Sharath Mekala is the President of Village Defense, a community organizer, and a social entrepreneur. Sharath graduated from Georgia State University’s Risk Management program at the Robinson College of Business. He studied International Business and Infrastructural Risk Management for a semester in Tokyo, Japan, and also conducted nanotechnology research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After purchasing a home on Atlanta’s west side, Sharath became inspired to get involved in community planning. In 2006, he became the Vice Chair of Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit-G–a section of Atlanta that was plagued with an overabundance of blighted communities and housing projects, but gifted with tremendous history, willpower, and potential. Soon after, Sharath was elected Vice President of the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board. In 2009, Sharath’s home was burglarized, and out of his neighborhood of 800 people, he was surprised that none of his neighbors were aware that his home was broken into. Mobilizing quickly, Sharath started Village Defense so that neighbors could communicate with one another in their greatest times of need, bringing the vision of a village into reality.
Plywood People: What exactly is Village Defense doing in neighborhoods?
Sharath Mekala: We make it very easy for neighbors to communicate with each other. We’ve noticed a major disconnect in information flow in communities from neighbor-to-neighbor, so we developed a system that allows for real-time communication amongst entire neighborhoods. When a crime takes place, it is common that no one in the neighborhood knows about it, and criminals take advantage of this ignorance. They can enter and exit at will because they know that we, as neighbors, are not aware and aren’t working together as a team. This is where Village Defense comes in. When a crime takes place, any resident can notify all of their neighbors by calling our 24/7 hotline (after calling 9-1-1). A message will get sent immediately by our live operators via text message and voice call to every resident, alerting the entire community to what is going on and what to look out for. We also place signs in neighborhoods to act as deterrents. Criminals realize that if just 1 person sees them, there is a potential for hundreds of neighbors to turn into witnesses.
Plywood People: What prompted you to want to start Village Defense?
Sharath: In 2006 I was working on the westside of Atlanta as a community organizer. During the day, I worked as an insurance underwriter. In the evenings, I represented the area, in order to protect the interests of his community and to demand basic services, in turn, increasing civic leadership and community empowerment. One morning, while at work, my home was burglarized. Out of 800 neighbors, only one fellow resident had witnessed teenagers casing the property, but had no way of alerting me or the rest of the community. As a result, I realized the absence of real-time communication at a very local level. To address this issue, I decided to combine my passion for community organizing with the present need I experienced personally and Village Defense was born.
Plywood People: What are you seeing in terms of relationships of neighbors with each other?
Sharath: We believe that communication is the foundation of community. And one of the beautiful outcomes of Village Defense has been increased neighbor-to-neighbor connectivity and familiarity. We have seen greater participation and attendance at neighborhood meetings, clean-ups, and other events where residents mingle and get to know one another. We’ve spoken with community members who’ve said their fellow residents are more friendly and willing to simply greet one another. And in our first neighborhood, residents came to check on a neighbor whose home had been burglarized to make sure she was alright and one man even helped her reinstall a new door (featured on Fox 5). We get emails from our customers all the time saying that they enjoy living in their neighborhoods much more as a result of the decreased crime and increased sense of community. It’s all about building a village.
Plywood People: In pursuing a new and innovative idea, what has been a hang up you’ve had to work hard to overcome?
Sharath: For us, thus far, one of our greatest challenges has been funding. It’s difficult to build your idea, market it, and hire people in order to facilitate growth, on a very limited budget. We have purposefully not pursued the formal investor route because we did not want to be in debt or beholden to an investor whose bottom line is profitability. We want to create the most impact and do not want to jeopardize or compromise our company values and philosophies in the process. Luckily, our concept is popular and generating real results. So, we have come to think of our customers as our investors. All challenges that stem from growing an innovative idea can be tackled if there is enough passion and dedication, of which we have plenty. There are hang ups daily, but we are able to push through by focusing intensely on creative problem-solving.
Plywood People: What are a few of the ideals that you live by that shape your company?
Sharath: As individuals, we hold the following principles very close to our hearts and we are proud to completely carry them with us into our company’s DNA.
- Common Sense: Being consistently rational and sensible regarding how we operate is of extremely high importance to us. On an intellectual and practical level, we always make sure what we are doing makes sense for our customers and ourselves.
- Deception-Free: We recognize the vast majority of companies engage in various levels of deceit and often mislead customers. We are fans of facts, truth, and honesty. We try our absolute best never to misinform, use hyperbole, or hold any delusions about reality.
- Innovation: We love seeking new methods to improve our products, our processes and ourselves.
- Creativity: We strive for our entire team to have a healthy balance of imagination and realism. Our team encourages social deconstruction of parts of life that don’t make sense and construction of a new reality that works better for people. Thinking outside the box is where true solutions come from.
- Compassion: As a bulletin board in one of our neighborhoods reads, “Practice peace.” Compassion is a must for any social enterprise working to solve a problem involving others.
- Transparency: We encourage open and effective communication and interaction. Going hand in hand with our deception-free value, being transparent in our motives, philosophy, and execution of service is crucial for trust, understanding, and improvement.
- Customer Service: We dedicate ourselves to exceeding the expectations and requirements of our customers and ourselves. We establish and maintain effective relationships with our customers and gain their trust and respect. We will always act with our customers in mind and constantly seek their valuable feedback.