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Center for
Social Innovation

Center for Social Innovation

J. Charitha ("Chari") Ratwatte (MBA '09)

An interview with J. Charitha ("Chari") Ratwatte (MBA '09)

Published: December 01, 2009

Donor, GSB Alum, Social Innovation Conversations Podcast Listener, Social Innovation Fellow, Stanford Social Innovation Review Reader
What are your causes?

Two things I feel very strongly about:

I want to help the world’s rural poor find for themselves something they rarely have: choices. I want to see empowered rural communities making their own development choices and building lasting institutions to carry them out; free from dependence on welfare or patronage; making free, rational economic, social and political choices.

I want to see greater transparency in how the world goes about this thing called Development. I think it is a crime that existing incentives make it harder for an educated, experienced developing-country national to work in his or her own country than it is to work abroad. Once they have the knowledge, experience and exposure, shouldn’t we make it an easier choice for these tangible, living-breathing elements of “human capacity” to return to help the countries they have the deepest understanding of and strongest connection to?

How do you contribute?

As one of the CSI’s first Social Innovation Fellows, I am working back in my home country, Sri Lanka, to make Comparative Advantage work for the rural poor in a globalized world. Various distortions and failures at multiple levels in many developing countries have left the rural poor struggling to compete on a playing field they barely understand.

With DC Jayasundera, my friend since Kindergarten and later “across the street” at Stanford Civil and Environmental Engineering, I started Rural Returns to help rural communities identify the skills and products authentically unique to them yet at the same time with a global appeal. Our first step is to work with rice paddy cultivators, the biggest segment of Sri Lanka’s rural population, to market a range of higher-value, uniquely Sri Lankan and fantastically tasty, aromatic and colorful heirloom rice that have wonderful nutritional and therapeutic values, not to mention fascinating names and histories behind each.

Another important cog in the wheel of development is access to education, and thus, opportunity. I am helping some of my friends who started, an independent, free and open resource for people to learn about and discuss opportunities in higher education, as well as the nitty-gritty about comparing programs, application processes, travelling and finding accommodation (see my articles on the MBA applications process, cracking the GMAT and making your application stand out).

Finally but perhaps most importantly, a country needs a strong civil society with just, balanced citizens. I have been a part of the Scout Movement (known as the Boy Scouts in the U.S.) for all but the first ten years of my life. I still help out whenever I can at my high school’s Scout Group, teaching beginners to swim and contributing to the Senior Scouts’ planning and review meetings. Scouting was where I first learned to be a principled leader and cut my teeth as a manager of small groups. We learned to apply basic management practices and practiced skills that to this day form the basis of how I carry myself and perform my work.

What are important lessons you learned?

Managing expectations – especially your own – can be the hardest part in our lines of work.

Consciously work to maintain a strong sense of humility.

The world and its problems have been around for a long time; people are not in the situations they are in today without some non-trivial set of challenges to hold them back. At the heart of most human systems, however poorly implemented, warped or inefficient they may have become, there usually lies a well-intentioned effort to improve someone’s condition. Someone has thought about the same issues and banged their heads against the same walls before.

Often the most important things you can bring are a new perspective, a set of simple questions, disciplined management, and access to networks and resources not available before. The right questions – often far from the obvious questions – carefully and respectfully framed, can get everyone thinking innovatively, and unlock new possibilities.

Particularly since my return home, focused on specific problems, the amounts of research and problem-solving energy isolated and stuck inside university laboratories, research centers and even private enterprises alternately inspire and depress me. The quality and motivations behind the work is inspiring; the occasional lack of big-picture thinking, market orientation, or field work outside their four walls is frustrating and saddening. The individual components of much of what we need to achieve already exists today, in need of the right amounts of coordination and vision to make them work together.

What are your favorite social innovation resources?

The GSB Alumni community

The World Bank. The new partnership with Google should make the wealth of available information more accessible.

The Economist

Time Magazine

Stanford Social Innovation Review

The GSB Library

Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics and Central Bank

The Center for Poverty Analysis’ publications and the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute’s (HARTI) library and dedicated agricultural economists


Google Apps (free for non-profits) and now Google VVave

Skype now gives paid services a run for their money with new screen-sharing features etc

Any last thought you would like to share?

You have to enjoy what you do – I guarantee that is when you will do your best work. Life is too short to stay stuck in a holding pattern – get out there, take the risks while you’re still able to – at worst you’ll end up with some valuable experience and some great stories to tell.