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Entrepreneur Interview: Neeraj Sagar, WisdomCircle

Neeraj Sagar is the founder and CEO of WisdomCircle. Launched in January 2022, WisdomCircle.com is building a technology enabled marketplace for people to find meaningful things to do post-retirement. Although currently focused on India, Neeraj aims to build WisdomCircle into a global company, and has assembled a team of 16 people to join this mission. Conceptualized during the pandemic, Neeraj attracted lots of early supporters to join this journey including an early stage venture capital firm, and got the ball rolling on WisdomCircle early this year.

Neeraj is a seasoned executive and has worked with some of the most sought after firms in the world. Until recently, Neeraj was senior partner at Egon Zehnder, a reputed global executive search firm. He has also worked with McKinsey and BCG prior to that. An alum of Stanford University and University of Chicago, Neeraj is also the co-president of Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs in India, and has been working closely with the startup ecosystem for many years.

This interview has two stories – one of Neeraj’s personal transition from a corporate leader to first-time entrepreneur, and WisdomCircle’s mission to build a platform for retirees to stay engaged and contribute their skills to business and society, at the pace they want.

Neeraj, one of the things I remember from our first conversation was funny personal anecdotes about early greying. Can you take us through your journey from the first grey hairs to WisdomCircle?

Mahesh, I greyed very early and used to colour my hair for many years. I decided to stop colouring about 8 years ago, and when I stopped, I realized ALL of my hair had gone white. Suddenly I started getting treated very differently. I would always get discounts at pharmacies before my even asking, a seat on the bus at the airport, and special lines for seniors that I would be ushered into. I had mixed feelings as this was happening: I was feeling good about the respect I was getting but started feeling that I was nearing the end of my professional line in the way people looked at me. I remember one of my colleagues, who was five years older than I was, asking me how many years I had to retirement.

In a way, I started getting a sense of what it feels like to be looked at and treated as old. While this was happening, a lot of people who were retiring would come to me for advice on what they should do once they retired.

I realized that even as a head-hunter, there was only so much I could do for them (retirees). This is when the seed was sown for what has now become the purpose for my life, to help people find engaging and meaningful things to do post retirement – hence WisdomCircle.

You turned 50 last year, were a senior executive in a reputed firm, and had a lot going on professionally, and quite likely, financially. Yet, you chose to turn entrepreneurial fulltime. What was the decision-making process like? When did transition begin for you?

The pandemic got me thinking quite seriously about my purpose. Having seen what happened during the pandemic also got me to realize how short life can be, and this idea that I will do something entrepreneurial ‘one-day’ was getting pushed out. A lot of my close friends had seen my lifestyle of continuous travel, always ‘on’, and started edging me to try and do something bigger and more purposeful. This coupled with a 100% support from my family to do what I want to do – and them telling me that they have got my back – well that pretty much got me to make up my mind that I had to do this and do it now.

I have also been studying the subject of aging and longevity for the last 4 years and I must have read about 25 books on the subject, interacted with many people in the space around the world, taken courses on things such as Cognitive Brain Health, Epigenetics, AgeTech, etc and I just knew this is the ecosystem I need to be a part of for the rest of my life, and do my bit.

I must say I had many many more people cheering me to do this, than the cautionary tales that were coming my way.

Neeraj’s decision making process

  • Urge to do something bigger and more purposeful
  • Decide to pursue entrepreneurship as the vehicle
  • Engage with family openly and plan ahead
  • Invest time in understanding the ecosystem and subject
  • Exit current role with mutual respect and support
  • Find early supporters to write a check
  • Get cracking on the challenge – learn, unlearn, learn…

Entrepreneurship is tied to risks, and comes with the possibility of failure. For somebody that was embedded deeply in the professional world until recently, how did this transition play out? How did you prepare yourself?

You know the first thing me and my wife did was that we sat down and did our financial calculations, looked at our debt, and spoke to our children.

Then I spoke to my younger brother, who is a doctor, and essentially told me ‘go ahead bhaiya and do what you have to do, and don’t worry, I make enough and if something doesn’t go as planned, I am there’.

On top of this, my firm where I was – Egon Zehnder – also told me that I could come back anytime I wanted to. And then all my friends started reaching out saying they want to invest in my company. When I thought of all of this as a collective, I just felt blessed and I told myself – if not now, when?

You are attempting something very interesting, to bring the wisdom of retirees to the workforce, and you even have a name for them – WisGen (aka the Wisdom Generation). Where does WisdomCircle fit in their lives? Are we talking full-time and part-time jobs? Or is it much more than that?

Mahesh, we use the term #RetiringRetirement sometimes in our posts on Linkedin. What we are trying to solve for is – people working for as long as they want to work, at the pace they want to.

Our mascot is a Turtle. Remember the story of the Hare and the Tortoise that most of us read when we were young? I tell people, we are solving for the Tortoise and not the Hare. The Tortoise lives longer, is wiser, and operates at the pace it wants.

Our purpose is much more than that. What we stand for, and where we fit in the world is – doing our bit to reduce the rate of cognitive decline in the world, so we can help reduce the rates of Depression, Dementia, Alzheimer’s etc.

When we started the first thing we did was we spoke to hundreds of people who had retired or were thinking of retirement to really understand the problem.

Quotes that stood out..

"There is a general feeling that retirees are expendable resources that have run their course"

"You slowly become invisible as you age"

"How do I fill the empty space"

"A source of income makes all the difference on how a retiree is treated"

"I am retired but I am not old"

"If I work, nobody should put pressure on me"

"I won’t work for anyone now, I work for myself"

"I do not want to be a liability to anyone"

"Out of sight, out of mind"

"I do not want to look at the clock and run anymore"

"In India we like permanency, in our jobs, in our marriage, in our house.. But retirement disrupts that."

We are talking primarily of part-time gigs that range from a few months to say a year or two, that accommodate people wanting to work say 2 hours/day or 2-3 days/week, ie at a pace that suits them.

Join Now: One Million Teachers and Mentors

A lot of people want to teach and use that as a way of giving back and sharing their wisdom, but do not know how to go about it. Incidentally we recently launched an initiative called ‘One Million Teachers and Mentors’, where we want to create a million teachers of retirees, and then some.

Click here to sign up

We also have a dedicated team focusing on the retirees from the Armed Forces to help them find meaningful roles that suit their real skills, and not just administration or security as most tend to look at this pool for today. The skill sets of retires from the Armed Forces is barely understood by the civilian world, and we want to change that to help our Faujis.

Let us talk about jobs. You launched early this year, with a 7-minute survey form, to invite folks to sign up for potential opportunities. On the other end, you have been busy building out the demand pipeline. Any insights to share at this point? How do you plan to use tech at enable this process?

Demand creation is one of the biggest challenges why people have not been able to come up with solutions yet. Specially in our country where everyone is thinking primarily about younger people, the retirees have not been given the focus.

Interestingly we are finding that demand absolutely exists but needs to be unearthed. We are working on this and have already had very good successes, if you see the roles on our platform, with many more to come. The one question we ask for creating demand in organizations is: “Tell us about a problem you want to solve for which you either do not have resources (people), or the skills”.

Other than teaching roles which I talked about earlier, we are also approaching demand creation in a structured way in the non-profit sector, which can benefit immensely from this Wisdom pool that exists.

On Technology, well the answer is simple, this is the single most important piece that will allow us to be a product company vs a services company. We want to impact millions of people and there is no way we can do that as a services business, so Technology is absolutely the key. We are further refining our product and we will continue evolving as we go along and learn.  We have a rockstar tech-lead and are continuing to invest in building a world-class tech team. The work we are doing in Tech is something we will share with everyone at the right time.

Can you share a bit more about your team, and also, the culture you are attempting to build at WisdomCircle? What are some of these experiments?

When we started the company, we started by hiring interns, and hired 12 interns from Ashoka University. The research interviews were all conducted by them, and the depth of insight we have today is from the work that they diligently and collectively did.

We have an amazing set of individuals who have come together. Every single person in our team has someone in their immediate family who has gone through retirement and therefore understand the problem. Incidentally some of our parents are also helping us test our product to check if it resonates with them, and are deeply involved in helping us craft the solutions.

I am so proud of the team we have been able to build so quickly and every single one of them is special. Every person on our team was known to someone and we just reached out and asked them to join us in our journey, and they agreed, for which I am very grateful. We also have hired retirees in our team, and they are outstanding in terms of their commitment, their advise, and their care – thus reinforcing to us what we are trying to do for others.

We do not have an office, our teams are distributed across cities, but we all meet face-to-face at least once a week in Bangalore in a co-working space, with the others who cannot make it in person joining over Zoom. People can work from wherever they like. The one rule we have is that if there are three or more people working together, food is on the house.

We continue to experiment with different ideas on how to support the WisGen, but our current focus is very clear – we want to play our part in assisting them find meaningful ways to continue contributing to the world. We want to be the largest and most trusted platform for retirees in the world.

If I am WisGen, somebody that has retired, how do I prepare myself to re-enter the workforce? How can WisdomCircle help in this journey?

As of now, please visit our website at www.WisdomCircle.com and sign up for early access, so you can see the roles we have listed which we will continue to add to.

We are also in the process of updating our website, as well as strengthening our tech product. You will hear much more about us over the next few months.

CONNECT

Neeraj and his team @WisdomCircleHQ are building solutions to engage with retirees. Get a glimpse into this journey through this interview https://tinyurl.com/5dydh5fb
#RetiringRetirement #WisGen


2 replies on “Entrepreneur Interview: Neeraj Sagar, WisdomCircle”

Brilliant, Neeraj. This is just so much needed, and your sensitive nature will give this the needed personal touch. Super proud.

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