Desh Deshpande on Starting Merrimack Valley Innovation Center—and Making a Global Impact from Massachusetts to India

1/6/11Follow @gthuang

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investors to support the initiative, which has already provided grants to community programs including Ashoka Youth Ventures, Interrise, Lawrence Community Works, National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, Jumpstart, Social Enterprise Alliance, and United Teen Equality Center.

A particular area of focus is social entrepreneurship for college students—getting teams of students to identify problems in Lowell and Lawrence and propose solutions. One potential idea, Deshpande says, is for teachers in Lawrence to be supported by small groups of college students who could come in regularly and help out around the classroom.

Deshpande adds that if it takes $2-5 million a year per innovation center, “doing a thousand Sandboxes is not that expensive for the U.S.”

Ultimately, he’s talking about a much bigger goal, which is “closing the gap between haves and have nots.” As he explains, “The global economy is favoring people who are very smart who have opportunities and education. It’s leaving behind a lot of people. This country has always been good at creating opportunities for everybody.”

But that can’t be done by the upper crust alone—everyone has to get involved, he says. “A company can’t be successful unless they co-create [products] with their customers. In philanthropy, there’s too much of people prepackaging things for other people. In the process, we lose the customers.”

Now it’s time to get down to business at the new Sandbox. As for the differences between the Merrimack Valley and Indian centers, Deshpande says, “There’s a lot more infrastructure compared to India. It’s right next to Boston, so people from MIT and Harvard are excited about getting involved in the program. We won’t lack talent or brainpower. The question is whether we can make a difference in a few years.” The first big challenge, he says, is to “pick the right people in the community who can actually work with us to create the excitement.”

Deshpande says he will personally spend time at the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, and on its programs—though not every day, of course. “This is very near and dear to my heart,” he says. “If we can make this work, this has big implications.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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