30 MIN READ
This app feature raised over SGD 1.2 million within a week and demonstrates how collective action can create big impact
BY DBS, 24 JUL 2023
An idea pitched over team drinks transformed a feature within the DBS digibank app, which raised over SGD 1.2 million in aid for the Turkey-Syria earthquake relief efforts within a week. In this episode of The Next Impact Maker, we speak to LiveBetter’s founder and product head, Sourabh Sharma, to find out more.
- Small actions taken by all can count to a lot, especially when it comes to the biggest challenges of our generation, like climate change.
- Don't wait for the right moment, don't wait for certain things to fall in place. When you take action on what’s been playing at the back of your mind, you could be really surprised at how the whole world can come together to make things happen.
- You do not have to quit your day job to make a difference. Make a difference by tapping into the ecosystem that you are already a part of and familiar with.
Anne: Today in the studio, we have Sourabh Sharma. He is the brains behind the multifaceted product, called DBS LiveBetter. Hi Sourabh, thanks for joining us. So, what do you do at DBS Bank?
Sourabh: I am the product head for LiveBetter, the new sustainability platform which allows our customers to be able to take actions every day to fight climate change.
Anne: Why is a bank behind an initiative like this?
Sourabh: Well DBS’s mission is to build a best bank for a better world. And DBS is in the position - with many Singaporeans banking with us - where we have the ability to empower our customers to fight some of the biggest challenges of today's world.
Anne: You are talking about building this initiative inside the digital banking app? When I use my app, it is so easy to do all my banking. So, what does this mean for getting access to donating for causes like this?
Sourabh: In line with our motto of ‘Live more, Bank less’, we said we have to, firstly make sustainability very, very accessible to everybody that they can get tips etc., as well as take actions in a very simple way, which is why we made sure that whatever actions we give to the people within LiveBetter, they are very easy to take within the app.
Today you have an app to order food, you have an app to order a taxi. Why don't you have an app to take action to help you fight climate change - which is one of the biggest problems today?
We wanted to make sure that sustainability and the ways in which people can make a difference should not just be restricted to one particular section of the app. We have embedded this into various other banking products.
So today, when you try to look at your credit card bill, it also tells you your carbon footprint based on your spending transactions. When you want to invest your hard-earned money, it also gives you options to be able to invest in funds which are getting returns for you but are not harming the planet at the same time, which we call Invest Better where you are investing in funds which have high ESG rating. So, we have made sure that we have enabled sustainability in everyday banking products as much as possible.
Anne: Let me just quickly open my digibank app. I have it right here. Let me click into LiveBetter, right at the top. There is over 2 million Singapore dollars of contribution and we have reduced 1.7 million kilograms of carbon as of now. What does the 2-million-dollar figure mean?
Sourabh: That is the total contribution which all our customers have made towards causes they care about. In the beginning of the year, we had the unfortunate Turkey-Syria earthquake, and what we did was quickly put up a campaign.
We partnered with Red Cross Singapore, and they had these rescue efforts and humanitarian efforts in Syria which we enabled all our customers to be able to contribute to. The earthquake hit on a Monday. We decided to put up the campaign on Friday, and by Friday evening the campaign was up and by Saturday you could access it from the main digibank app with the banner on top.
And just over the weekend we raised half a million. By the middle of the following week, we had crossed one million dollars in contributions. So that was a moment where I felt humbled as well as felt that the product is really being used for the purpose it was made for.
Anne: Three days is such a short period of time. Walk me through those three days when you were in the thick of it, trying to pull everyone together.
Sourabh: Firstly, putting the campaign up. We have built the systems in a way that we are able to put up a campaign like this fairly quickly. We tried these checks and balances. There was coordination across marketing, across developers, the tech, as well as the campaign managers who put up their campaign.
Anne: You talked about this whole ecosystem; it almost sounds like we are operating like a tech company.
Sourabh: Totally. And I am especially happy to see that when things like these are needed, the entire company or the teams across different departments, they come together and work as one unit.
Anne: This whole experience raising over a million dollars in just a week, what did it tell you about DBS customers?
Sourabh: They are very generous. And I think they are also very empathetic because it is something which happened a few thousand kilometres away. But the way the Singaporeans and our customers got together was really humbling. I have always been a big believer that small actions by taken by all can count to a lot, especially when it comes to the biggest challenges like climate change.
We don't need a few people to do everything, but we need everyone to do something - whatever is possible and convenient for them. They should do that ‘something’ because all that collectively can really move mountains.
Anne: Million dollars' worth of mountains. That covers the whole GiveBetter aspect. I am looking at my digibank account again and I see 571 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted in March and I don't know how much that would reveal about me, but 81% of that was made up of food at 464 kilograms. And I do not think I ate 464 kilograms worth of food. Could you explain how we got to that number?
Sourabh: As you understand, every activity we do - whether we are shopping or we are getting food delivered online or filling fuel in our cars, etc - everything emits a certain amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
What we have done is, based on the category of your spending, whether it is food or whether it is transportation or shopping; let us say you spend 100 dollars on food - we multiply it by an emissions factor, which is specific for food as a category, and we get the total kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted.
So just to give you an example, a 100-dollar bill at a restaurant with your friends would typically emit around 110 kilograms of carbon dioxide. It is just an estimate, we do not know what you ate. But as for carbon estimation, we have to start somewhere, and it is a science which is still evolving.
For you, if you have around 464 kilograms of food emitted, you probably went out with your friends and you had a bill probably of somewhere around 420 dollars.
Anne: And I also know that different restaurants have a different category as well. So, eating at a hawker centre, for example, would have less carbon emitted than eating at a restaurant. Why is that?
Sourabh: What we have done is to look at the supply chains of these companies. We know that when hawkers are preparing the food, a lot of their ingredients are more local as opposed to when you go to a fine dining, high-end restaurants, where they are probably flying in a lot of items. We have done some estimations and averages of what is the per dollar kilogram of carbon dioxide emitted from each of these places. That is why you have a different emission.
Anne: Right so I have got to watch out, maybe next time I'll eat more hawker food just so that my carbon will be lower.
Sourabh: Or take public transport.
Anne: When I saw such a high figure, I kind of felt a little bit of a shock and guilt factor. There are many supply chains and hidden carbon costs. But the thing is that a lot of it seems almost out of my control. Why do you want customers to know about their carbon emissions?
Sourabh: I would counter that by saying that it is very much in your control because it depends on what you eat. For example, instead of ordering a beef steak, you can order a plant-based meat. Or you can go for a lab cultured meat, which is also now becoming more and more available. What you eat is definitely in your control.
Whether you drive a car or take public transport is in your control. And these actions really make a significant difference in carbon emissions. And again, going back to the earlier point of collective action, if all of us decide that, one day a week we will go vegetarian or we will take public transport half of the month, it can really move the needle on how much beef is imported, for example, into Singapore or how much emissions come from cars.
Anne: I will take this into account when I look at my bill next time. And I also see that there's an option underneath to offset my carbon. So, for those months maybe you eat out a little bit too much or enjoy too much meat. What can I do?
Sourabh: All this information which tells you about your carbon footprint is about the spends which you have already done and the carbon which you have already emitted. And if we give you some tips on how to reduce that, it is only forward looking. That means, in the future you will be able to emit less carbon. But what about the carbon which you have already emitted based on your credit card bill? For that, we allow you an option to offset your carbon footprint.
How this works is that - there are projects all over the world which are absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere, or they are preventing generation of more carbon and releasing them into the atmosphere. So, what these projects need is funding. The way they raise funding is by selling something called carbon credits. We enable you to purchase these carbon credits and what you are doing in that way is ensuring that the amount of carbon which you have emitted for that particular month - you are preventing an equivalent amount from getting released into the atmosphere or you are getting an equal amount absorbed from the atmosphere.
And that is how we make sure that we or our activities remain carbon neutral. The critics would say that this means that one can just keep emitting and keep offsetting? Of course not.
The whole idea is that we need to reduce our carbon footprint every month, every day, slowly. It is a slow process; it is going to take time. Till then, the best we can do is, whatever we have emitted, some in our control, some not in our control, we should be able to offset it as much as possible so that at least our spendings and our lifestyles, we are able to make it carbon neutral as much as possible.
Anne: Do you have an example of one of the projects?
Sourabh: There is a project called Keo Seima in Cambodia that has a large portion of the forest. Typically, in a lot of these countries, there is a lot of deforestation, which happens because they want to build their economy, they want to set up factories, do farming, etc. And when these forests are cut, there is a lot of carbon captured in those trees that gets released into the atmosphere.
What these projects do is make sure that there is no deforestation happening, so that amount of carbon is not being released into the atmosphere. And they also replant some trees so that the forests remain healthy. So, when you offset your carbon footprint, it helps in making sure that the projects are still kicking.
Anne: That sounds like a very well-rounded effort. It sounds like a lot of thought went into it. I know this feature began when you pitched the idea to your ex-boss over team drinks one fateful evening. I have got to know, what was that first pitch like?
Sourabh: This was back in 2019, and it was towards the end of the year. It had been just under two years that I was at DBS. I have always been a product builder. I like building products which everyday consumers can use. And I always had this passion for sustainability.
It was always at the back of my mind that climate change is the biggest problem or the biggest challenge of our generation. What can I do to enable all of us to do something about it? And of course, each one of us was doing a bit of recycling, bringing our own mug.
And I was always like, what else can we do? How can we really incentivise people for this? Because we incentivise people for things all the time, whether it be spending at the right restaurant with deals, etc.
We were having drinks with my boss, and I said, “Hey, there is this whole idea of if you do good, you build a better world, you take actions and you get rewarded for it. And as you get rewarded, it creates this nice virtuous cycle where you feel good and then you do more of those actions and then you get more rewards.”
So that was the initial pitch. After that, we went home, and I forgot that anything would happen about it. But then a few months later, Covid-19 hit. A few months into the pandemic, when we were in the middle of the circuit breaker, my boss reached back to me saying that, “Hey, Sourabh, you remember you had that idea which you had pitched, how about we work on that?” So that is how it all started.
Anne: How did you pull everyone together, what did it take?
Sourabh: We were all working remotely from our homes, and we were still getting used to working from home and setting up our spaces, etc. And let me tell you that my day job during that time managing India and Indonesia markets was intense.
Anne: What was your day job, actually?
Sourabh: I was the product lead for digibank India and digibank Indonesia. In both these markets, at that point in time, we had just launched our digibank branch-less banking. So, there was a lot of product build to be done so that our customers can do all the different banking actions. They don't need to go to a branch, they can do everything from the app.
When my boss said, “let's work on this idea”, I said, “okay, I think we need to get a few people together.” And we just sent out an email and we spoke about it in townhall, all remotely, and I was really surprised by the amount of interest and people who came back to me, who said like "Yeah, even I wanted to work on something like this and, can I join you?"
Initially, I thought they are just like being nice and polite, but they actually came up with a lot of ideas and I soon had some developers, some designers who would join in these sessions - we used to always do it like 5.30pm or 6pm, and I was surprised at how much time everyone took out of their schedules, while they were still adjusting to remote working, to discuss this idea.
Anne: And everyone also had a full-time job.
Sourabh: Yes. Sometimes we would just finish up a previous meeting and then get into it to see some of the familiar faces. But I was so happy to see the energy which people brought. They spoke about it as if it came from a higher purpose, which frankly, it does.
Anne: And how many full time DBS employees did you manage to get into this?
Sourabh: I think initially before we got funding for this there were just around six or seven people. We got one data person, we got one designer, we got one tech person and product person, of course.
And then my ex-boss at that point in time was also very generous. They said, “okay, fine, you have this idea, here's some money, let's see what you can build.” They were very, very supportive. And then we formed the real team, in the beginning of 2021, when the new year started.
Anne: It sounds almost like DBS was an incubator of sorts for your idea.
Sourabh: That’s right. We did manage to get a few people together, and the product went through a rigourous assessment process - “what kind of impact is it going to create, what is the objective, what are the metrics for success?” And because especially in a product like this, you can't put a lot of quantifiable metrics, but you still have to put some metrics together. And only when they were convinced about it, they gave the funding; almost like a venture capital (VC).
Anne: And I think you also have a history of pitching some products from your days at National University of Singapore, before Airdrop was a thing, you found ways for people to share pictures from devices to devices. Is there a difference? Pitching back then versus pitching within DBS?
Sourabh: There are some differences in the sense that here, there is more propensity to allow you to take some risks because you are in the same corporate structure and everything, you can do much more review of how the plan is going.
You also have a better idea of whether this is possible being built within the DBS ecosystem.
The VC gives the money, and the start-up generally has a very different way of working. But here we have to work within DBS. Both are positives and constraints which come with a large organisation. The funding is a bit different, of course, but it allows you to take your idea and build it from scratch, which is great.
Anne: And it allows you to also tap on existing infrastructure that DBS already has.
Sourabh: In fact, it is almost like it is imperative that you use what is already built out there. You connect with existing systems and make sure that whatever has been built, you make a multiplier effect on top of that. Just to give you an example, one of the product pillars within LiveBetter is Invest Better.
Within DBS, we always had these so-called green funds or funds which have a high ESG rating. E stands for environment, the S for social, G for governance. They were always buried, which was not very easy for people to discover it. What we did was, we took those funds, we put a nice LiveBetter tag on them, and we made sure that they are very easily discoverable within the digibank app.
We took an existing product and kind of made sure that people are able to access it easily, understand what these funds are, and why it is good to invest in them and then go out and invest them in a few clicks.
Anne: I also want to remind everyone that this was not your full-time job. So essentially right now you are working on this full-time. As you said earlier, it really sounds like you paved your own career, and you created your own job scope. What drew you to do this?
Sourabh: I think a particular trait of entrepreneurs is that they are always having this itch at the back of their hand or whatever in the back of their mind, and they want to solve problems.
And we are also very passionate. Once we take up an idea and we say that we have to go and execute it. We show a lot of passion in terms of building it out. So even for me, I mean, life is short, we have limited time and we have enough and more problems to solve.
I'm at DBS, which has such a great platform for banking with so many people in Singapore itself that it is important that we are able to use this opportunity which we have, to build something that people can then use to solve problems.
Anne: Looking back and seeing how you have successfully transitioned into this new role, how did that happen? Do you have to tell your ex-boss, “Hi, I'm not going to be working on that anymore? This is my new role.”
Sourabh: Once we launched, everybody was pleasantly surprised that the product came the way it came out and the way the entire customer journey and the UI/UX were so smooth.
And then we had some green shoots of initial success. Everybody saw that this product has a lot of legs and it deserves somebody's full-time attention and a team looking at it fully. And my current boss is very supportive of LiveBetter and he really believes in its potential. And I’m so happy that I have had such supportive bosses throughout that they allowed LiveBetter to have its own team and it deserves somebody like me to work on it full time.
Anne: And what would you say is the ultimate goal for LiveBetter? What is your vision if you had unlimited resources?
Sourabh: The goal is not in any numbers. The goal is a change in consumer behaviour and if we can achieve some of these changes in our behaviour. If you can get to a point where people log into the app, not because they want to do a banking transaction, but because they want to live better – if that happens, that would really be a success for the product.
Anne: Where do you see this whole industry going? Do you think that more companies are going to start adopting this method of trying to incorporate these LiveBetter initiatives within the apps? What are some insights or trends that you are noticing?
Sourabh: Well, there are two sets of things happening here. One is at a corporate level, there is a bunch of guidelines right now, but soon there will be regulations around how much carbon each company can emit, and then there will be taxes coming as they have been announced in the budget as well - which companies have to pay if they emit beyond their allowed limits.
On the consumer side or rather companies which have direct access to consumer products, we clearly see that the consumers of today value brands and companies which care about our planet, and they want to be associated with them and disassociate themselves from companies which are agnostic or apathetic towards what is the impact of their business on the planet.
Therefore, we will see a lot more companies appealing to that part of our psyche and making sure that whatever products they are building out, they are at least not harming the planet, some might even go beyond saying that for every product we sell, we actually make sure we offset the equal amount of carbon footprint or regenerate and take away more carbon than was emitted in producing that product. So, I clearly see more and more companies going towards that.
Anne: And are you proud of that? I mean, are you happy that this is happening? It sounds like your dream is coming true.
Sourabh: It makes me happy. It shows how companies have changed both from recognising climate change as a crisis as well as seeing how their customers are also needing certain indications from them, saying that, “okay, this company actually cares for the planet.”
Anne: Knowing all you know now, with the benefit of hindsight and the years of experience under your belt working on this, what kind of advice would you wish that you could have given to yourself back then, starting out on all of this? And I guess for people around who want to do something like what you’ve done.
Sourabh: One advice I would really give is don't wait.
Don't wait for the right moment, don't wait for certain things to fall in place. Just go and start doing it. When you take action on what’s been playing at the back of your mind, you could be really surprised at how the whole world can come together to make things happen.
And I've seen this multiple times in my short life so far. So, I would tell people, don't wait.
Anne: Great advice. I would try not to wait too long when I want to do things next time.
Sourabh: Don't have to quit your job to do it either. You can do it within DBS
Anne: Exactly. I'm already within the ecosystem of the company.
I've been speaking to the Product Head of LiveBetter at DBS Bank and thanks so much for speaking to me today Sourabh.
Sourabh: It was great talking to you, Anne.
Anne: I'm Anne, signing out for The Next Impact Maker.
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