The Maverick

Mehmood Khan quit his high-flying global career to focus fully on transforming his poor village in Haryana

Published: Dec 18, 2009

Nai Nangla village is a tiny speck on Haryana’s map. As far as the state’s administration goes, the speck probably doesn’t even exist. For several decades this little village in Mewat district languished in misery. Apparently, since Independence, no administrator bothered to visit the village. Until recently, there were no roads leading up to the village. The poor remained poor, access to healthcare was limited, there was no clean drinking water, illiteracy was rife, and women were downtrodden.

But something changed last year. The village, as a collective whole, clocked a Rs. 40-lakh increase in income (Rs. 80 lakh to Rs. 1.2 crore) from agriculture and allied services in one year. For the 200 village households, 80 percent of whom depend on agriculture, this is a lot. The extra cash allowed the villagers some degree of freedom. The little school in Nai Nangla saw enrolments increase from 250 to 320 children. From 23 percent literacy in 2003, today the village enjoys 95 percent literacy.

Mehmood Khan quit his high-flying global career to focus fully on transforming his poor village in Haryana
Image: Madhu Kapparath for Forbes India
Mehmood Khan quit his high-flying global career to focus fully on transforming his poor village in Haryana
Nai Nangla owes it all to one man — Mehmood Khan, the former global leader of innovation process development at Unilever. Khan is an unlikely son of Nai Nangla. Unlike his peers who remained trapped in the village, he “escaped” — as he puts it — and led a life that people in Nai Nangla can’t even dream about. Khan got a good education, including an MBA from IIM-Ahmedabad, and worked for Unilever across the world. He launched Unilever’s brands in Cambodia, Mongolia, Vietnam and Laos before becoming the innovation head at the company’s London headquarters.

Each time Khan came to India to visit his family, he could feel the difference between him and his brethren. He decided to do something about it. Charity wasn’t the answer — at least not a sustainable one. “Look at the Lee Kuan Yew model of development. The only resource he had was people,” says Khan. And so he set upon the task of improving the lives of these villagers through education, skill development and better access to the basic amenities in life.

The income rise is due to a Mother Dairy milk collection booth that Khan has been instrumental in bringing to the village. It was the first time that the villagers got a chance to break away from the stranglehold of local milk vendors who gave them absurdly low prices. The villagers were forced to accept it because they had no other avenue and also because they had taken loans from these milk vendors and were, in a sense, ‘bonded’ to them.

Other changes are visible in the village. A ‘common facilitation centre’ came up here with a computer training facility and a sewing centre around a year back. Basic literacy classes for women were held. A lot of the village women took up sewing as a vocation and earn between Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 2,000 a month. If things work out as planned, they will soon be sewing garments for a Gurgaon-based manufacturing unit. Some of the men, after having been trained in computers and basic English, have been hired by insurance company Aviva, Max New York Life and ICICI Bank.

Geoffrey Probert, Executive Vice President, Deodorants Category (Unilever), sees parallels between what Khan did at Unilever and what he is doing now. Probert was the business director for Unilever International and Khan’s boss when he launched Unilever in Cambodia and Mongolia. Probert says, “Mehmood knows how to create a market where none exists.” Khan launched Unilever brands in Cambodia in 1993 which was a time of political unrest and great uncertainty. Khan remembers landing at Phnom Penh airport and filling his immigration form in candlelight. Probert says, “There was no rulebook at that time. You had to just use your wits and Mehmood was an incredibly good resource for us in these markets.”

It is these skills — ingenuity, the ability to think and act on the fly and create opportunity where none exists — that Khan brings to Mewat after spending 40-plus years in the corporate world. He views Nai Nangla’s problems like a puzzle, the pieces of which he looks for and fits in. That’s the beauty of Khan’s model: While looking for the pieces that fit, he looks beyond the ordinary.

Nai Nangla had many problems. A firm believer in the power of collaboration, Khan roped in his networks and contacts from all over the world into his venture. So if it was about computer training, Khan roped in his IIM-A alumnus N.V. ‘Tiger’ Tyagarajan, COO, Genpact, who gave Khan’s computer training facility a few used computers. For literacy, Khan talked NGO Pratham into setting up operations in Mewat, a district it had never worked in before. He convinced Mother Dairy to set up a milk collection centre in Nai Nangla. “One of my early memories of Mehmood is going to sell him services and walking out after writing him a big cheque for his charity work. He is very good at making business people act with conscience,” says Trevor Davis, Global Subject Matter Expert in the Consumer Products Industry, IBM.

For many years, Khan managed to squeeze out time to do his work for Mewat even while handling his full-time job at Unilever. But in 2009, at 54 years, he took an early retirement from Unilever. “This work has been slowly beckoning me and I feel that I can add more value to rural India,” says Khan. “Once you are in that state of mind, you want to be with the people. For me the transition has been from driving topline growth in a multinational through innovation to driving growth in an area neglected for 62 years.”

From his plush Chorleywood apartment in the UK, Khan has now set up base in Gurgaon. But most days he ends up sleeping on a bare bed in Nai Nangla.

The decision to moveback wasn’t hard though it did come out from the blue. Khan spoke to Davis before making the decision. Davis says, “I was very surprised when he said he wanted to go back. His passion for the villages was growing. It was very obvious that it was becoming a very important part of his life. It was a very short call when he said he wanted to retire. He is entering a new phase in life. A moment in time arrived, personal circumstances were right and his head and heart were in the right direction.”

Currently, Khan is getting a small room ready for himself in Beria Baas, another Mewat village. It is time, Khan feels, for Beria Baas to go through a similar transformation. He is trying to get Mother Dairy to set up a milk collection outlet here. But Mother Dairy won’t come unless it gets a minimum of 500 litres a day. Khan is setting up his own dairy to provide critical mass. He has joined hands with the biggest gaushala in Hansi to source high-quality buffalos and cows. “I am creating a complete ecosystem in this dairy. The milk will go to Mother Dairy, the dung will be used for biogas and vermicompost and the male offspring, which is always neglected, will be taken as bulls by a breeding organisation called BAIF [Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation] which is starting a bull farm in Jind.” In fact, nearly 35 years ago Khan was a part of BAIF, an organisation he joined as a management trainee straight after his MBA. Kishor Chaukar, managing director, Tata Industries, was an executive secretary at BAIF at that time. Says Chaukar, “When I look at what Mehmood is doing in Mewat today, I see the same passion, the same orientation and the same dreams as what he brought to BAIF.”

Not everything that Khan does in Mewat takes off as expected. Finding talent to manage these projects is tough. People are just not willing to work in villages. Khan has had to resort to developing raw talent from scratch in the villages. “I have learnt in my corporate life that you create so many ideas in the funnel, and not all of them will work out. There may be ideas where we have been wrong in our assessment. But I want to work with 10 ideas — even if two make it big, I’ll be happy,” says Khan.

(This story appears in the 08 January, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Drksbhardwaj

    Thanks Mehmood bhai. You did what a son of soil ought to do.

    on Apr 1, 2016
  • Syed Zahid Ahmad

    Yesterday I had a chance to visit the said places along with Dr. Khan and had seen the changes he is making. I hope his efforts will make Mewat one of fastest growing districts in India. The scope is ample so does the enthusiasm and courage to do progress. Plans are being framed and resources are being mobilized for self motivated growth process in the areas. The first joining the growth process will gain more compared to those who join after seeing the great changes.

    on Jun 15, 2012
  • Maj.gen. Rn Tikku

    Great job in building self reliance and consequent self sufficiency in a small village. Great learning as well, particularly for school going and college students. A \'must visit\' spot. Takes me back to a quote: \"Instead of giving a free fish to a needy, teach him how to fish\" from the book \'Rich dad, Poor dad\' by Robert Kiyosaki.

    on Jun 6, 2012
  • Heera Lal

    You did work which i wish to do. Please send me your contact no if possible.

    on Jan 5, 2012
  • Fazal Ahmed Khan

    It is excellent and encouraging for all of us who have been lucky to be educated and well settled, to engage for improving the lot of our brethern left behind in our respective villages. All the best and good luck to my good brother Mr Khan.

    on Mar 30, 2011

    Mohammed Khan has not weaved a magic wand but has leveraged the human resource at hand and channelized them by monetizing their day-to-day activities in a profitable manner. The streak of innovativeness that India is blessed with should trigger more such initiatives. <br /> What has however not been highlighted in the feature is that Mewat in Haryana is one of the areas where the Muslims live in abject poverty and a brother from their community has taken the cudgels to improve their lot. Imagine, what might happen if more such influential Muslims return to their native places to provide new lease of life to their fellow brethren. If it does happen there would not be a need for providing them a succor of reservation as the fruits of economic development would not trigger that yearn at all.

    on Dec 21, 2009
  • Andy Boddice

    What a fabulous and inspiring piece of work. Have Rotary International been approached to see if they can support your efforts? Best regards Andy

    on Dec 21, 2009
    • Mehmood Khan

      Dear Andy Do let us have Rotary International contacts. Thanks Mehmood

      on Dec 24, 2009
  • Rohit Vora

    We are proud and very happy about your great work. When ever you are in Delhi Please let me know we would meet.<br /> Reagrds<br /> Rohit

    on Dec 21, 2009
  • Krishnamurthy Hegde

    Its truly inspiring. Approach that men like Mehmood adopted is the answer to many of our social issues prevailing in rural India. One day, I too will follow his foot steps.

    on Dec 21, 2009
  • Umm Qahtan

    An inspiration to us all. God bless him !!

    on Dec 20, 2009
  • Mohamed Iqbal

    For those of us who only dream and talk of going back home one day, this is an inspiring story, not only to return but to make it truly count.. Well done Mr Mehmood, at least our best wishes are with you!!

    on Dec 20, 2009
  • Krish

    amazing!! a little goes a long way indeed.. Cheers to Mr.Khan

    on Dec 20, 2009
  • Anupam Jalote

    Extreme corruption and abdication of all responsibility by the Indian administrators and politicians have eroded our faith in the basic goodness of humans. People like Mehmood go a long way in restoring this faith. There are uncoordinated efforts like this all over the country, where development is being eked out in spite of the administration. My compliments to Mr Khan for doing the work he had done, and also for sharing it with others as a beacon of hope.

    on Dec 20, 2009
  • Masarat Daud

    He is such an inspiration and I look upto him as a role-model. His work is beyond any awards or trophy recognitions--the impact he has made on hundreds of lives is outstanding. I look forward to collaboration with him to spread education in Mewat.

    on Dec 20, 2009
  • kaunain Shahidi

    I am certainly impressed. Great soul. Salute to you Mr. Khan.

    on Dec 19, 2009
  • Matteo Casarico

    I had the pleasure and the honour to know Mehmood in his Unilever days and I am sure he will continue to surprise all of us with what he can and will do. All the best. Matteo

    on Jan 7, 2010
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