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Desh Deshpande is expanding entrepreneurship to narrow the wealth gap

The founder of EforAll and the Deshpande Foundation is #21 on the Tech Power Players list.

Entrepreneurship made Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande a wealthy man. And for more than a decade, he has been focused on sharing that wealth by helping entrepreneurs of color get their own startups off the ground.

Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, do this through two nonprofits, Entrepreneurship for All (known as EforAll) in the US and the Deshpande Foundation in India. They formed EforAll in 2010, originally called the Merrimack Valley Sandbox. The organization was rechristened in 2014 as it set its sights on cities beyond its core area of Lowell and Lawrence; today, EforAll has programs providing free assistance to entrepreneurs in 13 cities, most of them in Massachusetts, according to Deshpande.

One of the primary goals: to narrow the wealth gap, by providing mentorship and other services to entrepreneurs from underserved communities.

“People being left behind, [that’s] going to be an ongoing problem,” Deshpande said. “We need to find an ecosystem for them. To me, that’s the new workforce development program. … For every 20 to 30 job seekers, you need a job maker. EforAll is all about creating good job makers.”

Deshpande’s roots are now firmly planted in the Massachusetts tech world. He left his native India in 1973 to pursue graduate studies in Canada. He worked for Motorola for several years before branching out on his own. He said he was drawn to Greater Boston because it was one of two locations in the country at the time — the other being Silicon Valley — where venture capital backing could be found. His second startup, networking equipment maker Cascade Communications, was a big success: It was acquired by Ascend Communications (which was later bought by Lucent) for $3.7 billion in 1997. He later cofounded Sycamore Networks, a similar telecom equipment company, with former Cascade CEO Dan Smith.

Sycamore went public in 1999, and its subsequent stock price helped make Deshpande one of the wealthiest Indian-born entrepreneurs in the world. Deshpande became involved in MIT, establishing the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation; he also served on a number of corporate boards, and was co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2015. (Sycamore never fully recovered from the telecom bust of the early 2000s, and what remained of the company was sold in early 2013.)

Deshpande’s biggest impact on the state’s economy, though, may end up being measured by what EforAll is accomplishing. EforAll alums have launched more than 700 companies, and those alums collectively employed more than 1,300 people in 2020. Roughly two-thirds of these businesses are owned by people of color. Nearly 40 percent of them were created by immigrants, pursuing dreams just like Deshpande was when he got his start.

“I think we have to make sure everybody has an opportunity, which is sort of the American dream, that you can be anybody and make it big here,” Deshpande said. “If you start making barriers with people who have [wealth] and people who don’t have it, you create a very unstable society.”