This is a guest post by Jeanne Chen. Jeanne shares her experience as a fellow at Villgro.Jeanne is a graduate of Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania, with a B.A. in International Studies and a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School of Business. She has prior experience in the sectors of management consulting, microfinance and non-profit youth education.
On paper, the Villgro fellowship sounds a lot like the management consulting job I had left – creating business plans and developing growth strategies – with rural start-ups in place of large corporate clients. But during the past month of induction, I quickly came to realize that while many of the management theories were applicable, the practical challenges faced in developing a social enterprise are entirely new. I’m elated, because these operational challenges are exactly the reason why I took the fellowship.
Last month, the fellows were guided through a comprehensive training schedule, designed to orientate us to the social enterprise sector. Even having previously worked in the Indian microfinance sector, the rural innovation models still presented a new set of learning – the last mile challenge for sales of large agricultural products is unique. It was an eye-opening trip when the fellows went to the field to visit Villgro’s rural retail stores in Gobichettipalayam, Tamil Nadu.
This retail start-up is working to create a financially viable distribution channel to provide peripheral agricultural products to farmers. While any marketing class will tell you that choosing the appropriate distribution channel is essential to the successful launch of a product, it’s taken for granted in the developed world that such a channel exists. In the developing world, and in particular the rural sector, where basic infrastructure (i.e., roads) is missing, distribution channels are non-existent. Seeing the Villgro retail stores contextualized just how difficult this last-mile challenge is.
The questions of how to build this distribution channel, build awareness of need, deliver products to those who need them most, and do it in a low-cost manner, seem to lie at the center of the operational challenges of many rural start-ups.
Also as part of the training, the fellows were exposed to the high-level theories of some successful social entrepreneurship models (e.g., pay-per-use, paraskilling, etc.) and then had the opportunity to meet with incubatees and organizations who have implemented these models. As with the last-mile distribution channels, being able to see these models in practice was a valuable learning experience that cannot be gained anywhere else.
The gap between theory and implementation is huge and bridging this gap is a skill of great value – often the defining quality between a successful and unsuccessful venture. This also happens to be a skill is undervalued and missing from the business school repertoire and thus is even more valuable to me.
As I begin my fellowship project with Coir Atlas, an eco-friendly alternative to the wood products used for steel transportation, I anticipate running into the obstacles identified above. Coir Atlas is a revolutionary jute and bamboo product, which has the potential to have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of the steel transport industry as well as the employment of women in rural Jharkhand. Together with the inventor of Coir Atlas, we are working to develop a robust revenue model and for a sustainable business.
Recognizing the importance of challenges to an enterprise’s success was the first lesson, and finding solutions to overcome them will be the second. For me, the true value of the hands-on experience condenses to those two lessons. All of my business school classes and management consulting experience provide only an incomplete skill set, which I expect the practical operational experience of the fellowship project to complement. And it’s a given that along the way and into the future, hopefully all of these experiences will also allow me to have a positive social impact.