Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Varun Sheth of Is Helping To Change Our World

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Varun Sheth of Ketto Is Helping To Change Our World

Highlighting the healthcare needs of the country — around 80 percent of the population live without any form of health insurance and 63 percent of all medical emergency costs being out-of-pocket expenses — most families exhaust their entire savings and additionally, borrow money at high-interest rates, to finance their medical costs. This alone drives millions of families into the depths of poverty every year. In recent years, medical crowdfunding has played an instrumental role for such families, enabling them to afford quality medical care for their loved ones.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Varun Sheth, Co-Founder & CEO of

Varun is the Co-Founder & CEO of, Asia’s largest online crowdfunding platform which enables people to raise funds for a wide variety of sustainable causes from education to women’s empowerment, animal welfare, natural calamities, medical emergencies and much more. The company works closely with hospitals, NGO’s and individuals to bring positive change to the community.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My journey in the social impact sector began early in my college days. I volunteered with NGOs such as ‘The Akshara Foundation’ and ‘Care India’. Working with NGOs gave me a deep understanding of the functioning of not-for-profit organizations as well as the operational and structural challenges they face on a daily basis.

After graduating, I decided to pursue a career in the financial sector and landed my first corporate job. However, I was never content. I felt out of place and soon realized that it was not my calling. I was determined to do something significant and impactful, hence I decided to make a change to starting a career in the social sector. During my stints with the NGOs, I learned that the technology and transparency gap between the donor and the recipient was a major roadblock in the fundraising process. With an aim to bridge this gap, we launched Ketto — short for ‘Key to Tomorrow’- on August 15, 2012, and the platform has since become a carrier of change for many.

Since 2012, Ketto has become Asia’s largest online crowdfunding platform, with fundraisers seeking support for medical, education, women and children empowerment and natural calamities. Year on year, donor numbers have grown exponentially, totaling 387,702 in 2019 and 1,140,885 million in 2021. Funds raised have also increased, from USD14.6 million in 2019, to USD51.7 million in 2021. In the health and medical emergency space alone, between 2019–2021, the platform has hosted more than 20,000 campaigns, enabled more than 10,000 surgical transplants and critical surgeries, and impacted 52 million lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In our initial days we were eager to find investors. I remember one day I was at the Taj hotel in Mumbai presenting the business idea to one of our potential investors who didn’t seem very impressed. Next to us was the tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi speaking to someone who also looked like an investor so I decided to wait and when their meeting had finished I accosted the man — who turned out to be an investor called Venkat Krishnan — in the elevator.

I quickly made my two-minute elevator pitch to Mr. Krishnan and shared a sports fundraiser story about an Indian athlete competing in the Olympics. I told Mr. Krishnan that we have managed to raise USD 5250 in a month and asked if he would make up the shortfall — and to my surprise he agreed. Suddenly, in two weeks, we raised USD 13000 for one project. It was really a confidence booster for us. The breakthrough made headlines — “Ketto” and “crowdfunding” entered the lexicon of Indian internet users. Shiva Keshavan, the champion luger, went on to attend the Winter Olympics of 2014 thanks to that fundraiser.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we started back in 2012, we didn’t have an office for the first 2 years. We had a unique offering for our employees where they could work in a new location every day. I would crack an ‘all you can drink coffee’ deal with a new coffee shop each working day and this became a center of attraction, a new age concept to hire talent as they got to experience a new environment every day. I vividly remember, once we scheduled our board meeting at a coffee shop and convinced them to close the store for a few hours. However, this arrangement lasted till we were a team of 10, post which the café wouldn’t let us in.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Below are some of Ketto’s impactful contributions towards sustainable causes:

  • Covid oxygen and medical treatment:

The second wave of the virus was more lethal than the first wave. India was gasping for breath, the situation of despair unfolded on the streets and the scene outside hospitals was heart-wrenching. Caregivers struggled for either hospital beds, oxygen, or lifesaving expensive drugs. The pandemic pushed over 23 crore Indians into poverty. Unaffordable medical treatment and life-saving drugs gave restless nights to the families of covid positive patients.

During the second wave, Ketto hosted over 4500 COVID-related campaigns and raised over 25 million USD. We recorded a surge in oxygen and COVID care supply related fundraisers — around 20% of the 4500 fundraisers were for the oxygen support/relief programs and around 40% were for COVID hospitalization and treatment. Medical treatment costs were ranging from 6.5k USD to 112k USD so a lot of people sought support from crowdfunding platforms like Ketto.

Celebrities and corporates such as Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma, Sonu Sood, Bhumi Pednekar, Sania Mirza, Diana Penty, Dream 11, OYO, Zomato, Epigamia, Film Companion, to name a few, joined hands with Ketto to support the covid relief program.

  • Food & Hunger:

The pandemic has left millions of the working class in India in distress. During the first wave of covid, Ketto registered a surge in fundraisers to support migrant workers, daily laborers, rag pickers, domestic helpers, sex workers, etc. During the initial lockdown, Ketto hosted over 6000 fundraisers for building community kitchens and distributing dry rations. The fundraisers supported over 10 million people.

Ketto also partnered with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), to enable a fundraising campaign, — ‘Milkar for Mumbai’. A distinctive campaign that aligned local government, NGOs, citizens, and corporations together for the first time, Ketto raised around 13k USD for the campaign. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra launched this initiative, the campaign ensures that the ongoing city-wide food relief distribution efforts are data-led, aligned, and focused.

  • Healthcare for all:

Highlighting the healthcare needs of the country — around 80 percent of the population live without any form of health insurance and 63 percent of all medical emergency costs being out-of-pocket expenses — most families exhaust their entire savings and additionally, borrow money at high-interest rates, to finance their medical costs. This alone drives millions of families into the depths of poverty every year. In recent years, medical crowdfunding has played an instrumental role for such families, enabling them to afford quality medical care for their loved ones.

To promote transparency in the fundraiser process, Ketto works closely with the hospitals. The company follows a stringent verification process; by authenticating the campaign based on the submitted legal identity and other supporting documents. A dedicated team connects with the hospitals and the doctor to verify the patient’s story. The funds raised on behalf of the patient are directly transferred to the hospital, ensuring end-to-end transparency. Ketto is focused on building the right pillars by keeping donors informed through timely updates of the patient/causes they have donated towards. Ketto has been able to change the behavior of people who are now more open to supporting and contributing towards society and for social good. We saw a drastic change in the giving behavior. The number of people coming back to donate again has increased to 70% as compared to 30% in the last year.

Ketto also partnered with Bollywood actor and philanthropist Sonu Sood to set up a 24*7 helpline for the medical care and treatment of children.

  • Education:

Crowdfunding has emerged as a popular means for students looking to pursue education overseas. One of the reasons for this is that students can raise funds not just for their fees, which a conventional loan would provide, but also for their living expenses. Ketto has registered a 300 percent increase in the number of education fundraisers over the last year.

Students turn to crowdfund platforms like Ketto because they are unable to afford the loans — as they dwell from a modest background and don’t have anything to offer as collateral, the absence of which translates to higher interest rates.

Additionally, NDTV, one of the leading news channels partnered with Ketto to host the #UnlockEducation fundraising campaign to help Indian students cover some of the costs of the mandatory 10-day self-quarantine accommodation on arrival in the UK, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the project was to ensure that the students most in need, particularly those on scholarships and on student loans, were able to afford the compulsory Rs. 2 lakh expense towards the 10-day compulsory quarantine in a UK government-managed facility for those students arriving from a Red List country, like India.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Ketto has touched millions of lives over the years, however I would like to share Harish’s story with you. Harish was suffering from decompensated cirrhosis of the liver. His condition was deteriorating rapidly, by the time he arrived at the hospital. Harish’s mother lost her elder son a few years ago to the same disease because the family could not afford the treatment. They were facing the same problem and were on the verge of losing their second son. As Harish’s condition was getting critical and further delay would have cost his life, the team of doctors raised money through Ketto and made the surgery possible at the right time. An expert team of doctors, transplant surgeons, transplant anaesthetists & intensivists and hepatologists made this surgery successful and gave him a new lease of life. Today, Harish is living a healthy life with his family.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

A country of 1.3 billion people, India spends a mere 1.28% of GDP on healthcare. Underinsured population, insufficient public health system, and expensive private medical facilities are the primary phenomenon leading to healthcare affordability and accessibility gap.

India ranks 179 out of 189 countries in prioritizing health in its government budgets. India has one of the highest levels of OOPE in the world, contributing to high medical expenditure which drives millions of families into the depths of poverty every year. However, in the past few years, medical crowdfunding has played a significant role in enabling quality healthcare affordable and accessible to all. The latest economic survey has stressed an increase in public spending on healthcare from 1 percent to approx 3 percent of GDP to reduce out-of-pocket expenditure (OOPE).

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is nothing but a continuous process of learning and innovation. It is important to constantly ask yourself ‘what’s next?’ The day you don’t know the answer then it’s time for you to learn something new and innovate something extraordinary.

Ketto’s endeavor is to bridge the healthcare affordability and accessibility gap. So far, Ketto has collaborated with over 280 chains of hospitals, hosted over 2 lakh medical fundraisers, and raised over 157 million USD. When we ask ourselves ‘what next?’ we can offer to the community, we pondered on this question for a while and then we decided to launch our monthly giving program for our regular donors. Ketto introduced the Social Impact Plan initiative to provide medical finance aid to children who urgently need advanced surgery or treatment for critical ailments. The program is focused on building a community that pledges to help others by providing monthly donations. The monthly donations are making a significant impact on people’s lives, so far Ketto has managed to save over 670 children by raising over Rs. 25 million for their medical treatment.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Find a good mentor

Believe in your work, it might take 9–12 months to show your progress

Track your goals and measure your progress by using OKRs

Spending quality time with the team is equally important, go for an off-site

A/B testing of each and every product of yours even if you are 100 percent sure

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would like to tell people to focus on climate change. Our marine ecosystem is under tremendous stress due to climate change. Ocean acidification, paired up with other climate impacts like warming waters, deoxygenation, melting ice, and coastal erosion, pose real threats to the survival of many marine species. It is time we take climate change and global warming seriously.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The world is changed by your example and not by your opinion — Paulo Coelho. I always wanted to do something impactful in my life and that is the primary reason I co-founded Ketto.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them

I would love to meet Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, Blockchain and now considered to be the prince of Crypto. He is creating a new world order on how people interact and transact online. He has got the front row seat to this and I would love to understand the new age dynamics from him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I would love to connect with your readers for a knowledge sharing session/conversation. Here is my social media handles for your easy reference Linked In | Twitter | InstagramFacebook

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Varun Sheth of Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.