glorious, and it feels amazing. But for every step forward, you get nine people trying to push back. Disruption inherently means you're breaking someone else's comfort. The worst piece of advice is to stop fighting for what you believe. It’s the easiest way to get you to adhere to the status quo and feel even more lost.

There's a rush when you're young and an impatience, and we should never lose that. A lot of people will try to cut you down and tell you you're too young. But every social movement, every major moment in history that has mattered and has shifted boulders, has been driven by young people. We need to tell that part of the story.

Do you ever feel lost?

I am fully comfortable with who I am and what I bring to the table. I’ve only felt lost when I've compromised who I am.

When you think about Emory, what is the one word that comes to mind and why?

Potential. Emory is what you want it to be. You have some of the smartest people in the world within the confines of a small space. You can just coast by if you want to. You can participate if you want to. For me, Emory is at this intersection where it's going to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up, kind of like its students.

What do you think it will decide?

Emory has high potential to be a transformative entity and partner inside of a city that sits at this intersection of history and culture and tradition and passion and civil rights. Emory could show up in a way that almost no other entity has the opportunity to do. It's uniquely positioned and must decide what side of history it's going to be on this next go around. We need institutions to figure out and tell the world where they stand and what they're going to do to show up.

What else?

It is important to ensure that public service work doesn't always get framed as charity. We need to rethink the way we value the public sector. It can be something people strive for, but literally it is valuable in dollars and numbers. We waste a lot of money keeping ourselves in problems when we could save a lot of money by solving them. With equality, the pie widens from both a financial and a social perspective. If we can all buy into that, we can live up to the potential of this country.

Editor's note: Elizabeth Cobb Durel learns something from every interview, but this time, she’s especially inspired. It’s a hell of an opportunity.