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August 1, 2023
Shalini Vajjhala
Building a Resilient Future for All: Infrastructure Predevelopment with Shalini Vajjhala

Building a Resilient Future for All: Infrastructure Predevelopment with Shalini Vajjhala

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Show Notes:

"It's not how do we get everybody to the average, it's how do we move the entire average up?"

In the premiere episode of Cause & Purpose Season 2, Mike Spear and Shalini Vajjhala discuss inefficiencies in the philanthropy space and how to make the most of your philanthropic dollars. From building footbridges to proactive disaster mitigation, we explore how to think about funding and collaboration to achieve the best possible outcomes for communities around the world.

(00:00:00) Arranged Marriages

(00:06:40) Mapping Megacities

(00:13:49) Infrastructure Planning

(00:20:40) Efficiency in Philanthropy

(00:28:21) Pre-Development Planning

(00:34:59) Building Trust in Infrastructure

(00:42:04) Precollective: Abundance Mindset

(00:48:37) Minority Women in Philanthropy

(00:55:35) Building Inclusive Spaces

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00:00:00 - Shalini Vajjhala
You over prioritizing efficiency can steer you away from impact, and it happens all the time with public money, with philanthropic funds, we tend to not zoom out early in the process far enough and you get attached to the solution rather than asking a better question to know what's possible.

00:00:23 - Mike Spear
Welcome to Cause and Purpose, the show about the leaders, innovators and change agents working on the front lines to solve some of the world's greatest social challenges. Our guest today is Shalini Vajjhala, the founder and CEO at Refocus Partners and the executive director of the Pre Collective. If you're not familiar with Shalini's work, frankly, I'm not that surprised, but you should be, and we're very excited to introduce her to you.

00:00:50 - Mike Spear
Shalini is one of those incredible people who operates largely behind the scenes by doing the powerful, unsexy work of helping to prevent and mitigate disasters that haven't happened yet. Through infrastructure planning focused on the future impacts of climate change and supporting vulnerable communities around the world, Shalini gets involved in the planning and fund allegation phase, creating long term plans and coalitions to build safe, resilient infrastructure for the future. I could go on, but it's probably better to let Shalini tell you herself.

00:01:17 - Mike Spear
A quick note about the episode. Given the type of work Shalini does, we thought it would be fun to do the recording in a public park. It was pretty quiet when we started, but by the end of the recording the park was filled with children and families enjoying the open space. We hope the background noise isn't too distracting.

00:01:32 - Mike Spear
Without further ado, please enjoy episode one of the new season of Cause and Purpose. Shalini, thanks so much for joining us today. I'd love to start by talking a bit about your family and what inspired you to get into social impact work.

00:01:45 - Shalini Vajjhala
I was lucky to grow up with two amazing grandmothers at all times. So I was one of these kids who's born in the US. But didn't speak English until I went to kindergarten. And so my family is from South India. My grandmother's lives were so present and so different from everything I saw around me. And so they were both married really young, had a lot of kids very young, and I think having access across generations to seeing how different my life was in basically a single leap from my mom's. Mom was pulled out of school in the third grade and I got to go to graduate school. And she was brilliant, right? It was never a question of whether she would have been great in school. It was access to opportunity. I got to do what I did because she advocated for all the girls to go to school. And so I think social impact, it was inevitable for me. It wasn't a choice. I was never headed for a hedge fund. It was just a question of how I would choose what to do. And so I started off in architecture thinking, like, let me focus on the basics food, water, shelter. And so I picked Shelter. I liked art, and I was one of those kids at the edge of art and math. And so it was a nice combo, but I very quickly just kept gravitating toward interesting development. It was I think that was my grandmother.

00:03:21 - Mike Spear
Where did your parents and grandparents grow up and where did you grow up?

00:03:24 - Shalini Vajjhala
My parents and my grandparents grew up we're all from South India, so a small set of villages, but they moved all over India. And my grandparents, my mom's parents came to the US. When my mom was in high school, and she was in the first class in the city of Newark of desegregated schooling. And so she and her brother, they didn't know how to classify brown. So I heard this story 25 years later where one of them was listed as black and the other one was listed as white for the school counts. They came to New Jersey, and I was born there. So I was one of the first in my family to be born in the US. And grew up mostly in the US. But sort of deeply embedded in an immigrant family.

00:04:13 - Mike Spear
Can you talk a little bit about your grandmothers getting married so young? The reason I ask is I think most people, myself included, don't fully understand the reasons behind forced marriage or getting married so young or arranged marriages. You mentioned it in the context of safety.

00:04:32 - Shalini Vajjhala
Both of my grandmothers were married as early teenagers. This was at a time in India where it was a matter of safety. So one of them had been orphaned, and marriage was the safest way to be in society for her. My other grandmother was just custom. And so I'm actually the first person in my extended family not to have the first girl not to have an arranged marriage. So even my mom was in an arranged marriage. My parents were. And so I think it's often seen as something atypical, but when it's the water you swim in, I don't think folks saw it that way. I think for me, what really shone through about it was that it was just such a loss of access to opportunity, right where the paths get narrowed very, very fast and very early. And so you see that in a lot of different cultures. But it was formative for me because I had people encouraging me to stay thoughtfully open to a lot of different paths. And these are people who didn't have that themselves.

00:05:40 - Mike Spear
You mentioned kind of in an offhand way, being drawn to shelter through architecture as one of those things. Does that come from the stories told by your parents and grandparents and sort of that feeling you had at home?

00:05:51 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think it also comes from moving a lot. As a kid, my family moved every few years. It was a little bit like a military kid life, but driven by when you have foreign degrees, oftentimes in US. Systems, to be able to move up. If my dad had a foreign medical degree, being able to move through the system required moving. And so we moved across states, all sorts of different places. So I think of myself as kind of a Midwest kid in western Pennsylvania. But I think shelter for me was one of the it was kind of one of the big three that really matters for a good life or food, water, shelter, and I would say education. And it was a nice way to think about what gives stability for people. And it was fascinating because one of the things that I got to do in architecture school was I had a chance to study abroad, and I did a really odd study abroad for an architect. I joined a program of mostly anthropologists and political scientists and sociologists, and we were studying megacities. And so we got a chance to spend almost two months in Cairo, two months in Bombay, and two months in Rio. And we each had to do projects on something that tied together development in all three cities. And so I ended up doing work. And I think this credit to my grandmothers, who spoke a dozen languages between them and would confidently communicate with anyone. I didn't realize this at the time, but the way that architecture schools are structured, they basically teach you how to have lots of different ideas about the same problem. And so it forces you to be really to question your own thinking. You don't land on one right solution. You have to be able to generate options. And I think I underestimated how important that was until in my fourth year of architecture school, I had a chance to study abroad. And I got to spend time in a program of all folks who were not architects. And so to see the different ways that people were trained to think, but also to be in a context. We were studying megacities. And so I spent almost two months in Cairo, two months in Mumbai, and two months in Rio. And it was a group of about 25 of us, and we each had to pick a project. What would we do to help us better understand how these giant cities function? And so I think I got this directly from my grandmothers. I will talk to anybody and whether I speak the language or not. So I found myself talking to folks who are near a major new railway project. And these were people who were living inches from speeding trains. And if you have a mental image of kind of wooden or paper or tarp shacks, really bustling and vibrant, whole micro cities within the big cities, but just these long, linear communities that followed this infrastructure. And I started asking folks, why do you live here? And I got such incredible answers and I pretty soon hit the limits of language. And so I decided for my project that I was going to gather maps from people of where do you live? Where do you go every day? How do you get there? And they turned into these incredibly vibrant little drawings of life on these edges. And what drove me to thinking about this this way was there was a section of this railway that was completely empty. And I asked, I was like, what used to be here? Because everything else was packed to the gills. And I said, oh, well, those people were moved to housing at the edge of the city. And it was an infrastructure program that planners, often as the center of city, were looking to expand. The railway needed to think about how to handle all these folks who were living right on the edges of the railway lines in ways that were unsafe. And so they developed a program to provide new housing, and they thought it was going to be the greatest thing. And the next day, everybody had moved back, right? And everyone on the planning side seemed baffled. Like, we gave them great houses, much better than these tarps and these things, but everybody underestimated the networks that our lives function in of like, now you moved my kid away from a school. You took away my access to this market. I used to be able to get right on this train. And so there were all these incredibly thoughtful answers about how to think about infrastructure inside these maps. It was an incredible way to get a window onto the world that my grandmothers had grown up in in all these different varieties, but also to think about how do you plan to make it better without tearing apart what's good in it.

00:10:57 - Mike Spear
Well, in addition to the things you mentioned, you're talking about tearing apart social connections too. I mean, if you're living in such close proximity with your neighbors, you become.

00:11:06 - Shalini Vajjhala
Family and you have childcare next door, and if you get moved out, you do not. And so I have a very broad definition of infrastructure that I think is shaped by those early experiences of it's all the things that let you lead a good life, that enable well being and that's physical, that's social, that's economic, and all the other stuff is a means to an end, right? Nobody needs a road or a railway. They need to be able to get to work or school safely, right? You need clean water, not a pipe. And so really getting down to what are the ends, not the means. And then how do you meet those ends, is what I do today.

00:11:44 - Mike Spear
In what you're saying, I think, is also the idea of focusing on impact on a set of outcomes that we can all agree upon, rather than the outputs, rather than the activities that we need to conduct to get there.

00:12:01 - Shalini Vajjhala
The through line in my whole career has been, how do you make sure you get to those outcomes? Well, how do you ask the question differently, not how do you build this one type of thing? I think that's what pulled me sideways from thinking about shelter. It became one part of a larger set of things.

00:12:20 - Mike Spear
What are a couple of the common things you heard when you asked why people lived in these marginalized spaces?

00:12:26 - Shalini Vajjhala
It's all the same things that you or I would say, right? I want to be close to my people. I need to be near my job. I need to be able to get kids to school. I've been here the whole time. The veneer of poverty drops away completely when you get down to that level of needs. And you would hear the exact same thing here in San Diego that you heard along any of those railway lines.

00:12:51 - Mike Spear
What drew you to sort of the larger institutions, and how was that experience for you, and what are some of the things you learned?

00:12:57 - Shalini Vajjhala
It was an unexpected path, I think, into the large institutions. So I really do enjoy the problem solving and finding interesting questions and coming at them from a lot of different angles. So that early community mapping work turned into work with the World Bank in Lesotho in southern Africa with one of my professors at the time on the study abroad. For your listeners who may not know this, this is a tiny landlocked country inside of South Africa, and it is very mountainous. It's one of the places where it often gets so cold that it can snow. And so it is absolutely gorgeous and wildly inaccessible. And my professor, who had seen this mapping project I had at that point gotten pulled into grad school because of this mapping work in the engineering department, looking at, well, how do you plan infrastructure? Well, so how do we think about building power lines and these networks that enable a lot of good, but can create a lot of local concern and harm? And so I was doing this work and trying to refine the methods and think through really what does community centered planning look like? And my professor called and said, hey, I have this project with the World Bank and would you like to join this team that's going to Lesotho? And of course I said yes, because it was an out of this world offer for a kid who was early career and adventurous. And she deliberately did not tell me that we would be spending several weeks on horseback because I don't know that I would have said yes so fast. And so I spent a lot of time walking next to a very small mountain pony inside of Lesotho with a team from the World Bank Transportation Division. But it was being led by this professor who was an anthropologist, and we were trying to figure out how to think about mobility and access separate from building roads. So why weren't people, for example, going to health clinics even though the road was there? So we ended up going to all these different villages and sitting down and doing these mapping interviews and just asking, where do you go every day? And there were two surprises for me. One was that as we asked these questions and as the maps unfolded so think about interviewing someone like this podcast. But instead of answering out loud, you're adding information to a sheet of paper on the ground with your neighbors, with your friends, or you're even drawing on the ground with a stick saying, I'm starting here. Here's a little dot. And well, every day I go over here to the market or to the school, and you can start seeing this network emerge of the dense things you do daily, the things you do once a week, the things you do every month, and then what's the thing that you would do? And someone would be surprised, right? So you have all these different ways of asking questions. And what we noticed after the first few conversations was that or the women were adding different things to the map than the men. So we started separating out groups, and then we started seeing big differences in the women's and the men's maps. And the women's maps had these gaping holes, and we took and overlaid them on top of the transportation planning maps, the official planning maps, and we realized a lot of the big holes were right where the World Bank had cited health clinics. So it turned out that if you take a country map and you say, well, where's the population? Let's create these catchment areas so we reach the most people with health services and you plunk down clinics in a central location on a flat map, those places are very differently accessible when you get to 3D mountain ponies. And so a lot of what we revealed in these conversations was women weren't, there were barriers. Women weren't seeking access to health care in places where they had to walk through shepherd's fields because there was a risk of assault. So our little team, these wonderful Basutu transportation planners who were very game, they were building GIS systems, and we were forcing them back into villages with drawing on maps on the ground. And so they were extraordinarily gracious. And we were able to say, in addition to all these roads, add a set of footbridges for women's safety, and the footbridge had to be less wide than the width of a sheep, because that would protect the women from teenage shepherd boys who couldn't cross without their flocks. That was the engineering specification, and that's what infrastructure can look like, loads of mistakes along the way. But I had this really interesting early set of opportunities to actually learn in the field from planners, but also other types of folks who are really deeply.

00:18:08 - Mike Spear
Community connected as an engineering specification. You'd never think of it if you didn't actually speak with the people that have to use the bridge well and.

00:18:19 - Shalini Vajjhala
Think about what don't you want crossing the bridge? It's offense and defense. Right. In these systems. And I think too often you get focused on the bridge, not the users of the bridge. And so I've always tried to hold that in mind in everything I do, is what's it actually being used for? What else might it enable? And so in my work now, we still lead with the questions, right? It's still very much, well, who loses money if we don't do this right? Who suffers if it's not done right? And how do you bring those things together?

00:18:51 - Mike Spear
As you worked with refocused partners and worked on massive infrastructure projects here, how do you translate the lesson of the sheep crossing to building a parking lot or some of the other projects you've been involved in?

00:19:05 - Shalini Vajjhala
Yeah, it's actually not as big a leap as you'd think. So my path into big institutions came through small rebel team. I think that early experience with my colleague Wendy and the World Bank was very formative of realizing there is this giant institution, but also at the end of the day, you're trying to spend money well and deliver value for the people you're trying to serve. And the further you get from that, the more quickly you can lose perspective. And so that's what I took into EPA. It's what I've brought into Refocus, and it's not all that different than the width of a sheep. Now we do things like look at transit systems in high heat where the transit planners are legitimately worried about tracks melting and trains derailing. So what do they do? They run fewer trains and run them more slowly. What does that mean for riders? It means my grandmothers transit dependent workers are out there in the heat longer on the hottest days of the year. What's the design spec? You got to find the sheep, right? It's what prevents people from suffering in the short term and what enables the system to improve in the long term. And the public health outcomes in Lesotho were women not getting treated for HIV and AIDS. And the minute you get access and you think about mobility differently than building roads, then you can get better health outcomes. And that's not all that different than transit systems and people sitting out in the heat. It's the minute you think about this differently and don't just build a better bus shelter. Fix the system. It's been a funny thing that as we do bigger and bigger infrastructure projects, we still ask very small questions, because if you're not focused on that hyper local good, your project very quickly can wander away from the people and the needs you're trying to serve.

00:20:53 - Mike Spear
As I've been building altruist, one of the things that keeps coming up is efficiency. How do you have the greatest efficiency for your philanthropic dollars. So my question to you, based on what you were just talking about, is, how do you define efficiency?

00:21:07 - Shalini Vajjhala
The efficiency at getting the money out the door is different than the efficiency of getting to the outcome of lower HIV rates, right? So if you want to get the money out the door really fast and be really efficient, then you build a lot of big roads really quickly. If you want to lower a bad health outcome, your efficiency, the timescale is different, right? You're looking at 1020 years instead of three. And so I think we fall into a lot of false traps around efficiency, and we tend to focus on what's easiest to do rather than what you're trying to accomplish most and how to make that thing more efficient, right? We weren't trying to get women to clinics faster. We were trying to get them there in the ways they were moving and do it more safely.

00:21:59 - Mike Spear
Because I think when people think about efficiency, most people who are not in the weeds the way you are, think about overhead, think about salaries, think about admin fees, whatever else. But if your goal is money in impact out fully burdened, like, what does efficiency really mean end to end there.

00:22:17 - Shalini Vajjhala
In a lot of ways. You've brought me to the moment that I'm standing in now with this new nonprofit because efficiency and infrastructure looks like building what you need, not what you had. And if you take the fully burdened approach, oftentimes it drives you to what you had because you're not including the right metrics for what you need next. And so a lot of this in the wonky infrastructure space kind of falls under this umbrella called pre development. It's all that, like, early, intentional, messy stuff that you have to think about and ask to know that you need the footbridge instead of the road, not how do I build this road more efficiently? And so I think my sense of how you do this well is you actually zoom out and step back where you're sitting and thinking about how do you spend money quickly and well for these deeply urgent needs. I think the examples of what we do right, protecting people from floods, thinking about fire, resilience over prioritizing efficiency can steer you away from impact. And it happens all the time with public money, with philanthropic funds. We tend to not zoom out early in the process, far enough, and you get attached to the solution rather than asking a better question to know what's possible. So everything from those early footbridges to work that I've done since in EPA, we were dealing with a lot of deep infrastructure needs in tribal nations across the US. And so we had to get really creative. You had to think about, well, how do I deal with water contamination on this reservation? Well, what's the cause of the water contamination? Well, it turns out the power is going out every so often. So that means the water is not getting treated. So instead of trying to build a fancier better water treatment plant, how about we put in solar so that the power stays on. And so getting far enough upstream has really served us well in our work because it leads to a more efficient solution. It is not a more efficient start, it's often a much slower start to set up for a much stronger and speedier finish. And that is why over the last couple of years we've realized a lot of our work inside refocus from time in government, time in the private sector, and then becoming this kind of unusually public service minded entrepreneur. I think I've really learned the importance of not prioritizing early efficiency, but overall efficiency in getting the impact.

00:25:18 - Mike Spear
What is refocus partners? How'd you start it? What was the inspiration? What are you guys doing?

00:25:22 - Shalini Vajjhala
From my grad school mapping days, I spent time in DC at an environmental think tank, a lovely place called Resources for the Future. And then I got pulled into the Obama administration and had the chance to work at the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. And my portfolio at EPA was the portfolio of international and tribal affairs. And I think a distinguishing factor was really that you never have enough money for everybody you're trying to serve with a portfolio like that. And so we had to get really creative about who we partnered with, how we thought about achieving the kinds of outcomes that we were aiming for from the program, which was really to get to greater and more robust environment and public health outcomes for folks. So our little team was able to do all sorts of interesting stuff by asking different questions. We were able to look at how do you fund water infrastructure by thinking about it like landslide protection in informal communities on hillsides in Rio ahead of the Olympics, right? How do you get tribal water system, how do you prevent tribal water pollution? And oftentimes it was keeping the power on, which isn't in the mandate of the Environmental Protection Agency. And so I very quickly tap danced outside of my job description inside of government, but picked up a skill set and a wonderful set of colleagues, a deep appreciation for civil servants, right? And what they manage through and how they operate within some pretty tight straitjackets on different of those creative approaches caught the eyes of folks at the Rockefeller Foundation. I had a chance to do some projects looking at climate resilience and the timing was extraordinarily lucky. It was right when Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard that I had stepped down from federal government. And so I actually got nudged into setting up refocus to continue what I was doing in public service, which is an unusual way to end up as an entrepreneur. So what our team does now is we design and finance infrastructure and we really focus on the things where success is something that doesn't happen. A storm hit, but the community wasn't devastated. And so if you want to pay for those projects, well, you have to really thinking about how you fund and pay for them upfront. Because if you bake them, then you're looking at a world where you're applauded. The first year, great, the thing didn't happen, and then the second year the budget goes away. So it's been a theme through all of our work that being very plain spoken about deeply technical projects and about the money is one way to make sure they stay community centered and fundable and doable. And so over ten years, we've gotten to do a bunch of interesting projects from flood protection parks that turn a part of a city from a funnel into a sponge. You can collect water and make sure it doesn't end up in streets and in people's homes and rush it out after a storm. And we've had all these interesting opportunities to work with communities across the US. And around the world. And what we've realized over the last few years is that there's a space, a field that really needs to be built and formalized, and it's this wonky early part of infrastructure design that's often called pre development. It's the stuff you need to do before you know what you want to build. And oftentimes that's messy, it's slow you go two steps forward and one step back. But doing that well gets you to a far better and more impactful outcome than doing the things you already know how to do.

00:29:25 - Mike Spear
A good friend of mine's wife does large scale urban planning. She's working on redeveloping entire sections of cities. And what really stands out to me is there's so much time between when you do your planning and when you see the results of it that it can be a struggle for a lot of people. But you just recently unveiled a completion of one of the projects, right? I think the one you talked about at the collaborative.

00:29:46 - Shalini Vajjhala
Yeah. So this is, I think, six or seven years since we first had that conversation. So this is huge. Kudos to the city of Hoboken, where they are in the process of just wrapping up construction on something called the Northwest Resiliency Park. And it's this cool six acre redevelopment that took some of our early work on how do you take a bathtub and basically reclaim this old contaminated site and turn it into an urban park and a bathtub and a sponge with all sorts of amenities for the community. And we were really fortunate. I now describe our work on that project as being a little bit like designing a relay race and a relay race team, because we're not developers, we weren't trying to build our project. We were trying to enable a project that would. Be great for the city and its residents. And so we really thought about the start line, a kind of wide finish line that would mark success. And then we helped them organize runners and ran the first leg of the race with them to get them the first stage of funding, but then knew that we actually had to pass the baton. And so it's been a hallmark of what makes our work a little bit different than planners or architects or real estate developers is we don't need the project to turn out our way. We need the process to work as a whole. We need it to get built for who it serves, right?

00:31:17 - Mike Spear
Can you talk a little bit more about passing the baton? You've used that phrase a few times in our conversations. So what does that mean to you and the work that you're doing with refocus and with pre collective, which we'll get to in a minute.

00:31:27 - Shalini Vajjhala
Yeah. So I think what it means to me is building sturdy coalitions and finding the right partners to do the right next thing. And oftentimes we're the ones who can come in. We really think about our work in pre development as having three big components, and they all have to hang together. It's got to be vision. You need to know where you actually want what's next, not just what you had. You need capacity that's enough warm bodies with the right skills to actually do the things that might be like writing the federal funding application. Right. And then you actually need the money. And you can easily imagine if you are missing one or two of those things, you end up with what you had or nothing built. Fancy watercolor drawings. When we do this kind of baton pass inside refocus, what we're trying to do is make sure that we are a source of inspiration and transformation, but not the ones who are taking over for local leadership, because that never works. You have to actually make sure that local leadership is durable and that's government and community. And so because we work across so many different places, my colleague Ben describes us as T shaped people where we're very broad and our fingertips kind of touch across all these different sectors, but we go deep in the places where we're trying to build real things. And so we'll spend a lot of time and make sure that we are helping the folks who are going to do the next stage feel confident about running that next leg of the race.

00:33:08 - Mike Spear
How does that work with the funding?

00:33:09 - Mike Spear
Do you sort of quarterback the expenditure over time or is each a contributor to the overall project, sort of responsible for their own funding?

00:33:17 - Shalini Vajjhala
More like a coach where you're running the plays and some of them may work and some of them may not. So for Hoboken, we helped them get the first, I think it was almost $30 million right and that was for buying land and doing site cleanup. It was not fancy. And we helped them have a broad vision around which to write a request for proposals. So they weren't just thinking about a pump to protect them from the next flood, but they could really build something meaningful and high impact. And so the funding follows in a lot of ways what meets the needs. There are lots of different colors of money available, and I think we've seen a lot of communities fall into the trap of looking at what they're eligible for, and then that shapes your idea of what you need. And so it's a little bit like looking in your wallet to see what you can afford, as opposed to saying, what do I need and how do I get the money for it?

00:34:14 - Mike Spear

00:34:14 - Shalini Vajjhala
And both of those things generally lead to narrow and poor outcomes. More often, you end up with Band AIDS rather than systems change or solutions to a big problem.

00:34:28 - Mike Spear
Yeah, that's going to send us I mean, it's a great line of thing that's going to send us into philanthropy in a second here, but I want to make sure that before we get there, we spend a little bit of time on Pre Collective. Yeah, it's a new venture.

00:34:40 - Shalini Vajjhala
It is a new venture.

00:34:41 - Mike Spear
Tell us about it.

00:34:42 - Shalini Vajjhala
One of the things we've learned and refocus over ten years is that oftentimes some of our projects that are they seem like projects have a bigger life. Over the course of the last ten years, we've had a couple initiatives that have spun out into their own firms or companies. And the first of those is one, you know, it's the Atlas, which we were trying to answer the same procurement question over and over again, which is, tell us who else has done this to take down the fear of doing something new? And so that's a for profit that was spun out and acquired in 2020. And over the last few years, we've realized we've have a similar inflection point on our infrastructure pre development work, which is really all the stuff that we've learned over the last ten years and beyond in our careers of the how do you do this early and messy stuff. We now have this moment of a massive influx of infrastructure money at the federal level in the US. And there's a great deal of enthusiasm and also a lot of panic about how to use this money well. So we've realized that there needs to be more structure around this early and messy space. So folks have a template for how do you design that relay race, how do you recruit runners? How do you make sure they don't get injured? How do you pass batons? And so we created Pre Collective as a nonprofit. We're thrilled you're. Hot off the presses. We're now a fiscally sponsored project of Resources Legacy Fund, which is a great California organization. And we are really looking to make an impact by creating the building blocks of community centered, equitable, high impact pre development. Because if we don't get this right in the next three to five years, we're going to leave a lot of regions behind and that would be the worst possible outcome of this once in a generation opportunity to reset the fabric of all the infrastructure in this country. And so I'm wildly optimistic and trying to make the early and messy space less intimidating for everybody else.

00:36:53 - Mike Spear
It's such an interesting problem because at the same time you have all these organizations that need a bunch of funding and are used to having to scramble for it. Now there's all this money. So now how do you channel it effectively?

00:37:04 - Shalini Vajjhala
The vision piece of this, if you think about it, this is vision and capacity. Really getting people to transition from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset is its own exercise, right? The folks who are kind of scrambling for the incremental for the last ten years, since the 2009 recession, are now being asked to imagine gigantic remakings of their cities, their departments, rethink how we deal with wildfire, with public safety. Let's get to totally safe pedestrians in every city. And nobody has had the money for this or the headspace for it. And so there's really interesting stuff in the poverty literature that actually informs this. And this is a group of economists that did this work on the bandwidth tax. Have you heard of this?

00:37:57 - Mike Spear

00:37:58 - Shalini Vajjhala
It's great stuff. It talks about how poverty not only is about a lack of resources, it SAPS your mental space to be able to think of solutions. And so a lot of this has happened inside of local government. People are time famished, a lot of positions are unfilled. We're asking folks to have big vision without having enough support around them. And so these are runners who have run several legs of a race and are tired and we're asking them now to pick up speed. And so we have to really think about all of that as part of pre development. We do a lot of going back to that early mapping work. It's how do you ask better questions to get folks to know where to focus, what to put down, what can they do less of, to do more of something else better instead of just more of everything?

00:38:53 - Mike Spear
So the three legged tool, just vision, capacity and funding is what we're talking about. You mentioned a lot of stakeholders really having two of the three. Is it always the same two or is there variety? What's the cause behind that, do you think? How do we fix it?

00:39:09 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think it's regional and it's not always the same. Two is also good. It's better than one.

00:39:14 - Mike Spear
I got a bunch of money but no plan.

00:39:17 - Shalini Vajjhala
Well, I think that is what a lot of places are confronting right now. Right or no people to actually know how to spend the money? Well, it's a little cheeky but to say like, if you have vision and capacity, if you have big ideas and good people but no money, you're going to end up with pretty drawings of what you want to see in the world. If you have capacity and money, you're going to end up with a lot of the same of what you've had because you don't have a vision for what you need next. And I think that would be in some ways, the most tragic of the outcomes is to get trapped, locked in to a status quo that hasn't been working for a lot of people. And it takes time to design bigger and better projects and build the coalitions to get them done. And so I think you get gaps and sectors on which leg of the stool is kind of shortest and where you need to build things up.

00:40:12 - Mike Spear
How do you go about building trust between the different groups that you need to pass batons to?

00:40:19 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think you said that I'm a straight shooter. We're very plain spoken. I think trust is destroyed by jargon and by technocrats coming in and explaining why something is good for you as opposed to asking if something is good for you. So I think our first step to trust building is asking. We ask and we listen. And I think it's a part of infrastructure planning that's startlingly absent. And so we really try to be deliberate about making sure that we understand the needs before we jump to projects. And so we really try to be systematic about stacking needs, ideas and projects. And oftentimes when we get to a project that people think is I'm using air quotes here on a podcast, but like shovel ready, it's not shovel worthy. It got disconnected from a need somewhere along the way. And so I think where folks have been time famished and trust scarce, asking a lot of questions helps a lot. It kind of brings everybody into a shared space and then creating really open dialogue about trade offs very early. So one of the things that I'm paying a lot of attention to right now is the emphasis simultaneously on speed, scale and equity. And this is a Venn diagram where the circles don't overlap at all, right? And I think we need more realistic expectations about how to do those things, where they belong together, where you need to slow down to go fast. And part of this is making alternative approaches visible, which is what we're trying to do through precollective is well, here's where trust deteriorated and here's where it endured.

00:42:10 - Mike Spear
What's next as you launch and grow pre collective? What's sort of the next milestone that you're looking forward to?

00:42:16 - Shalini Vajjhala
We're building up a set of regional collaborations to show what success looks like on this three legged stool. The vision, the capacity and the funding and we're creating a set of tools for communities, for local governments in all three of these spaces to really do more and better and to try to make people's lives easier. That's part of the scarcity to the abundance is recognizing that everybody's crushed and nothing looks like an opportunity when you're really struggling to just keep the basics going. And so making a lot of this work look like the opportunity it is, is what we're excited to tackle inside Pre Collective and to show what success looks like in different ways and through different messengers.

00:43:05 - Mike Spear
Are there specific projects you're excited about as well or is it just really laying the process and the groundwork and the support systems?

00:43:11 - Shalini Vajjhala
No, I think there's some tremendously exciting projects. So there's great work happening in Arizona on dealing with extreme heat and thinking about it. So I am a fangirl of the Arizona Department of Transportation, which I think might be a club of one, but they're doing fantastic stuff in understanding where roads are actually both victim to climate change, but also a potential solution to dealing with things like floodwater and fire risks. So how do you build a road that's a fire break, not just one, that's an evacuation route? And so those kinds of multi benefit approaches to infrastructure are really where I think the opportunities are. It's that zoomed out. How do you get to something that meets multiple needs? And again, that takes the bandwidth, it takes the creativity and the capacity to do it. But we're seeing people do that. And I'm also really excited about things that Kansas City is doing around managing water and conservation and really thinking about stewardship in an urban context. And so we've got great coalitions emerging in both places and really promising projects.

00:44:28 - Mike Spear
But I think most of us don't think of Arizona and Kansas City as like hotbeds for climate innovation and green infrastructure. Is that a misconception or is that really changing?

00:44:39 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think we've tended to focus on different types of things when we talk about climate smart infrastructure. And so a lot of the airtime gets taken up by either certain types of projects or certain types of people. And so we've really leaned in to working with these. There's some folks in the tech sector that use this term and I love them. They're a group at Bitwise Industries and they call them underimagined or underestimated places. And those are the spaces where we're really excited about in Pre Collective. And I think that's why we tend to bring up examples that aren't on the typical circuit because that's where the potential is. It's where you've got these folks who have really been kind of ready and underappreciated to do different and interesting things.

00:45:28 - Mike Spear
What else should we talk about with Preclellective?

00:45:30 - Shalini Vajjhala
I would love to get your perspective for Preclellective and for other organizations that are kind of in these early messy spaces. Right. A lot of times that's the space that's before the priorities are well defined. And when you come through the funnel of any kind of funder priorities right. A government funder know, EPA doesn't do the energy stuff. We do the water in the air stuff. You very quickly get narrowed in on what can be funded as opposed to what it is that you actually need. And so I'm curious, where do you see, as this field evolves, the field of pre development? Where do you see philanthropy, meeting infrastructure.

00:46:14 - Mike Spear
Positive psychology actually sort of popularized some of this stuff. There's a great Ted Talk from way back by Sean Acorn.

00:46:22 - Shalini Vajjhala
Love that one.

00:46:22 - Mike Spear
Yeah. He shows a graph, and he's like, you're not supposed to start your speech with a graph, but here's a graph. And also this is meaningless, which is a great way to start a speech. But what I loved, and I think about frequently these days is looking at that graph, and then he's got the one little dot above the graph. The joke is that's the weird one. We can get rid of that because of measurement error. And the reason we know it's a measurement error I've watched this way too many times.

00:46:44 - Shalini Vajjhala
I love this talk.

00:46:45 - Mike Spear
Yeah, it's a good one is because of screwing up the data. But he talks about why that is exciting to him, because it's not a measurement error. It's like something is really outperforming everything else.

00:46:55 - Shalini Vajjhala
It's information.

00:46:56 - Mike Spear

00:46:56 - Shalini Vajjhala

00:46:57 - Mike Spear
So it's not how do we get everybody to the average, it's how do we move the entire average up? And that's really what I get excited about. So when I think of I guess my way to answer the question that you asked is to help everybody get away from the scarcity mindset, to help people focus on a shared outcome that we can all agree with and be agnostic and open minded about the approaches we take to get there and then being transparent. And I think it's something that has not been present in the space because of how the social sector evolved. But it's a problem that social sector leaders tend to reinforce. They don't have hard questions with donors because they feel like they can't they feel like they can't jeopardize a relationship or that their funder won't understand, or the power dynamic. Yeah. The incentive structure, the power dynamics are all messed up. And so they're sort of needlessly, I would say, reinforcing the problems that are really hamstring them and getting their work done. And so, yeah, what I hope to do and what I see for the future is getting away with that. Helping leaders feel comfortable having those hard conversations, educating the funder side in terms of the things that matter, and then aligning it better so that I can, as a development director or whoever, have a meaningful conversation with A. Donor that's honest and transparent, speaks to the needs, speaks to the complexity of the issue. And have them understand that. Embrace that and be okay with funding things that are complex or might fail.

00:48:23 - Shalini Vajjhala
I love that we share favorite Ted Talks. There's one that I use all the time. I don't know if you've seen this one is Rory Sutherland, who is a marketing guy with a fantastic, I think, Scottish marketing guy. I hope I didn't get that wrong. But he does this brilliant talk about talking about engineers trying to make the train ride between London and Paris shorter. And he said, this is a really unimaginative question. He goes through this whole thing. He's like, look, they came up with these proposals like $6 billion to improve the tracks and the trains and all these things, and it would chop half an hour off the ride from London to Paris. And he is like, for a billion dollars, I could hand out champagne and employ supermodels to walk the length of the train and everybody would ask for the train ride to be longer. And so it's this lovely resetting from a marketing perspective of what do we actually want from our infrastructure? Is speed the correct answer here, or is there better value for that money? We don't do programs with champagne. I think it's a clever way of revealing where asking the wrong question can get you to expensive and not really helpful incremental outcome.

00:49:48 - Mike Spear
Yeah, I think that's right. And we talked a little bit about how an infrastructure problem has sort of the obvious sort of socioeconomic impact, but that it also has health outcomes. And I think a lot of people find that problematic in a sense of trying to claim impact in areas that are not directly related to your cause, which there's an argument for that, I think. But personally, I don't buy it as much. I think you have to be careful and you have to be diligent about what you're reporting. But I also think it's important to have inclusive stakeholdership to be able to speak with everybody involved and to look at the unintended consequences, so to speak, which can be positive or negative.

00:50:34 - Shalini Vajjhala
I used to get really irritated when folks would come up with projects and that describe all these co benefits, just kind of hand wave about them without really being specific. And I think in a lot of ways it became a distraction to try to say that, oh, we've got this broad set of things. I think the field, especially in green infrastructure, has really evolved. So people have gotten a lot better about being specific about what the benefits are. I think the next step that we really need to take is say, who are the beneficiaries? Right? So it's not just there's all these hundreds of millions of dollars of value created, it's whose life is better off as a result of this. And that's where inside pre collective, we really do ask the pair of questions of, okay, what's the value created? Who loses money, or who gains money, but then also who suffers and who suffers less as a result of what we do. And when you keep those things together, you generally get different outcomes. Like I think I mentioned the trains and the heat, right? You don't just put in a shade tree or a better shelter at the train stop. You also retrofit the tracks so you run more trains when it's hottest out, not fewer trains. And that's the sweet spot for pre collective where we can move the needle on the urgent need and open the door to the systems change. Because if we are just constantly addressing the acute needs, you end up in this triage mode and you never quite get to the preventative care. But if you start with the preventative care, it takes decades and you really don't know if the outcome is a result of only what you did. Right. There's a good bit of luck and timing in that. And so the combo is really where you can make, I think, the strongest case for making people better off today and ensuring that they stay well over time.

00:52:34 - Mike Spear
Talk a lot these days in brainstorming about heads and beds, philanthropy versus systems change. And it really does take both. I don't want to be dismissive. People who run homeless shelters, people need a place to sleep. It's very valuable.

00:52:45 - Shalini Vajjhala
I will never talk to anyone with a moldy basement about sea level rise.

00:52:49 - Mike Spear

00:52:49 - Shalini Vajjhala
Yeah, it's deeply wrong, but you need to do both. Right? And I think what we've learned is instead of expecting different people to do both, if we can ask the questions that allow us to bring those two things closer together, we end up with higher integrity projects.

00:53:04 - Mike Spear
I think higher integrity projects, but also being contextually aware and understanding where your impact sits and how what you're doing influenced other stuff and what you might do differently to do better. There also, I'm sure, would facilitate the handoff that you're talking about.

00:53:18 - Shalini Vajjhala
And sometimes we make a handoff and we have no idea if anybody's run the next leg of the race, right? So I recently got a note from a lovely local government official in Milwaukee who was like, hey, did you know that we built this? And it was off a set of things that we had done. We designed a race course, ran a first leg and handed it off and it was radio silence. And they built this lovely green tech demonstration park in a really underserved area in Milwaukee led by a set of nonprofits who are now training people on how to manage new types of pavement that absorb water. And if you think about what that involves, that involves engaging with salt and sand truck drivers. Not your typical thoughts on who plans infrastructure. So, like a really clever way of thinking about how do you get all the way to the ground. But yeah, we don't try to control the speed of the race. And I think that makes a lot of difference in our work because it lets us maintain trust over time. You're not forcing outcomes, you're enabling them.

00:54:24 - Mike Spear
I want to talk a little bit about philanthropy. It's been a little while since we first started talking about doing this recording, but being a minority, a person of color, a woman in the philanthropy space in general, I'd just be curious to hear you talk about your take on that, some of the obstacles you've encountered there and what you see for the future.

00:54:45 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think it's been really helpful to have an engineering degree, even though I don't really use it ever, mostly because it's been an important source of credibility to folks and places where I would have ordinarily gotten dismissed. I think philanthropy is at such an interesting inflection point right now, and a lot of things are at an inflection point, right? And it's how do you not let all these simultaneous crises go to waste? But I think being a minority woman in this space, I mean, on a podcast, I am like an unusually tall South Indian woman. I find it helpful to be the person who repeats what someone else quiet says in a space. And I learned this in government, where a lot of times a lot of good ideas have been said and they haven't been heard. And so I try to be the person who can do a lot of English to English translation. And this is going back to architecture school. It's like six ways to say the same idea and finding whatever that entry point is that finally gets someone to hear it, and you can almost watch it happen in a room, and you can also pay attention to who in that room has said it before and wasn't heard. And then you know who your champion is for that idea, because they have been bashing that thing in. And so I find that in some ways, it can be disheartening, it can certainly be isolating. But I think the effort to make more inclusive spaces and philanthropy has been really encouraging for me with who's the quiet one that leans forward when that idea they've been championing for a long time finally gets heard. And I think that's the next generation of philanthropy that I'm really excited about is who are those people in there that have been trying and are right there at that starting line.

00:56:47 - Mike Spear
If you weren't doing this, if you didn't choose to go into the impact space, work on massive long term projects that are complicated, what would you be doing? What's the path not taken?

00:57:00 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think I would probably be somewhere in the arts, and I don't know what that would look like, but I could see that being deeply satisfying.

00:57:10 - Mike Spear
Who do you really look up to? Who's a person in the social sector or I guess elsewhere, that you really just admire who they are and the way they do things.

00:57:18 - Shalini Vajjhala
I had a colleague at EPA who had been in government service for, I think, three decades when I first landed in there, as someone who had no prior experience in government. And his name is Michael Stahl. He is a good friend now after working together for several years, and he recently just wrote a book called The Promise of Public Service. And I think I have learned more from Mike than almost anybody else about how important it is to focus on how you do your work, not just what you do. And so Mike is one of these incredibly thoughtful, quiet people who deserves a ton of credit for how EPA measures the value of environmental protection. So he's one of these guys who over, I think it was over a better part of a decade, managed to say what's the dollar value of a pound of pollution prevented, what does it look like in terms of children's health benefits? And it was a whole exercise in governance. And so I really respect and look up to him for the patience that he brought to this kind of systems change. And it's often the thing that helps me slow down and not get trapped in false urgency. But yeah, I'm going to put in a plug for his book. Great. Sounds like a person.

00:58:43 - Mike Spear
Outside of infrastructure projects and development, what do you think is the most important cause people can be focused on right now?

00:58:51 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think talent and workforce. And I'm extraordinarily optimistic about a generation of young folks who are civic minded, climate focused, and less interested in finance careers than maybe my generation might have been. I think the financialization of everything has been to the detriment of the value of things. And I'm really optimistic about some of the things that are drawing out different kinds of talent and different kinds of careers. And I think the status quo has been sufficiently broken that folks are being really thoughtful about not just becoming something, but doing something in the world. And what does that look like across a career? So this is one of the things that going back to being an architect, I really appreciated architects have these portfolio careers, right? You want to build and do real things, and it's less important where you worked than what you built. And I think that's given me a lot of freedom in how I think about my career, because I haven't just been trying to get the next job title or move up any given ladder. It's what do you build next? How do you follow that problem to its conclusion? And so I think the freedom that that gave me is something that, unfortunately the economy is giving the younger generation, and I'm optimistic about it. So there's an organization I'm wildly impressed by, and it's called Govern for America. And it's a group of young folks who have created an organization to build the. New generation of public servants. And that, I think, is really promising.

01:00:30 - Mike Spear
When you're sort of done creating new companies.

01:00:34 - Shalini Vajjhala
Ready to hand off not my third unexpected one.

01:00:39 - Mike Spear
You're ready to hand off your portfolio of 20? Eventually. What would you like to have accomplished? Like what's? Something that you'd want to look back and say, hey, we did that.

01:00:48 - Shalini Vajjhala
I think the example that I shared from Milwaukee of that kind of note of like, hey, did you know we built this? And we're excited about it. I think being able to look at places and see people who were able to move money on shovels because of what we did, for people who may never have never been in line at all, let alone in line in the first in line for them, I think that would be deeply satisfying. Going to visit that park in Hoboken.

01:01:18 - Mike Spear
I love that a lot of people talk about going across the country and seeing national parks or every baseball stadium or whatever, but to be able to go and visit the projects that were inspired by the work that you've done or enabled by the work that you've done, that would be a pretty cool trip.

01:01:33 - Shalini Vajjhala
I'd like to sit in a park like this one with a lot of happy folks who might not know that our fingerprints were on it. And that would be deeply satisfying.

01:01:41 - Mike Spear
Thank you for the time, the insights. I always learn a lot from our conversations and thoroughly enjoy them. And we'd love to keep talking for hours, but we'll spare the audience for now and maybe do another episode another time.

01:01:55 - Shalini Vajjhala
Thanks so much for having me.

01:01:56 - Mike Spear
Thank you.

01:02:00 - Mike Spear
So that's our show for today. I hope you enjoyed Shalini's episode as much as we enjoyed recording it. For more information about her work, you can read the episode notes and the You can also find her on LinkedIn and pre [unk]collective org if you enjoyed the show, please follow subscribe or leave a review wherever. You listen to podcasts or share the link with any friends or colleagues you think might find it valuable. We hope you'll join us for the next episode featuring Jake Wood. He's the co founder and executive chairman of Team Rubicon and the founder and CEO at Groundswell, a new workplace giving platform for modern leaders that makes gifting and donation matching easy. We'll talk about his entrepreneurial journey, fundraising Impact, and even share a few stories from his time in the Marines. You definitely don't want to miss this one. Until next time. Cause and Purpose is a production of On behalf of myself, Shalini, and our entire Team, we thank you For Listening, and look forward to speaking you again soon. Bye.

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Cause & Purpose is a production of Altruous, an impact discovery and management platform for the next generation of philanthropists. Learn more about our work by visiting

This episode was edited by Worthfull Media. Original music composed by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound.

Copyright 2024, all rights reserved.

People in this episode

Mike Spear

Social entrepreneur, consultant, and podcast producer, Spear has been a member and critic of the impact sector since 2006. His work spans product, innovation, impact advising, storytelling, and go-to-market strategies. Part of the founding team at, specializing in helping social good organizations build amazing products, increase their impact, and scale.

Shalini Vajjhala

Shalini is a nationally recognized infrastructure expert with nearly two decades of experience designing and financing community-centered resilient infrastructure solutions.


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