Kiran Bir Sethi: The Design Thinker

(This interview is part of The Women Impact Series)

Kiran Bir Sethi is the founder and Director of the Riverside school in Ahemdabad. She was elected into the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008. We spoke to her recently about her career trajectory and what it means to be a woman social entrepreneur.

Can you tell us about your career path and what inspired you to get into this field?

My upbringing contributed greatly to the way I socialise. I was the youngest among my siblings, and by the time I came along, I think my parents had given up on being cautious with their children. That resulted in me having a  very independent childhood. My parents allowed us to take our own decisions instead of telling us what to do. They might not have agreed with what we were doing, but allowed us to make our own calls. Taking ownership for your decisions was an important lesson I learned with them.

My career path at the beginning was also very different. I was an academically gifted child, but my parents didn't force me to become a doctor or an engineer, which was the chosen path for many at that time. Opting for design was completely unheard of, especially because the National Institute of Design (NID) was very new. But studying design was a step in the right direction. NID also played a huge part in shaping my thinking.

Then, my marriage to a world champion (Billiards Champion Geet Sethi) meant that I would continue down that path of excellence. Taking risks and not placing the blame on anyone is an important quality of an entrepreneur. 

My son's educational environment stirred me in right direction because I felt like I could do a better job. I got the opportunity to be the principal of the school and got my feet wet in the education space and decided that this is where I see myself. Since then, it's always been going back to human behaviour and looking at that to design a solution. Design thinking is a good idea, it asks you to look at the problem and how would you improve it and what's your solution. Design thinking is embedded in social change. That's really been the reason why I do this.

What does the term entrepreneurship mean to you? Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

I don’t know. I think it's easy to be labeled and put into little byte sized pieces of information. I think if it means setting out on your own, if it means being able to look at a gap that exists and fill it with ways to do it better, then yes, I do consider myself an entrepreneur. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something you do on your own as well, I think there are people who work within organisations who are entrepreneurs- people who take ownership, people who are able to think critically, and not pass the buck. Those are the key ingredients to an entrepreneur.

At any point in your career, did you feel conscious of the fact that you were a woman entrepreneur? Did you face any challenges as a result?

Not at all actually. Competency isn't dependent on gender and isn't dependent on demographics or geography. If you look at yourself as mad enough to set out on your own, it's independent of anything else.

I think it was easy for me because the education space is anyway looked at as a ‘field for women.’ So, I think people are used to dealing with strong female authority figures and I don't think I faced any resistance to the idea. I would be interested in finding out about other fields.

Do you have any advice for young women who want to be social entrepreneurs?

I don't think you can want to be an entrepreneur. It isn't as simple as that. I think when we're younger, we keep getting told that the world is large and difficult and you're better off taking the easier road rather than making marginal changes as necessary. Becoming a social entrepreneur is not like becoming a doctor or an engineer. It's not like you can acquire certain skills and say, now I'm an entrepreneur. I believe it's an attitude, it's a personality, it's the ability to figure out your space and the way you understand the world and your position in it despite people telling you otherwise.

By Sathy Joseph

To read more stories from The Women Impact series, please click here.

To read Kiran's profile, please click here.

To learn more about the Riverside school, please visit: