Katie Taylor

Khethworks

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor is CEO and founder of Khethworks, which is transforming small-plot farming in India with its solar-powered irrigation systems. More than 30 million farmers tend plots of one acre or less in Eastern India that could be farmed year-round with proper, affordable irrigation.

Khethworks emerged from the MIT Tata Center ecosystem, and participated in the Unreasonable Impact programme.

Katie is a Tata Fellow, working to give farmers more control over their lives and livelihoods.

Ogunte: Hello Katie. Please describe yourself in five words!

Katie: Empathetic, brave, independent, communicative, and imaginative.

Ogunte: What makes a good leader?

Katie: Decisiveness is important. So is being open to other people’s opinions, ideas and feedback. So, to have a thin skin in some ways, but also having a short memory for pain and offense, and moving on quickly.

The most important thing is making sure the work is not about you and your ego. This means putting the success of the work first, but also caring about the success and growth of those around you.

Lao Tzu said: ‘A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” ’

Leadership for me is about creating an environment where people are able to grow, flourish, and get the work done.

Ogunte: What are three key lessons you’ve learned over the course of your journey so far?

Katie:

  1. Ask for help early and often, from everyone and without shame. This applies to your business partner, too. I was really lucky to find my co-founder Victor, who is someone I can work and grow with. I can come to him with anything – there’s nothing too small or stupid, or too big or catastrophic.
  2. Reliability is incredibly important. You need to give realistic estimates of your bandwidth and the time it’ll take you to do something, and then make good on those promises. For entrepreneurs, feeling like you’re constantly behind can be a familiar feeling, but it doesn’t instill trust in your partners or your team. That’s been a tough lesson to learn. All of these have - I’ve failed at them plenty!
  3. You can learn to do anything if you dedicate the time to it. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you’re not ‘a natural’ at doing x or y, you shouldn’t even try. There are many times that I thought I wasn’t a natural at something, but through asking for help and a bit of studying and repetition, I’ve gotten much better! Now I hear people tell me I’m a natural at things like public speaking that, just two years ago, I was really terrible at! You do get better if you work at it.

 

Katie Taylor CEO Khethworks - Ogunte Interview

Ogunte: What kind of things have you learnt?

Katie: Financial literacy has been a challenging one for me, as I’ve never been one for spreadsheets.

I used to think maybe my mind just doesn’t work that way, it’s so detail oriented. I find the jargon so counter-intuitive, too, because some words have a completely different meaning to what they mean in the rest of the language! But really it’s just new vocabulary to learn, that takes a bit of time and practice to acquire.

Ogunte: What advice would you give to a young woman interested in a career in STEM?

Katie: First off, I’d be like ‘That’s so cool!’ It’s an awesome skill set for doing really impactful and never-before-done things in the world, so you should absolutely go for it. But you should also expect challenges along the way.

A vital way to prepare yourself to tackle these challenges is by building up a solid support network. Strengthen both an informal network of friends and family, and a formal one of mentors – try and find female mentors, if possible.

Apply to anything and everything that sparks your interest. Any camps, programmes, internships, mentorship schemes, grants or schools. It’s always worth taking the shot.

Explore your interests through side projects, too: drawing, sewing, cooking, woodworking – anything! You may well find that you get some of your best ideas through these pursuits, plus they can help your application stand out.

Ogunte: What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM?

Katie: For me, the biggest challenge was sexual harassment. In my experience it is very real and pervasive, and can be, for lack of a better word, creative at times.

I hate the word ‘micro-aggressions’, because it makes it sound like these are microscopic problems and they are certainly not.

My advice to young women would be to know that it’s likely going to happen to you at some point, ad to be prepared to act. If it doesn’t, that’s absolutely wonderful. But if it does, just tell someone – a friend, colleague, therapist. Reach out for help, because so much of the pain comes from not talking about it.

Also, be sure to document it. Write yourself emails, save texts or emails that you receive. I used to delete them because I hated looking at them, but this caused problems later when I was trying to report things.

If you have the option, remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. Even if someone apologises, it’s not worth feeling unsafe. You will find good people to work with, who never make you feel unsafe, there are plenty of these people out there. You don’t need to stay in those bad situations.

These are hard-learned lessons. I don’t know if the numbers for STEM are worse than other industries, but I do know I had a rough go of it, and wish that I had gotten this advice earlier.

Ogunte: Thank you for sharing and for your advice. About your amazing work, tell me, how are you transforming small-plot farming in India?

Katie:

We are helping farmers to do what they already do but better, and to make more money doing it.

We make solar-powered irrigation pumps that enable small-plot farmers to cultivate year-round.

Khethworks - Farmer in Akulshe using pump

Right now, the choice for most of these farmers is either just to cultivate during the Monsoon season or to use diesel or kerosene pumps that are very expensive, difficult to use, and polluting.

We’ve designed a solar-powered system that’s fit for their needs: it’s portable, easy to use, and gives the amount of water that a farmer needs for, say, their 1-acre vegetable plot. Most importantly, we did a lot of engineering to make a highly efficient pump, so that fewer solar panels are needed. With fewer panels, the price comes down and makes the whole thing more affordable to the farmers.

Ogunte: How did you come up with the idea?

Katie: I met all my founders during my mechanical engineering Masters programme at MIT. We were also all Tata fellows. Tata Trust started a fellowship at MIT and at IIT Bombay to attract scientific talent to work on the problems that affect the Indian people.

Our research and dissertations were all on different things, but it was all dancing around the same problem. Victor was working on evaluating solar lights, Kevin was working on optimization methods and modelling for solar and off-grid appliances, and I was working on drip irrigation.

We spent a lot of time in the field talking to stakeholders. What we found was that, at least in the agriculture space, people were saying ‘Listen, drip irrigation is great, and we do want that, but what we need first is affordable year-round irrigation.’ We heard this from the farmers, the NGOs, the government employees, the research institutions.

We realised we could use our engineering skillset to work on a solution. It is by no means the entire solution - there needs to be a complex ecosystem around these farmers to make sure they can be successful. But we saw an opportunity to build a pump that would make solar pumping more affordable than diesel or kerosene pumping. That’s where we figured we could step in and try and do some good.

Ogunte: Which obstacle are you facing at Khethworks right now?

Katie: Top of my list is expanding the team. We need to find the right talent to help us leap forwards and accomplish things that none of us have ever done before.

We’re entering into a new stage where we’re embarking on our first mass manufacturing round. We’re still pre-revenue right now, so we’ll soon be getting into sales and distribution, and post-sales maintenance. We’re all first-timers so far at the company, so these are all things we’ve never done before - all part of the fun of a start up!

But the challenge now is finding passionate people who bring different things to the team. This is so important to get right and keep us on the right path.

Ogunte: How long have you been working on this?

Katie: Too long! Hiring in India is tricky. The volume of applicants you get is really high, just because of the sheer numbers of people here. Also, the period of time for which they’re interested is very short because people move onto other job offers. It’s a high-volume, fast-paced thing!

We actually just hired someone to help us with hiring, which might sound counter-intuitive at first, but I think it’s really useful. Too long!

Khethworks Farmers in Chakradharpur examining pump

Ogunte: How have you navigated the challenge of working across cultures?

Katie: There’s a lot to be learned about living and working in India. We’ve been lucky to find such welcoming local partners who share our passions: they want to help small-plot farmers make more money, stabilize India’s food security situation, and spread solar. They’re very generous with their time and their contacts. Tata Trust has made some terrific introductions, too.

There have certainly been learning moments - we’ve made some faux-pas along the way! But for the most part, we’re lucky to have such a great community that we’re building up around ourselves.

Ogunte: When did you move?

Katie: We moved to live here full-time about 2 years ago. Before that, during grad school and afterwards, I was going back and forth around five or six times a year, which was just silly. We figured if we’re going to be designing products for Indian farmers, this was the place to be doing it.

Ogunte: How was the move for you, personally?

Katie: It was difficult. I’d say the most difficult part was that we moved to a city, Pune, where we didn’t know anyone – we didn’t have any friends. I assume it would be similar if I moved to a new city anywhere, but it was just lonely at first.

There’s the language barrier, of course, but there’s also just not knowing how things are done. It takes longer to figure out, say, how to pay your electricity bill or where to get the good coffee. But you figure it out in time!

Ogunte: By 2030, what do you hope to have achieved? Which skills will you need to focus on to get there?

Katie:

First, I hope to have helped hundreds of thousands of farmers all across the world to have more control over their lives through technology and policy innovations, and strong partnerships.

Secondly, I hope to have built a team and network of people who have grown in their work, feel fulfilled and have made the impact they set out to make.

I want to learn how to apply creativity to business planning. It’s tricky when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. Though there are some amazing companies, like Greenlight Planet, there’s no example you can model your business plan or operations on – no one’s figured out exactly how to do this yet. I’d love to take some time to apply some creativity to the whole thing.

‘There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.’ - Gilbert K. Chesterton

Ogunte: Who are the women who inspire you?

Katie: 1) My mother. She’s so tough and strong and caring and generous, all in the same moment.

For me, she epitomises the fact that women aren’t any one thing. Women aren’t just feminine or more masculine, soft or hard – she’s everything. She’s such a hard worker, and she’s motivated by results and by helping others, not by getting any sort of recognition. She’s so full of love and she shows it through her actions. It’s so impressive and inspiring.

2) I have some amazing best friends who are fierce female warriors. They all have their own wittiness and compassionate side. They’ve all been through their own struggles, which they’ve faced and conquered with grace.

They’ve taught me about loyalty and love, and that the combination of these can get you through anything. I’m very lucky with my friends and family. They really do inspire me.

3) Professionally, I’ve lacked female mentors who I’ve interacted with personally. I have met some amazing female entrepreneurs.

Rebecca Hui is really terrific. She is the CEO of Roots Studio and a Tata fellow. We first met here in Pune through a friend, and she is one of those incredibly open, empathetic people.

It’s nice to have other female entrepreneur friends to share problems and advice with. They can be helpful as a sounding board for new ideas, or to just listen and say ‘Same here’.

Interview produced by Naomi Pyburn for Ogunte. 
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