In 2011, Inc magazine called Ankur Jain “the Best-Connected 21-Year-Old in the World,” and I’m beginning to see why. Soon after getting on the phone with Fast Company, Jain promises access to Mehmet Oz, Bobbi Brown, and President Vicente Fox (of Mexico). Within hours, they are all on the line, and, apparently, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Verizon president Ronan Dunne, and ex-Greece prime minister George Papandreou are waiting in the wings, if needed. Jain’s address book seems as full as ever (he’s also good friends with Richard Branson and will.i.am, if news reports are true).
Jain is the cofounder of the Kairos Society, a nonprofit that promotes social entrepreneurship among young people. He’s lined up these personalities to help promote a new project he’s launching: a $25 million startup investment fund taking on middle-class problems, like affordable housing and expensive eldercare. We’re not sure exactly what Mehmet Oz, Bobbi Brown, and Vicente Fox have to do with any of this. But it’s certainly nice to make acquaintances with people of caliber, so to speak.
“All this focus in Silicon Valley on the $700 juicer is just out of touch with the needs of the everyday middle class and our communities,” Jain says. (He’s referring to the Wi-Fi-connected Juicero, which raised $120 million but became a lightning rod for critics of the Valley’s priorities.)
Makeup mogul Brown describes Jain as someone with “a magnetism that people just say yes to.” She became a board member for the fund not really knowing what she was getting into. “I didn’t really know what it was until I actually went to a board meeting last month,” she says.
Brown, Oz, and Fox praise Jain’s ability to attract and retain high-profile people to his cause, and they echo his message about the importance of entrepreneurship that solves problems, rather than making life slightly less inconvenient. Fox says of Jain: “He’s a very different, outstanding person who has those skills and that ability to be around big partners and personalities and to make them feel very secure.”
Fox, Brown, and Oz know Jain from a Kairos event at the Rockefeller mansion in Tarrytown, New York, last May. There, they met dozens of young entrepreneurs and were taken away by their enthusiasm for taking on big social problems. “I get pitched smart business plans all the time, but they’re around small problems. They can make money, but they’re not going to change the world,” says Oz, between tapings for The Dr. Oz Show. “I want these young people pulling their oars in the right direction, so when I’m an old man, they’ll have solutions that can benefit me and others like me.”
Oz, who is 57, says he can help startup founders with advice and connections. Though he has sometimes been criticized for promoting pseudoscience (including sham weight-loss drugs), he’s also been involved with several successful startups, including health information portal Sharecare.
Jain has finished raising the $25 million to start the fund and it’s already made its first two investments. One of those is Cera, a U.K. company with an Uber-like model for eldercare. Another is Little Spoon, which makes affordable, nutritious baby food.
Jain wants to invest–normally between $250,000 and $1 million–in a range of startups taking on social issues. That includes managing student debt levels more effectively, so that people can branch out in their careers (the average graduate in their 20s has a monthly payment of $350). It includes reducing the cost of rent in cites–for instance by promoting new co-living spaces. It includes new forms of retraining programs, helping people transition between careers more easily.
Jain, the child of Indian-American immigrants to the U.S., comes from a well-connected family. Ankur’s father, Naveen, started InfoSpace, a big search engine pre-Google, in the late-1990s. Ankur’s mother sits on the board of the X-Prize. But he’s achieved a lot on his own. After graduating Wharton business school in 2011, he set up Kairos with some friends. He also founded Humin, a mobile contacts application that was sold to Tinder.
Kairos-connected companies have raised more than $3 billion between them in the last six years. But Jain believes Silicon Valley should be more focused on real-world problems, as opposed to “fixing” dating or fast food service. “We want to refocus on these stages where we think people need help most,” he says.