A conversation with Prasoon Kumar, co-founder of billionBricks11 October 2017 - interviews
In 2013, Prasoon Kumar quit his job to start billionBricks, a non-profit design and technology studio aiming to solve one of the world’s most pressing issues: homelessness.
An architect by training, Prasoon had navigated the lucrative commercial industry successfully for 12 years, working in India, the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore. But over the years, he had a nagging feeling that he could do more. One thing he had learned in school was to “design for everyone”, but the reality was different. “It bothered my conscience a lot,” he says. “In cities like Delhi, personal lives have improved with accumulated wealth, but there’s more pollution, health issues, safety issues, environmental issues, more people on the streets, more slums. If there isn’t an improvement in quality of life, what [real impact] have I really made?”
billionBricks was founded upon the belief that there shouldn’t be poor design for the poor. In response to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in India that resulted in 9000 homeless families and more than 30 deaths due to freezing temperatures, billionBricks developed weatherHYDE, the world’s first reversible and insulated tent designed to protect homeless families from extreme weather. Hailed by actor Ashton Kutcher as “innovation at its finest”, it received global recognition when its campaign videos went viral. With its cutting-edge yet affordable design, weatherHYDE empowers vulnerable communities, allowing home ownership and stewardship.
In August, billionBricks was awarded the prestigious Global Grand Challenge Award at the 2017 Singularity University Global Summit for designing powerHYDE, the first carbon positive home for the homeless that produces four times the energy it needs. The international award recognises the most promising social impact tech companies tackling global issues.
Prasoon’s hope is for billionBricks to come up with solutions that people believe in and can replicate by millions in order to put a real dent in the problem of homelessness. “[The homeless] have their own priorities and we need to provide them with what they need, just like any customer,” he says. “We need to understand what will help their future.” We speak to him about the biggest misconceptions about homelessness and his take on success.
The Mindful Company (TMC): What did you want to be when you were a child?
Prasoon Kumar (PK): A pilot in the air force. I was quite close to doing that but due to some medical issues I had to drop out. After that, I wanted to be an architect.
TMC: What gives you energy?
PK: My kids. Being a father is quite incredible.
TMC: What trait do you value in others?
PK: People who stick to their values and understand what their values are. If we don’t understand our values, how do we actually embody them in our lives?
TMC: What do you do when you encounter self-doubt?
PK: Each time I have self-doubt, I keep moving forward. The only thing [to do] is never move backward. Keep building on your strengths. Everything I’ve done at billionBricks is something I’ve never done, so [to overcome self-doubt] I bring in other people I can learn from.
TMC: How do you define success?
PK: Success is when I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to achieve. It’s a personal benchmark. Someone might say billionBricks is doing well, but I’ll [decide whether] it’s doing well or not because I set the standards. You need to stand up for your own standards.
TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
PK: “Just go out and do it. Don’t think too much.” I’ve wasted too much time thinking.
TMC: What’s your favourite book?
PK: Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. It was a life-changing experience reading it. It seemed like he wasn’t special—he wasn’t very good at academics, grew up with a normal family, and did what everyone else did. But the circumstances around him made him what he was and that gave me insight into the great leaders of the world. They’re normal. That was a huge revelation for me.
TMC: What constitutes a meaningful life to you?
PK: To be able to juggle everything I want to do—balancing work, family, values, parents and fun. I make sure that I spend enough time with my kids and wife, and have enough time for myself as well. And enough time to read things. I try to balance these as much as possible but I wish I could do a lot more things.
TMC: When did you learn about architecture and urban planning? What called you to them?
PK: I was living in Delhi and I enjoyed walking around, discovering neighbourhoods. It’s always intrigued me how cities grow—the transportation network, the open spaces. I think that pushed me towards architecture and urban planning. I did architecture in school just because urban planning was a very new course in India at the time and nobody would do it. Everyone around me pushed me to do architecture instead so that’s why I ended up doing it. But the focus of my education was always on urban planning. So when I had a chance to not be pressured by others, I went on to do my master’s in urban planning.
TMC: Why and how did you start billionBricks?
PK: I started billionBricks 4 years ago for multiple reasons. One was that I took my education very seriously. I learnt that as an architect or urban planner, you design for everyone. But when you get to the commercial industry it doesn’t work like that. You say that your projects are open to all, that you’re making an impact in the city, but in reality that’s not true. It bothered my conscience a lot.
I worked in India for a while, then moved to the US. While it was lucrative, I wanted to contribute to growing cities in Asia instead. That’s when I moved to Hong Kong. I worked in the commercial industry for 6 years, but realised that again my principles were being compromised. I could see in my work that in cities like Delhi, our personal lives have improved with accumulated wealth, but there’s more pollution, health issues, safety issues and environmental issues. There are also more people on the streets, more slums… So if there isn’t an improvement in quality of life, what [real impact] have I really made?
I realised that I would speak about these things but not do anything. [So I decided that] unless I do it, I would never learn if I could or not. In 2013, I decided that enough is enough so I finally quit my job [to start billionBricks].
TMC: What are some misconceptions about homelessness that you want people to know about?
PK: First, just because we think someone is homeless doesn’t mean they are. The streets may be home to them and we need to respect that.
Second, we may think we need to help the homeless, but it doesn’t mean they need [the help we give]. We think we’re providing them with homes and telling them where they should live, but we’re not providing them with what they need. They have their own priorities and we need to provide them with what they need, just like any customer.
I remember meeting some people in Mumbai and I was trying to work out the economics of why they live in cities when they’re so poor. I told them that if they moved back to their village, they’d be better off financially. But they told me that the reason they don’t want to go back is because of what they see in the urban areas. Aspirations, wealth, access to education and healthcare, the ecosystem and cosmopolitan nature of the cities, the opportunities—the same reasons why you and I like to live there. So even if they can be better off financially in their village, the opportunity for them to come out of poverty outweighs it. So we need to understand what will help their future.
TMC: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in billionBricks so far?
PK: The biggest challenge is focus. I think we’re trying to fight too many battles. We should focus on one problem and just a couple of solutions, have very targeted marking and fundraising strategies, and a [clear impact in mind].
TMC: How can we support billionBricks and its mission to eradicate homelessness?
PK: You can go to our website—there are many ways to help. That’s the easiest thing to do. The second thing is to start questioning what we’re doing in our daily lives. Everyone wants to do good, but how can we do something substantial and really question the status quo? Many NGOs like putting good pictures and numbers out there, but at some point people need to start questioning everything that they’re seeing around them.