Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

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July 11, 2013

Building dreams at the Sandbox

Local couple helps aspiring entrepreneurs launch, grow their ideas

The sandbox has always been a favorite play spot for kids and one Andover businessman believes that mimicking the simple, fun scene for grown-ups is the way to inspire new business ideas.

Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, of Fairway Drive, founded The Merrimack Valley Sandbox, which works with community and education partners to boost entrepreneurship and leadership development in the Merrimack Valley.

Based in Lowell, Sandbox started in December 2010 after the couple gave $20 million to their Deshpande Foundation, which supports the program.

At its core, Sandbox provides the seed money to help the little guy turn promising ideas into successful business ventures.

“A little bit different of an innovative idea, that’s what we like,” Desh Deshpande said when he recently visited the Townsman with his wife. “That’s what we fund.”

A native of India who earned his master’s degree and doctorate in Canada, Deshpande knows what it’s like when a business is just starting out. His first entrepreneurial initiative netted a measly $26.95. He framed the check.

But he has gone on to become a wildly successful venture capitalist and has founded several companies, including Sycamore Networks.

A life member of the Board of Trustees for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a building is named after him, Deshpande was appointed to President Barack Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2010.

But even with those accomplishments, he’s never given up on his passion for building new ventures, which he says remains the real payoff for him. And he continues to find the business basics of the Sandbox program appealing.

Deshpande said his foundation’s mission is to “strengthen local economies (and) build leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Through his program, aspiring entrepreneurs get help with such things as writing business plans and filling out grant applications. Their ideas in turn help communities like Lowell and Lawrence prosper.

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