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Editor’s Note: This article is written by Dipika Prasad and was published on the Sankalp Forum blog as well as Next Billion. It captures the work I have been doing for the last two years.

Early stage businesses thrive best in an environment that brings together and facilitates efficient working of all players for them to grow. The favorite, and oft-quoted example of such an enabling ecosystem is Silicon Valley. But there are examples closer to the developing world as well – like the information technology industry in the Indian cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, and the vibrant start up communities growing around academic institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). Social enterprise in India took off in 2005-06, but is still in the margins, and grapples with a complex set of challenges. The challenges start right from understanding who’s part of this space – the entrepreneurs, funders, enablers – to making it easier for them to work together. If double and triple bottom line businesses, which many of us believe are tomorrow’s models, are to make a dent in mainstream markets, they need to aggregate in big numbers, and show tangible change. Which leads to the question – why stitch together the social enterprise mosaic?

Sankalp Forum was initiated by Intellecap in partnership with Rockefeller Foundation, SIDBI, NABARD, and others, with the belief that social entrepreneurs have a role to play in development and inclusive growth. In those early years our founding team learned the first lessons in the importance of building an ecosystem. The entrepreneurs, funders, policy makers, academicians, service providers and grassroots organizations that were chasing common goals had to be brought together; and an environment that it made it easier for them to work together had to be built.

Three big goals drive us in our attempts to create this convergence of key players in the social enterprise space. The first is cohesion and collaboration to drive capital into double and triple bottomline businesses. The second is to make peer-to-peer learning and market linkages possible. We believe this is key to creating supply chains that work – bringing together large businesses, social enterprises, and non-profit grassroot level organizations. Our third driver is to bring new converts to this growing space – large businesses curious about making markets work for the poor, foundations that are looking beyond charity as a means to create impact, mainstream angel networks and venture capital funds who want to explore impact investing as a growing asset class.

The next obvious question then becomes – what does it take to stitch together the social enterprise mosaic in India? In 2009 we took the first steps towards building this ecosystem for entrepreneurship lead development solutions through the first annual Sankalp Summit and Awards. While we’ve evolved and expanded both programmatically and geographically, the social entrepreneur continues to be at the centre of everything we try to do through the Sankalp Forum. In the last four years, we’ve sourced over 400 social enterprises from India and South East Asia into the Sankalp platform, using our awards process as a pull for enterprises working in sectors of agriculture, food and rural business; clean energy/ technology; education and vocational training; healthcare, water and sanitation; and technology for development. This aggregation of high potential social enterprises has in turn attracted other players from the sector – over 300 investors, and 500 service providers like strategy consultants, investment advisors, lawyers, and design and media consultants. For a social enterprise looking to understand the market space, Sankalp Forum has evolved to become a one-stop-solution that answers four basic needs:

A lesson we learned early on in our journey was that very little was possible without collaboration. We’ve worked with over 50 partners including incubators, investment houses, networks, media, and other social enterprise platforms to make Sankalp Forum possible. A good example of the efficacy of this collaboration is the capacity building services we are able to provide all this under one umbrella. Our partners range from early stage incubators with sector specific focus to those with expertise in legal issues to those who investment bank for early stage businesses. Entrepreneurs who are part of our platform get access to mentorship and handholding across an entire range of challenges. In the past three years, more than two dozen of our enterprises have received investments, and over 160 others have been made investment ready through mentoring and capacity building programs. These enterprises enter the Sankalp Forum platform through multiple channels. While we run year-round interventions like capital raising workshops, and investor – entrepreneur clinics across India, the annual Sankalp Awards is the largest entry channel to Sankalp Forum.

In 2012, 100 for-profit social entrepreneurs from India, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia invested over 600 hours in filling applications to the Sankalp Awards. Cumulatively and individually, this data forms an invaluable decision making aid to multilaterals, foundations, policy makers and other market makers in this space. Each application was put through a quality check by the Intellecap team, and entrepreneurs were helped with thinking through aspects of their business they hadn’t necessarily prioritized. As we helped applicants figure EBIDTA, PAT and margins, we realized many of them were doing this exercise for the first time. Not all went onto become Sankalp Award Finalists of course, but we believe we got them started on the right track.

At the first evaluation stage of the business plans, 35 investors from 29 investment houses volunteered one day of their time to look over every business that applied to the Sankalp Awards. The evaluation process itself resulted in the generation of over two dozen investor interest queries. At the end of this process, 31 finalists were announced. The news of this announcement through Intellecap and Sankalp emails, blogs and social media channels alone reached an audience of over 50,000. We partnered with leading publications in this space like NextBillion, YourStory, Startup Central and others to amplify this number by 4 to 5 times.

The great value add to Sankalp Award Finalists, and also the inspiration behind this post, came from a first of its kind bootcamp that we organized for our 31 finalists at the Indian School of Business on March 9 and 10. Over the course of a two-day residential bootcamp, the entrepreneurs were exposed to capital raising basics like “knowing your business”, “approaching an investor”, and “structuring investments”. Over 18 investors, successful entrepreneurs, and advisors travelled to Hyderabad to volunteer time for this bootcamp. What’s great about this model we’re building is that its win-win – experts from different fields spend time with our entrepreneurs to find high quality deal flow pipelines, understand on-field trends better, and create awareness about their work. After the bootcamp, Vijay Vaidyanathan, CEO of one of our 2012 finalists class wrote to us saying, “Sankalp Forum is not only bringing together all the pieces of the social enterprise ecosystem, it forms the mosaic and gives the background in which the entire picture would shine.”

At our annual summit on April 12 and 13, this is exactly what we will attempt to do.

There are clear differences between the approach of previous generations towards sustainable development and that of today’s youth. The old model of people making money and waiting till the end of their lives to give it away is not acceptable to the new generation. Corporate social responsibility and philanthropy as concepts are less appealing to today’s youth, while profitable business models that inherently address social challenges are gaining popularity.

Although the growing role of youth leadership in sustainable development is a global phenomenon, young Indians still have some way to go. The highly competitive environment, educational system, and social pressure to build a successful (i.e rich) life, are some of the reasons that we see fewer young people engaging in sustainable development in India when compared to the more developed countries. The situation is similar in other emerging markets such as the BRIC countries and South East Asia.

While there are young people in India that choose to pursue a career in social enterprise, the space is primarily dominated by Non-Resident Indians and people from the more developed regions. This trend is clearly reflected in educational programs – while most Business schools in Europe and the North America include social enterprise/sustainable development in their curriculum, this trend hasn’t caught on in India. The Indian School of Business is pioneering certain initiatives in the social enterprise space such as iDiya; however the IIMs and other management institutes are still to follow.

Another point to consider while comparing perspectives on sustainable development across generations is that the field of strategic sustainable development requires a multi-disciplinary approach, since the challenges being addressed are intricately linked together. So while the past generations focused on specializing in particular areas and excelling in those, today’s generation has the opportunity to draw linkages across disciplines and find integrated solutions to challenges, for example in the context of climate change.

Access to information through the internet, the social media revolution, global exposure through technology and travel based learning allow our generation to engage in the complex issues of sustainable development. Today young people are more sensitized to development challenges and risks, and they have the opportunity to collaborate through social media channels, especially Facebook and Twitter.

A small percentage of Indian’s today are able to take greater career risk, instead of following the traditional path. However, when compared to the number of young people in India, this number is still very small. To create this change, we need to focus our efforts on youth attitude and perspective. Education, extra-curricular activities, travel and other diverse experiences shape the world-view of young people. We need to provide experiences that develop responsible young leaders who work towards a sustainable future and in the process create a meaningful and successful life for themselves and their communities.

One such program is the AIESEC Ser Mas Program run in Latin America that offers businesses and young people the opportunity to be more competitive, increasing their knowledge and expertise in the areas of social and business entrepreneurship. Through international exchange programs, team and leadership experiences, and learning activities, the program develops talented and globally minded Ibero-American leaders whose knowledge and skills enable them to support and build social enterprises in the region.

I come from a family of well-educated engineers, doctors and civil officers. I grew up in a sheltered environment, learning about the significance of a credible education, of stability, and of planning as far ahead as possible. Most of my extended family relocated to study in the U.S, and have built comfortable lives there. If I was writing this a decade ago, I might have had a similar story to share.

But I have grown up in the “new” India, and in this land of expanding opportunity, I chose the road less traveled.

In my 26 years I have traveled the world, started a not-for-profit, spent a month in the Antarctic and have chosen a career that attempts at “good” business. Turning down several opportunities to continue working abroad, I chose to return to India. The emergence of a pulsating, dynamic new India has triggered a reverse brain drain. Indians living in different corners of the world, who had gone looking for opportunity, chose to return to a vibrant, exciting land of promise. So did I. I came back to an India ‘whose faith in success was far greater that her fear of failure’. An India that was poised as the fastest growing free-market democracy in the world. Globalization with all its challenges and opportunities had created a country of paradox, success, failure and hope. The development of a young, new India in the face of a globalized world economy has greatly influenced my thinking and life choices.

India opened its doors to the global economy, transforming the lives and aspirations of its people. This evolution came to life with A.R Rehman winning two Grammy Awards, Kalpana Chawla being the first Indian-born woman to fly in space, and Slumdog Millionaire winning an Oscar. The world was looking at India with curiosity, and inter-cultural connections multiplied exponentially. Consequently, my dream of traveling the world became a reality. I worked with an international team in Rotterdam that led a global organization to achieve 45% growth in results. Our mantra was ‘Connecting to Deliver’, and we leveraged technology that supported people across the world to learn, share and achieve. I developed programs that mobilized youth to experience new economies and cultures. Recognizing these successes, I was awarded a scholarship to participate in a sustainability leadership program in the Antarctic. This would have been unheard of for a young woman in the India that was. The world had literally become my playground, and these experiences completely changed the way I viewed my country, my future and myself.

Today, India is riding high on its so-called “demographic dividend”. While India’s youth hold significant promise, the lack of education, inadequate infrastructure and skewed employment prospects present a daunting task. Young India needs empowerment, training and access to livelihood opportunities. Being a young Indian, my work has focused on youth mobilization for social impact. Recognizing the need for ethical and sustainable leadership, my work in AIESEC was directed towards exponentially increasing the quantity of leadership experiences the organization provided young people in India and globally. While leading the Global Entrepreneurs Program, my team trained aspiring Indian entrepreneurs and gave them a platform to develop business skills by interning with growing enterprises. Today my work leverages India’s demographic dividend through social enterprise. The enterprises I support are transforming the lives of unemployed youth through door-step business training, providing technology-based interactive education to disadvantaged communities, and generating employment in rural India through BPOs.

India’s entrepreneurial spirit is being harnessed in whole new ways. The world is attempting to learn from Indian innovation or ‘jugaad’ in Hindi, as a tool to find uncommon solutions to common problems. Earlier this year, a business acquaintance from Accra experienced Dharavi, Asia’s largest ‘five-star’ slum as part of a global initiative on Urban Poverty that I managed. He reflects that ‘Dharavi’s future is different from the slums in Ghana because Dharavi has the ability to grow organically through the entrepreneurial spirit that is being nurtured there.’ This observation isn’t limited to Dharavi, but is the energy that drives India. The deep-rooted ambition, innovation and risk-taking ability of my people set them apart. As an actor in India’s entrepreneurial story, the traits that define the country, define me. I’m an innovator; I practice the art of lateral thinking, of resilient creativity and of improvisation in the face of adversity. I enjoy trial-and-error and making things work with limited resources. I’m excited by opportunities with an element of risk, which I believe is critical to unraveling the complex challenges of today’s world. India’s tryst with ‘jugaad’, as one part of its entrepreneurial success, has deeply influenced my development in recent years.

My connection to India’s complex growth story is best described in these lines – ‘There are 2 India’s in this country. One India is straining at the leash eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been showering upon us. The other India is the leash. One India says give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. The other India says prove yourself first and maybe then you will have a chance….’ The two India’s are slowly drifting apart – one rich, the other poor; one living in luxury while the other struggles to sustain itself. The future of our country depends on closing this gap. My work in social enterprise aims to increase conversions from one India to the other side. I co-create sustainable solutions with grass-root innovators to transform the less advantaged to assertive customers, thus contributing to build a more sustainable growth curve for the country. I support enterprises that provide low-cost sanitary napkins to rural women, deploy easy-to-use water wheels in villages, and empower rickshaw pullers to be owners. Choosing social enterprise has been a natural career path. With all its challenges, I draw immense satisfaction and learning from my work. The India phenomenon and my choice to return to it, has been a profound influence on my thinking, learning and actions.

Vidyaranya 50 years

    “Believe nothing…
    …merely because you have been told it
    Or because it is traditional,
    Or because you have imagined it.
    Do not believe what your teacher tells you
    Merely out of respect for the teacher.
    But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis,
    You find to be conducive to the good,
    The benefit, the welfare of all beings
    That doctrine believe and cling to,
    And take it as your guide.”

    – The Buddha

Vidyaranya, a way of life that cherishes freedom, questions, diversity and friendship.
(As taken from the Vidyaranya 50 years publication)

What I learned at Vidyaranya | “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Recent allegations against Indian microfinance institutions (MFIs) by the media and the State have thrown sector stakeholders into a crisis. Accusations against MFIs include coercive practices, lack of transparency, and “usurious” interest rates. These accusations have resulted in the passage of an Ordinance by the State Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP). Intellecap, an India-based social business advisory firm and publisher of Microfinance Insights, has released a White Paper in response to the crisis. Thought-provoking and informative, the White Paper analyzes the buildup to the crisis in AP, attempts to revisit some fundamentals of the business, and questions the effectiveness of radical approaches to multiple bottom-line business by the State and the media. We welcome your comments.

Download Intellecap’s White Paper here.

(Credit: Microfinance Insights)

“While we will not forget the brutality of Apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against against the forces of evil. A triumph of of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old.” – Ahmed Kathrada, imprisoned for 26 years at Robben Island.

A short walk through Robben Island left me reeling from the blackness of oppression, despair and death that the place holds. Emerging to impart such generous wisdom after living in that environment for 26 years, fighting for dignity & life every hour of every day, is an indescribable legacy. Nine years later looking back, I realize that I still have a lot to learn from my experiences in South Africa.

‘a·part·heid’
Afrikaans : Dutch apart, separate (from French à part, apart; see apart) + Dutch -heid, -hood

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