By Judy Wakefield
---- — 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.
“It’s about promoting innovative thinking to help create enterprises that have significant social and economic impact on communities that truly need some help,” he said.
The Sandbox annual pitch contest is a popular element of the program.
Professional storyteller Nicolette Nordin Heavey of Andover was the “fan favorite” at a Sandbox pitch contest in 2012 and that earned her a $1,250 grant for her “Stories in the Streets” business.
The grant allowed Heavey to bring her brand of performance story-telling as well as her colorful rolling cart of books to community gathering spots in Lawrence, including its farmers market and a playground at North Common. Heavey also gave a free picture book to every child who listened.
Sandbox has lent its financial support to a long list of projects, including helping to bring 65 Teach for America instructors to Lawrence this past school year and recruiting mentors for entrepreneurs just starting out.
The program has funded more than 600 youth entrepreneurs and 350 adult entrepreneurs. More than 100 successful entrepreneurs volunteer as mentors as well. Student entrepreneurs are especially applauded in the Sandbox Catalyst Program.
“We provide connections, support and seed grants to help students try out their ideas,” Deshpande said. “We are the cheerleaders.”
The Deshpandes, who have lived in Andover since 1992 and have two adult sons, ages 27 and 29, have taken the Sandbox model global, with branches in India and Canada.
Jaishree Deshpande is especially proud of the program’s work in her homeland of India, where a school kitchen was built to feed poor, hungry children who walk miles to get to class.
“The Sandbox concept helps many people around the world,” she said.
Mentors to success
Successful entrepreneurs, executives, investors and technical experts are needed as mentors for the Merrimack Valley Sandbox program. A three- to five-hour monthly commitment is required. Mentors will provide support/guidance to help early-stage entrepreneurs launch their ventures. To apply, visit MVSandbox.org.