#8 Bilal Zaidi - The Power Of People

Bilal Zaidi is the founder and executive director of a political crowdfunding platform called Our Democracy. He was a journalist prior to being an entrepreneur, having interviewed the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the US.



Bilal: So while India already had a Twitter and a Facebook, etc. But we did not have platforms where political people, they could be candidates, they could be journalists, but people are engaging with politics would go beyond communication. 


So we launched a crowd funding platform that also had other tools, like signing up volunteers and throwing up events. And essentially, Our Democracy became like the stepping stone for a lot of people who wanted to get into politics. 


That was Bilal Zaidi, the founder and executive director of Our Democracy, the first crowdfunding platform in India that helps in political intervention and the advancement of the new generation of politicians in the country. He was once a journalist that interviewed the likes of the honorable Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi and the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. This is his story.


Hello there and welcome. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is the Zed Medium podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them too. We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. If you haven't checked out the previous episode, go right ahead. 


Especially if you fit either of these three categories a student looking for the right education path, a mid-career professional stuck in a rat, or a senior management professional that has lost his job. I believe Dr. Bharat Nain would really be of great help there. Let's start, shall we? 


Bilal: So I grew up in New Delhi in a neighborhood that was a typical Muslim ghetto. We lived on the periphery of the elite South Delhi. So while growing up, I had very limited hopes and aspirations. But by and by, I kind of thought that I was very interested in current affairs. I was a big cricket fan. I was a big fan of news at the age of eleven and twelve. 


I think I was eleven or twelve when I started reading the newspaper. So I kind of started enjoying reading some of the things at that age. So my family kind of had a sense that this guy likes being in current affairs and stuff like that. 


Aamer: Wait, what newspaper at eleven years of age? 


Growing up, that was every parent's dream. Well, parents have a million dreams for their kids, one of them being getting up early, which I believe many couldn't. But the second would be reading the paper. Most of us read the Bombay Times, though, and any Gen Z who says differently is probably lying. Anyway, Bilal had a very special interest in current affairs, and the mentality at home was, if you're not an engineer, doctor, or a lawyer, well, then why exactly do you exist? 


Bilal wanted to be a journalist, and he did become one. By the way, this next clip, all the goals that he mentions he actually achieved. It wasn't easy for a boy from Jamia Nagar to pursue his dreams like that. But you really can't blame the misfit when he's put in everything he has to stand out. Can you? 


Bilal: So when I was growing up, television in India was a big deal. We had TV news everywhere. 


We had amazing journalists. These are the people on TV. And I was fascinated by their presence, the things they spoke about. So journalism was definitely something I wanted to do, and I signed up for it. I did graduation in journalism, and I got into television journalism over the years. 


And then I kind of had my entire drill of all the goals I had. I wanted to be a ball correspondent. I wanted to cover the Indian parliament. I wanted to interview important people in India, and I got the opportunity to interview some of them. In fact, at the age of 26, I interviewed Mr. Narendra Modi, who at that point was the chief minister of Khudra. Again, very powerful. 


Even at that time, I was traveling with ministers and so on. But while all this was happening, there was always this realization that the larger goal that I had was I wanted to be someone who was an agent for democracy in India, just telling the story of what's going on in the country. 


That's the role of a journalist. But I want to do a little more than that. I also wanted to participate in the story of Indian democracy. 


Aamer: Okay, we moved a bit ahead in the storyline. Let's talk about Bilal's journalism stint first. Bilal learned a lot as a journalist. I mean, that's kind of their job, learning about what's happening and sharing it with the rest of the world. But there is something he mentions early in this podcast. 


His family lived on the periphery of South Delhi. For those of you who don't know, South Delhi is more elite than the likes of where Bilal is from, Jamia Nagar he had to struggle his way up, and that wasn't easy, given that he was negotiating his effort with those who were privileged enough to get jobs through connections. 


Bilal: So if somebody, for example, is getting a job because they had a very good connection, or their families are well connected, these kind of things work in a place like Delhi a lot. So I didn't have that advantage. So I would try to make up for it with effort. My supervisor would like me because I was available to them. I was accessible. I was delivering much more than the other guy, who is also like for different reasons. So I kind of negotiated with those things, 


Aamer: And we see that on a daily basis. Preference given to those who come from backgrounds that have been in the industry for a long time. Those who are truly humble about what they've been given, use it to their advantage and build upon it in the least hostile way they can. Those who flaunt it, well, they rarely ever get anywhere. And there really isn't a substitute for hard work in this case, there was plenty of hard work. Journalists lead a rough life. 


They have to get where stuff is happening and get there fast. They have to be confident in their demeanor and ask the right questions to get the right answers. And in that process, a lot of skills are required without them realizing. Bilal, too, didn't realize until much later how journalism paved his way in the right manner for him to be where he is at the moment. 


Bilal: When I was a journalist, I was largely building my muscles around communications. I was talking, and that was the primary skill I had, being able to network. 


That was another skill I had: being able to speak to power. So, I mean, journalism is one of those very few old professions that teaches you courage. For example, you can talk to somebody really important, somebody very powerful, without fearing what they are going to think about it. So those kind of skills you pick up as a journalist, knowingly, unknowingly. 


And then when I moved to start up, one of the primary requirements for a political startup in a country like India is courage. Because you need to be able to say and do what you're doing without fearing too much about what's going to be the repercussions. Is there going to be an ed rate or an income tax rate and so on. Those are the skills you acquire in different other spaces. So that's what happened with me. 


Aamer: So a skilled, confident Indian with ambitions of his own, the next best step for anyone in that stage has to be going abroad, right? Well, even if it isn't, that's what happened with Bilal. 


Bilal: When I applied for this job in the US. I went through seven rounds of interviews, went on for about three to four months. 


That process was a four month process and they were looking for somebody in India for about three years. They couldn't find the right match. Finally, they took me on board. I went to New York. I made the most of it while I was working with the organization where I was. I also used my time to volunteer with other organizations within New York, because by volunteering, I was getting a chance to understand how other organizations work. 


Aamer: Now this could be considered as an important juncture in Bilal’s journey. One of the organizations that he volunteered for outside of his regular work was for a campaign for one notable politician in the US. And elections were happening. 


Bilal: And I ended up volunteering with a good candidate that I could align myself with. His name was Bernie Sanders. 


He lost eventually, but I volunteered with the organization in New York. This opportunity right here is where Bilal learnt the fundamentals of using crowdfunding to your advantage. That was something he saw potential in and brought the concept back to India with the hopes of starting something that can benefit the young in the country. Well, not only the young, those who aspire to be politicians, those who aspire to be in power without having the resources or the backing to do so. 


Well, that and one notable experience that changed the way he looked at the power of people as opposed to the power of one. Okay, so this may not be very popular, but I attended a protest at Delhi's Jantar Mantra, and they were like some 2000 odd people and they were farmers and they were demanding a few things.


 I mean, I'd covered them as a journalist for a few years, but then this one time when I was among them in a crowd, I felt very powerful and I was like, wow, the power of being in a crowd and what you can ask and demand as a large group makes sense still now. 


Aamer: Well, the idea of our democracy wouldn't have come to fruition until Bilal went through that. Yes, he would have started something an app, a website, a team, all sitting within the confines of a comfortable office, not knowing how his work is going to affect people. But it's the passion that is ignited within when you actually see that many people getting together to be a part of something that is much, much bigger than them. 


So Bilal left journalism and decided to start our democracy, one of the first of the country in the political crowdfunding space. There was a problem though. Bilal was a journalist. He didn't even know the basics of running a business. Seems impossible. 


Well, there is one simple thing he did. He started. 


Bilal: But I never run a business. I had about Rs50,000 in my pocket and I just got a WordPress website made. That's where I started from. I didn't know what I wanted to eventually achieve. I had a sense of what the final product would look like, but how good? 


There was just a lot of trial and error. Whatever I needed. I was only working with freelancers for the first six months largely because I needed a proof of concept. I was still even within my head, I wasn't sure whether people would want to support this kind of causes. 


Right. It's only when we found the first two viral campaigns and they actually went viral and they were all over Twitter. There was one campaign for a senior journalist called Paranjaguar Takuta. Then there was a campaign we did. It was a humanitarian intervention for victims. Now, these were two high profile media stories that came up and we wanted to support the families. 


Once these two campaigns actually started going viral, that's when we realized that, okay, this is doable. There is an audience for this. People do care. 


Aamer: There was a proof of concept that was needed and Bilal had gotten that people actually did care and were willing to use platforms like OD to help the others. 


And since then, Bilal has had a lot of promising candidates on the platform candidates that didn't necessarily know how to channel their communication into actual resources. And our democracy helped them in doing so. 


Bilal: We had a lot of young people, including the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union named Kanaya Kumar. Then Aam Aadmi Party had this candidate lots of young people who wanted to get into politics. They already had a bunch of followers on Twitter and Facebook, etcetera. 


But they did not know how to use those followers and communities into action. But this was only one piece of the puzzle. Raising funds for an individual does not always translate into a successful campaign. Success at OD meant the candidate actually winning. And sometimes that was much harder than it looked on the outside. I remember when we ran our first election after setting up our democracy in 2019. 


This is the first look at the by-election we ran. We had about 90 odd candidates on our platform who contested elections. They wanted to fight elections, become political leaders and so on. Many of them raised a lot of money. The cap that election commission has put is at 70 lakh rupees, and two of them raised all 70 lakhs. There were a few of them that raised more than 30 lakh rupees. That's a decent amount of money to be raised through small donations. 


So we were very happy with what the platform achieved. But eventually, when the results came, nobody won. All of them lost, right? So for us, the question was, raising money is one part of what we're trying to do. But is this a failure? Everybody losing is definitely a failure. And other people would generally also write a few social media posts saying that anybody who is crowdfunded on this platform has lost. 


Essentially, you're like damn bad. 


Aamer: But with social media nowadays, everyone is a journalist. Everyone has the right to give their comments, their opinions. And that is the norm today. With this public domain, you expect to get some backlash if all your efforts eventually end up in no candidates being selected. There is no success without failure. 


But the way you handle failure is something of a skill by itself. And to be honest, a pattern arises with people who have been successful. They were at it no matter what. Again, no one is an overnight success. The more you do something, the better you get at it. It does not become easier. You just become more skilled and efficient at handling it. Bilal stuck to the idea he believed in. 


That's how he addressed failure, and this is what he had to say about it.

Bilal: Yes, it does feel low. When you fail. In that moment, you're always figuring there is this word pivot, right? So do you pivot to something else? Maybe this is not working for you. Do you pivot? But sometimes you need to invest a little more and see where it goes. I think failure is fine. Failures teach you but if you can stick to the idea that you're working on and give it a little more patience, things do work out. 


Aamer: And things did work out. It took some time, but it did. The traction OD received in these past couple of years is phenomenal for a startup that operates in a space that is relatively uncharted at the moment. When you're doing something revolutionary, there will be more bumps than usual. 


It's not a smooth road, but the fact that Bilal could believe in what he was doing really made an impact on what he was trying to achieve. It was easy for him to go back to journalism and leave the dream he had to play a bigger role in the Indian democracy, but he tasted what he says is a bit of success when he decided to put in the effort to make it what it is today. 


Bilal: And yes, we tasted a little bit of success. More than 27 of them are elected members of either parliament or assembly. So I feel that was like the big high point for us when we saw that a technology platform could also deliver results in terms of impact. 


Aamer: If you keep at it long enough, you're bound to reap the benefits of what you've so carefully nurtured. Our democracy continues to do phenomenal work in India. 


And as for Bilal, he's taking a keen interest in the use of blockchain to take crowdfunding to the next level. He's coming up with something that will likely be announced in the coming months, which unfortunately cannot be discussed today, but we wish him all the best for it. 


If you liked that episode and want to receive latest updates, go on to Instagram and LinkedIn and follow us. Z Medium there are a lot more stories to come and want to look out for. 


Next up, we have Naresh Karmalka, a development consultant who talks to us about the nonprofit sector business network International and the mentors he has had over his lifetime. 


We come from Goa. Goa, of course. I was born and brought up in Mumbai. The family moved to Mumbai in the 50s, but two of my uncles were freedom fighters, so they were fighting in the goal liberation struggle. One of them was in fact he went to prison for three and a half years in Goa. Another one was leading the movement. 


He was supposed to be deported to Africa and then he gave them the slip and he kind of led the movement from Gujarat and he was actually the liberator and the first administrator of Darwin Nagara, so which was the first Portuguese bastion which was actually taken over. 


And slowly that led to the entire liberation of Goa. So this second uncle, he was living with us, he was a bachelor in the senses, rather widow, because his wife had died within six months of marriage. He never married again. So he kind of doted on me and my two sisters and it was like a huge influence in my life. 


So it was he who kind of maybe through him I had this whole thing of maybe it came through that doing something for community thinking beyond one's own immediate needs. 


And so stay tuned and goodbye for now. Bye.