Vikash Kumar, Founder, Microfinance Focus
The Story of a Survivor
Six years ago, entrepreneur Vikash Kumar,also Executive Director of website Microfinance Focus, lived in a remote, 60-house village in Jharkhand, confused about what to do with his life. He would soon graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree and his family was urging him to choose a profession. But all the 22-year-old man saw around him was poverty. His village lacked basic amenities like electricity and paved roads. He had no mentor, saw no inspiration and possessed no specific skill or area knowledge. So he left home to explore greater opportunities.
Kumar arrived in Ahmedabad to study further. But just getting a higher qualification wasn’t enough. Most of Kumar’s education had been in Hindi. And during the entire course of his undergraduate degree, he didn’t attend a single class, he said. The government college had a dilapidated building, no teachers. He eventually received the degree but Kumar’s learning was virtually nil. He suffered from a lack of self-confidence.
So Kumar groomed himself with personality development classes and English lessons before enrolling at the Entrepreneurial Development Institute of India. Here, he obtained a post graduate diploma in rural management studies. “I don’t want to disconnect with my roots,” said Kumar explaining why he chose to study this field. He wanted to work in an area that allowed him to draw from his experience as a village native.
Having long harboured the desire to be involved with entrepreneurship, Kumar chose to work in microfinance, accepting a job with Grameen Koota. Kumar also wanted to work in an area that wasn’t just charitable but sustainable as well.
His social entrepreneur vigour led him search for openings within the microfinance sector where he can play a role and add value. Vikash realized that the industry is facing a gap in terms of communication. “This was one area where I thought I can contribute something and add some value”, he said.
In September 2008, Kumar moved away from Grameen to start www.microfinancefocus.com. “Money is just a by product. Entrepreneurship is about creating value,” he said.
Microfinance Focus, according to its steward is an evolving model. He did not initiate it with a strategy and has been improvising since then. “I have not planned it but learnt and improved along the way”, he said. Vikash believes that entrepreneurship is all about doing. In the process one learns and progresses.
Recalling the hurdles he faced during the initial stages of launching Microfinance Focus, Vikash said, “I didn’t have any skills in terms of running a media company, my skills were honed for NGO management which is very different from media management”. However, unfazed by lack of expertise, Vikash continued to cruise ahead and built a strong network of mentors who advised and supported his endeavour.
“I have learnt that if you are persistent in your efforts, market will trust you. People believe that you are going to do something in the long run and eventually they will start to support you, mentor you and connect with you”, Vikash said. His work started getting appreciated by the sector and in due course, Microfinance Focus became the sector’s voice.
Initial funding for Microfinance Focus came from Grameen Koota, a Bangalore based microfinance institution and later MicroSave, a leading research and technical assistance provider for financial services joined hands. In the meantime Microfinance Focus launched many services and aims to become fully sustainable within a year.
Microfinance Focus earns its revenue through posting advertisements on its website and offering a series of communication related services to the microfinance sector. Media partnerships with prominent conferences are another major source of revenue for Microfinance Focus.
Although running a web business in India has its challenges in terms of low acceptance amongst its population, Vikash is optimistic about its future prospects. “There is a positive change. People are now using one or the other web application and are getting more into digital mode of reading, he said.
The most essential thing for running a web business is to build a brand value for ones website, he believes. “You need to create an expanding base of readers and loyal customers and offer them quality content which is useful and updated”, he said.
Today, Kumar is also on the board of directors of P2P Microfinance and Allied Services and is a visiting faculty member at the University of Madrid where he teaches microfinance to postgraduate students. “It was a phenomenal experience,’ said Kumar speaking about his first stint as a teacher. It was also his first trip outside India. “My entire village celebrated,” he said with a smile. “The biggest thing is, you become a symbol for someone else. Especially for the emerging Indian from rural areas. India’s growth lies in rural areas. Rural area’s growth lies in entrepreneurship.”
Since its inception, Kumar’s website has grown into a global brand and is now well-recognized within the industry. The biggest problem with microfinance, according to Kumar, is a lack of clear communication of what is current within the field. Plenty of useful work is being done but little is known about it. “When you don’t communicate, people will think you are not transparent,” he said.
A defining moment in Kumar’s career was when he received the Solution Exchange Award in New Delhi in 2007. The framed certificate is displayed on a wall in his office. “The award is not a big thing but receiving it gave me tremendous confidence. I got this in front of industry leaders. This gave me acceptability in the sector.”
Kumar intends to continue working in microfinance, developing initiatives to give a voice to the poor and to help create entrepreneurs from rural areas. “The biggest problem among the poor is that they think they can’t do it. If you help them think that they can, that is a big help.”
Vikash foresees a greater opportunity waiting to be unleashed in the rural India and is looking forward to support rural entrepreneurs with his hands-on experience in social entrepreneurship. He aspires to connect entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid with the larger world by creating a strong network of people who are interested in funding and mentoring.
As an advice to young entrepreneurs who are planning to start something of their own, Vikash said, “One needs to stand out from the masses and be unique”. He believes that it is essential to hold on to ones excitement till the industry recognizes the exclusivity of one’s contribution. It is crucial to involve people and get benefited from their expertise and resources. Sharing which may always not be easy, is important to achieve excellence, he feels. “Propriety mode no longer works. You need to involve stakeholders, pay respect to them and at the same time uphold your vision”, he remarked.
Vikash also considers staying within the system as a smart choice for entrepreneurs and believes in growing within its bounds. “You can go out of the system and do many things but in the long run they are not sustainable”, he said.