eCoexist is one such social enterprise that has been promoting eco-sensitive products through socially sensitive means since 2006 under the leadership of talented entrepreneur Manisha Gutman, she spoke to Yourstory and told us about eCoexist she says "eCoexist was formed to answer a need for eco sensitive products in the Indian markets. While organic food and natural cosmetics have already been accepted in the mainstream, non food items that are eco sensitive are yet to be given the attention they deserve."
"eCoexist focuses on designing natural alternatives to materials such as plastic and thermocole for every day use items such as bags and utensils. We also look at the links between festivals and nature conservation, offering eco sensitive products to celebrate Indian festivals with. All our products are completely non polluting and are made through socially sensitive means. They provide income to groups such as women prisoners and women living in slums. Additionally, we work with designers to ensure a high level of aesthetic and superior quality. "
Manisha elaborated on the impact and reach of her company she said "eCoexist aims to address environmental issues and social concerns. Our products benefit a range of clients all over the country for eg. our Holi colours have gone to ten Indian cities as well as Indian communities abroad. The production of the products is done via unprivileged groups and we have a network of partner NGOs whose members earn from our work. We work with the women at the Yerawada Central Jail in Pune, bringing several income generation projects to them as well."
Their business is thus not only one that addresses environmental issues but also has a social purpose, she explained further saying "Our business model recognizes the need for environment education and social responsibility. We are unique in the sense that community service forms the basis of all that we do. Our priorities are environmental solutions, social responsibility and financial sustainability. The business model involves partnerships with research and education groups, socially unprivileged groups and marketing networks. These partnerships are established on a basis of common values, transparent agreements and trust. eCoexist is inspired by the principles of trusteeship wherein all members of the enterprise are involved as stakeholders. The core members of eCoexist offer several years of voluntary work before expecting financial gain from the company. "
From such a venture one can expect that expansion is a feature that they would be most interested in. We asked that what their plans are for growing and reaching other parts of India. Manisha replied "Since our products are handmade and labour intensive, we will be strengthening our network of partners by offering trainings to several NGOs in Pune and other cities. We also plan on tie ups with large companies to handle aspects of their processes that are labour intensive, while being completely eco friendly. We have several new ideas on eco-sensitive products to develop in the pipeline and shall be designing and promoting these in the coming years."
There is a certain amount of history behind every individuals choice to take up the entrepreneurial life style, and Manisha was no different she says "The choice of my work has been in response to the needs of my society. Having worked with an NGO for several years and also tackled the issue of organic food I saw a clear need for developing ecosensitive products. I felt inspired to take up the challenge of creating an enterprise that was serving the community while simultaneously proving its profitability. Having taken the leap, I have had a lot of support from colleagues, primarily Lolita Gupta and Abida Khan, and my family, whose efforts have been as intense as mine, to make this enterprise work. Creating eCoexist gave me the space to be creative, the opportunity to earn as well as the challenge of doing something new and exciting."
"The biggest challenge in eCoexist is the fact that everything we do involves several stake holders. Bringing everyone to the same table to agree on terms is challenging. This involves trust building and patience. It also involves education and awareness raising. Additionally, since our producer groups change constantly we have to do a lot of capacity building to maintain our level of quality. "
"Communication is key to overcoming this challenge and we have clear and open discussions with all our producer groups, assuring them that we share their concerns, while looking for a win win solution for everyone. Our enthusiasm is contagious and our high level of spirit and energy inspires all the people we work with, from jail authorities to store owners! We are happy to share the success we receive both in terms of the limelight, giving credit where it is deserved as well as financial benefits on a fair term. "
Every Entrepreneur has a business lesson to learn from a mistake. As they say its only a failure if you do not learn from your mistake, Manisha also learnt valuable lessons from her follies, she says "As we are all ‘learning on the job’, mistakes are inevitable. However, since we consider every experience as a learning opportunity, nothing is really a ‘mistake’! Our challenge areas involve mistakes in marketing strategies. Taking financial risks is also tricky since we started with a very modest capital. Recently, we earned the ire of one of our retailers due to lack of timely communication. Inspite of our several apologies, he refused to do business with us and this set us back substantially.
However, it led to development of new partnerships with others and therefore we took it in our stride. Since our work involves a lot of pressure around timelines of festivals, keeping cool under pressure is also a challenge and can lead to ‘errors’! "
The seed capital for eCoexist came from personal savings and family. It was Rs 100.000/- The initiative started in a small way with an experiment with a women’s collective in Karnataka. To begin with it was a one person operation. Manisha says "The first year we made about 100 kgs of Holi colours. Three years later, we are producing and selling much more colors. We have expanded to include several other product lines. We have additional partners and 2 employees. We have associates in all the major metros. We have built alliances with several retail stores and chains."
"Having said this, eCoexist does not measure its growth or success merely through these numbers. The true measure of our success is the impact on society at large. Providing meaningful livelihoods that create a stake for rural India in conserving the environment is one. Providing alternatives that displace more harmful and destructive materials is the other. However the much bigger picture, is the creation of alternative economic models for engaging with society that are built on the principles of social equity and justice and care for nature. We hope to make ECoexist a template for how to build and sustain ideas that are good for the Earth."
The ever present problem of finances weigh like the sword of Damocles on Manisha's head and she is tempted to find a regular job but she says "Financial concerns often bring up this feeling, but it would be really difficult to find the thrill and freedom that eCoexist gives us in a regular job. In times of financial stress, we try to find ways of simplifying our needs to stay with our goals."
So what does she consider to be the biggest feather in their cap, she replied "Our outreach. Through the website we have been able to reach out to Indian communities all over the world, touch their hearts and help them make appropriate choices vis-à-vis nature."
"The uniqueness of our work has brought us tremendous recognition. We have never had to advertise because of the support our work receives from the media. eCoexist has been featured on television channels like Arté in Europe and all over the national press and radio and television networks. In May 2009, eCoexist has been invited by the United Nations to participate in a discussion on Business and Biodiversity in New York. "
She is also highly motivated and her core group also shares her beliefs, Lolita Gupta, Abida Khan, Bhushan Krishnan, Mona Doctor, Rohit Kanaglekar, and Natalie Leesk all identify with her aims. She says "The core group of eCoexist are all deeply spiritual people. We share a common faith in Gandhiji's teaching ‘Find purpose, the means will follow’. The rewards of social entrepreneurship go much beyond financial profit, bringing us a sense of fulfillment and meaning. Also, our definition of success is different in the sense that we define our success by the quality of our experiences and the joy we are able to nourish within ourselves and spread to others. Just like the cycles of Nature, we watch the waves of success and failure with detachment, knowing that if the tide is going out it will always turn around and come in! "
She has achieved a lot and any other individual would perhaps mention awards or accolades as their most notable recognition but not her, she says "I consider the faith that people invest in me as my most prestigious award. eCoexist is growing to include brilliant and talented people with fantastic hearts and we have won the trust of a range of clientele. This is possibly the best blessing an entrepreneur could ask for."
"Personally, the awards I have received include being on the merit list in the 12th standard exams in Mumbai, as well as a recent award from the Rotary Club in Pune for my environmental work on festivals."
Finally she wished to reach out to our Young Indian Entrepreneurs saying "This is what I would say to young entrepreneurs: No idea is too small to develop, as long as you nourish it with dedication and passion. Your success is the inner joy you feel when you follow your heart, recognition is secondary. Offer back to society what you receive and your gains will multiply endlessly. "