Editor’s note: The following interview is part of an ongoing series for ThinkChange India where we speak to social entrepreneurs firsthand. The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with first-hand insights from groundbreaking changemakers. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab.
Success with early-stage ventures both in India and the US gives Pawan Mehra, co-founder of Intellecap and cKinetics, a unique perspective on US-India philanthropy and social enterprises. Mr. Mehra serves on the boards of a number of Indo-US enterprises and continues to advise a number of companies in Asia and the US. He is also actively involved with the Give Foundation, the largest online non-profit exchange connecting donors with projects in India, serving on its US board. ThinkChange India Managing Editor Shital Shah met with Mr. Mehra at SoCap09 to discuss his perspective on social enterprises and US-India philanthropy.Please note that Mr. Mehra’s answers below are not verbatim.
TC-I: Can you tell us a little bit about how your work fits in with the social capital market?
Pawan Mehra (PM): What used to be the realm of the development sector, things such as education for the poor, water and sanitation in rural regions, healthcare at the base of the pyramid, etc., are being taken on by private enterprise. One is seeing entrepreneurs come up with innovative means of tackling social challenges and still being profitable. Profitability implies sustainability and it also means that more entrepreneurs will be attracted into this space if the early movers are successful. The center of gravity right now for such enterprises is in India, and it will continue to keep moving there. At the same time, a lot of connections happen in the US (such as at places like SoCap). You see many of the investors interested in the region represented here.
Intellecap has been working with many of the enterprises mentioned above: helping them reach scale by providing a holistic range of services, ranging from operational consulting and support to helping them raise capital through the investment banking practice.
The idea for Intellecap was formed when Vineet (Rai) and I were roommates. We wanted an organization that allowed 30-35 year olds to take up management positions and shape outcomes.
TC-I: Besides Intellecap, which invests and consults with social enterprises, you are also involved with organizations that work at a grassroots level, through GIAN, SRISTI, and the Honey Bee Network. Can you tell us more your interest in these organizations?
PM: GIAN, SRISTI, etc were something I was engaged in briefly during and after my time at IIMA. They form part of the same larger ecosystem that Intellecap is a part of. Their goal also is to leverage innovations and enterprise to make an impact. And they have been very successful in scouting and identifying grassroots innovators across the globe through their various networks.
TC-I: What are current trends with regards to social enterprise in India?
PM: At last April’s Sankalp Forum, which focuses on the BOP, there were a few major learnings that could serve as a dip-stick on trends. There is a lot of appetite with healthcare and education enterprises. Financial inclusion is also an active area, so lots of innovation will happen there. Surprisingly, we did not see sufficient high-impact ventures being set-up in the area of agricultural or rural innovations.
TC-I: What relationship are you seeing between philanthropy in India and the US/Europe?
PM: First, to be clear, social enterprises and philanthropy are two different subjects: the former which operates in a for-profit mode to be sustainable and the latter being supported by grants. Till now we have discussed social enterprises. Organized philanthropy as a sector in India is very very nascent and there is very little comparison with the US at least, where the average household donates 2.5% of their annual income to non-profit institutions. That is unheard of in India. But I do see indications of things changing, especially with the local wealth creation that has happened since the late 1990s and more significantly the rising salary levels that we have seen in the last few years. Giving and engaging with the community is very different from there and from here.
TC-I: What are the main challenges with US-India philanthropy today? How would you characterize this field?
PM: There are a few factors affecting US-India philanthropy right now and by that I mean giving to activities in India from the US. First, it’s still only the usual suspects that are giving, not the vast majority. We need to expand the audience and get the vast majority engaged. Next, NRI giving (for secular purposes) through most of the NGOs present in the US is still small, my guess is less than $20 million, which raises the question of whether it’s effectively using the effort people (largely volunteers in the US) are putting in to fundraise. We know that the NRI community wants to make a difference in India. As a community we still have not found a way to engage and give back effectively to the causes in India. No doubt, we’ve made progress in the last 10-15 years. But some of us are impatient!