Tipping Point for Social Enterprises
View from the sidelines from Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy
If we have to sum up Madura Microfinance Sociopreneurship India 2010, we borrow from what Sandeep Farias, MD, Elevar Equity, told us: “We have reached a tipping point” when asked about social enterprises in India. If there is one trend that is new to this sector, it is this: Anup Akkhihal of Logistics for Global Good, Inc. is embarked upon revolutionizing the rural supply chain through the mobile phones. He has quit his high-flying career in major corporates before embarking on a social venture. Ram and Smita Ram of Rang De, a microlending institution, also quit their high-paying jobs as they entered this sector. The trend of such people capable of thinking change by quitting their cushy jobs and having the guts to dirty their hands in the social enterprise sector is widely visible today. CNBC-TV18 Young Turks, hosted by CNBC-TV18’s executive editor Shereen Bhan for nearly nine years now, has showcased many of them.
Someone from the audience asked the panel on “For Profit or Not for Profit?” if a mobile phone company can be considered a social enterprise as it reaches out to a huge rural population, to which Brij Mohan, Father of Microfinance in India (the former SIDBI chairman thought it necessary to reach out to needy people with a microloan), replied that only if an enterprises has social good as its basic objective and is founded on that objective, they call be called social enterprises. Social enterprises, for-profit or not-for-profit, need to have an underlying social change or social good as its objective.
Panel discussions—Interesting take-aways and meaningful discussions
The day started on a bit of a quiet note and it was the first panel discussion that got the audience going. Dr. Tara Thiagarajan’s (chairperson of our title sponsor Madura Microfinance) keynote on “social” in the social enterprises was heard with rapt attention and a luminary panel—entrepreneurs (Dr. Tara, Ramesh Ramanathan of Janalakshmi), corporates (Geeta Goel from Dell and Rahul Bose from Intel), ecosystem player (Rwituja Gomes Mookherjee of British Council), expert (Mr. Brij Mohan, a consultant on social sector now but Father of Microfinance in India credited with starting the first microloan lending in SIDBI), and investor (Ganesh Rangasamy, MD, Lok Capital)—debated on opportunities and challenges of social enterprises. Rahul Bose narrated a story of how a few entrepreneurs thought to replicate the AMUL model in Jharkhand. They started helping the beneficiaries buy cows to milk them. But in a few days, the cows disappeared. It then dawned on them that in Jharkhand, it is common to eat cow’s meat rather than milk them. This conveyed the dangers of widely adopting a model that is successful elsewhere without applying mind to customer needs in that particular location.
N.S. Ramnath of Forbes India moderated the first panel and was actively assisted by Shradha Sharma, founder of YourStory. Shradha was keen to know key learnings for entrepreneurs and was seeking tips from the panelists for entrepreneurs. Ramesh Ramanathan said that he has no advice to give but said 90% of the ventures fail. An entrepreneur is likely to face challenges along the way and he or she should relentlessly pursue the path of entrepreneurship.
The second panel had an array of investors—Alok Mittal of Canaan Partners, Kanwaljit Singh of Helion Ventures, and Sandeep Farias of Elevar Equity—and adding to the intellectual capital were Eric Savage, President of Unitus, Dr. L.N. Manjunath, founder of Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP), and Sujit Jain, founder of Netsurf Communications. This panel debated on for-profit or not-for-profit model for social enterprises. Shereen Bhan moderated the panel and was eliciting views on the best model from the panelists. Sandeep Farias actively put forth his point. He said that he had seen so many product companies focused on rural areas and their weak go-to-market strategy is the only reason why he has not invested in any of them.
The 15 pitches
The 15 pitches rolled out for over two hours with the jury questioning everything from business model to revenue generation to assumptions of the presenting entrepreneurs. We will separately cover all the 15 presentations.
When asked what the entrepreneurs would have done better, Dr. Manjunath said the dress code has to match the rural audience. With a kurtha, you can perhaps strike a chord with rural audience rather than reaching out to them in suits. Dr. Manjunath runs the most profitable charitable trust with no external funding and equity participation. His journey is an inspiration for entrepreneurs on what is possible.
Social entrepreneurship could no longer be a disheartening journey
To sum up, Shereen Bhan said: “a social entrepreneur once said entrepreneurship is a lonely journey and social entrepreneurship is a lonely and disheartening journey.” This is surely changing. Social enterprises with a for-profit model is not only capable of bringing about meaningful changes like financial inclusion, mainstream participation of rural population, affordable services to rural areas, and urban benefits to rural people like insurance, healthcare, and a host of others, it is also capable of generating profits and at the same time change the very landscape of India.