From impacted to impact
“It changed my entire life. I went from one person to another.”
Deshpande and his sister, Anupa, grew up near Stone Mountain, Georgia. Their mom was a physical therapist. Their dad was a professor. Both immigrated from India. The self-described “latch key kids” grew up in a tight-knit Indian community formed around dialects; since his parents moved from Bombay (now Mumbai), they socialized with others who spoke the Marathi language. Within the community, Deshpande’s parents were considered liberal and emphasized academics.
Deshpande describes his undergraduate experience at Emory as “two worlds.”
The first year he “had a blast,” enjoying everything Emory had to offer. He found he could do what many college students struggle with — indulge his social side and maintain a GPA.
Then something happened.
“It changed my entire life,” he said. “I went from one person to another.”
"I had faced my mortality. Nothing was promised. For several years, everything was still touch-and-go and relapse was still a potential."
In March of 1997, Deshpande was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He took a year off from school for treatment and when he returned, he “focused relentlessly” on his studies.
Deshpande’s former professor and a mentor of more than 20 years, Steve Walton remembered.
“He came back with a clarity of purpose he didn’t have previously — and his performance was the very best since then,” Walton said.
“My whole mindset shifted,” Deshpande said. “I had faced my mortality. Nothing was promised. For several years, everything was still touch-and-go and relapse was still a potential.
“I had an awakening.”
The experience also changed the direction of his career.
When Deshpande began his studies, he envisioned a career in medicine. However, his cancer treatment led him away from wanting to spend time in hospitals.
“Hospitals brought back tough memories and made me queasy,” he quipped. “You can’t really be a physician if you don’t like hospitals.”
Brutally honest, Deshpande said he originally got into business to “make a lot of money.” But he also wanted to leave a mark. Give back in his life that could have easily faded away too soon.
He tried healthcare consulting but found he lacked passion for the field.
“I was passionate about making an impact — especially among people who are disenfranchised, and specifically around the African American community,” he said. “Many of my friends growing up were Indian or black; that was the common thread. I felt that population consistently got the short end of the stick and I just saw it as unjust. Period.”
“Good financial advice shouldn’t be a luxury product; it should be available to everybody."
Deshpande decided to continue his studies, applying to several graduate programs. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2005. He took a job at Bain & Company in Atlanta. He saved money, employing basic financial principles.
Then the recession hit, and he saw an opportunity to give back. In 2010, Deshpande started SmartPath Financial, a company that helps low-to-moderate income families with their finances.
“I loved it at Bain,” he said. “They knew I was going to want to do something with social impact, so it was no surprise when I chose to leave. I had done well there and it was a great step along the journey.”
SmartPath does not sell financial products. Instead, they serve as financial coaching consultants, and Deshpande is committed to offering the service to people who need it the most.
“Good financial advice shouldn’t be a luxury product; it should be available to everybody,” he said.
Deshpande partners with companies to offer financial coaching as an employee benefit. Employees also receive access to workshops and tools. Appropriately — because of his time in hospitals — Deshpande believes the services are akin to consulting a doctor.
“When you need legal help you hire a lawyer, when you need health advice you go to a doctor, but if you have a financial question, there’s no one to go to for objective support,” he said. “We’re solving that.”
Reflecting on how he would guide future entrepreneurs, Deshpande encourages accentuating your strengths, “My wife is a school counselor who works with 90 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch, and she’s great at that. I happen to be really good at personal finance. Find your niche. Find where you can make a difference and make people’s lives better.”