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A home for the homeless in Calamity!

Imagine offering your resignation to the CEO to start your own venture and in an ironic turn of events the CEO asks, “Why not we do it together?”. This is the story of the Founder of BillionBricks Prasoon Kumar who has provided shelters, schools and homes to 5,365 homeless and disaster-stricken people across 9 countries, and rendered relief support to another 10,000.

Perhaps the only non-profit professional to ever win the Singapore President’s Design Award, Prasoon quit his high paying job as an architect after seeing the “hypocrisy of talking to do good” in the corporate. He was fed up with the over exaggeration of tiny little good that companies harp upon while creating a disproportionate damage which they are silent about. The turning point was when he attended an Affordable Housing Conference in Philippines and was less than satisfied with the answer he got from world renowned specialists on the matter. He laments, “They think they have a solution but they don’t! Whatever they propose is at best a case study sitting in some business review and not a scalable solution”. Irritated with the corporate hypocrisy and seeing the decline in the urban quality of life, Prasoon felt that professionals like him need to step up. And BillionBricks was born.

He candidly confesses that when tended his resignation he did not have a solution. He had a business plan – with funding, revenue model and operations in place but just on paper. He mentions that despite the socio-economic nature of the problem he was going to solve, to date he has received no grant from any government and in fact if anything governments have been more of a hurdle than anything else. One person who believed in his vision was his CEO – Anurag Srivastava who joined him as a co-founder.

They did extensive research on the problem and made three conclusions. People don’t have homes for these reasons:

  • Displacement – Whether due to disasters or due to economic conditions people are forced to be displaced from where they call home
  • Rural Economics – Rural development often takes a backseat in a lot of developing countries. The rural economy lacks the prowess which can support villagers with adequate income forcing them to move out
  • Urban Land economics – Cities are designed to serve the rich. They engage services of the poor but do not necessarily house them. The prices of houses in the cities are prohibitively expensive for the poor

His solution was also three-fold. He emphasizes “We design for the problem and not for the people”. Having identified the problem, he came up with a solution that was:

  • Almost counter intuitively not designed solely for the poor
  • Treated poor as customers and not beneficiaries
  • Hugely scalable across geographies

The first solution they came up with was weatherHYDE - the world's first all-weather, life-saving shelter for the homeless and vulnerable. Its inception was triggered by the tragic 2013 India riots, where 30 displaced children died from hypothermia. After analysing the limited solutions out there, Prasoon set out to create something better — a standalone shelter that prevents weather deaths. To date weatherHYDE has sheltered 4,345 people across 8 countries from Nepal Earthquake earthquake in 2015 to Rohingya crisis in 2017 to Lambok Earthquake in Indonesia in 2018 to Assam & Orissa floods in India in 2019 to Philippines landslide in 2019 to Kerela flood in India in 2019. weatherHYDE provides an all weather temporary robust tent to people stuck in disasters. Prasoon mentions that often rehabilitation takes years and during this years’ long waiting period, weatherHYDE provides housing to people who may otherwise die in extreme conditions of temperature, natural dangers and other factors.

Prasoon has now moved on from providing temporary solutions to permanent ones. He estimates that there are close to 55,000 homes in Delhi alone which are “vacant inventory” with no inhabitants due to various reasons which can be used to shelter the unhoused. He has created Carbon-Negative, Self-Financing, scalable, solar home communities which generate abundant solar energy on their rooftop to not only pay for the cost of the house but also have excess as a source of regular income. He is now in the process of developing a community that will produce 10MW of clean energy annually, translating to approximately 100 million tons of carbon savings and year-round energy access for residents. The next milestone would be to do this for 25,000 houses to generate 350MW of power.

Gandhi’s autobiography has had a profound impact on him. He mentions that it was the first autobiography he ever read and until that point, he thought great people had something extraordinary about them. After reading the biography he was a changed man and realized that behind all the layers of greatness, famous people are also just ordinary people who rose to extraordinary heights when the situation demanded. Gandhi’s book together with his schooling at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi which has many good values such as caring about the environment and thinking beyond the self-built into the DNA of the school, gave him a purpose in his life. He says that his only regret in life is that he started on this journey 10 years too late – the 10 years he thought he needed to build corporate experience and value was only adding value to his selfish sense which pales out in the value he is now creating for the society at large.

BillionBricks has gone from being non-profit to a for-profit company this year and Prasoon’s goal now is to remain true to his mission despite the pressing demands to grow. He mentions that the business environment and social good are always at odds with each other and he is yet to see a big company which can marry the two. He says the purpose of business is to make profit and businesses are designed to keep growing that profit. This growth comes at a cost. His advice to the readers of his story is “Be true to yourself. Don’t give any excuse why you cannot do it”.

Prasoon Kumar, Co-Founder and CEO of BillionBricks is a President’s Design Awardee, TEDx speaker and social justice campaigner working towards eradicating homelessness. Prasoon began his career as an architect working in design firms across India, USA, Hong Kong and Singapore. In 2013, he left his corporate job to start BillionBricks with his previous employer, Anurag Srivastava who is the founding partner of Jungle Ventures and Space Matrix Group.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author.

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