Villgro Unconvention: the Ecosystem Connection for Social Entrepreneurs
View from the sidelines by Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy
The Rural Innovations Network, after six years, became Villgro Innovations Foundation in 2009. Its founder Paul Basil is a remarkably reticent man. Despite path-breaking innovations flowering out of this nonprofit organization funded by Lemelson Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation and a host of others, Villgro seems to have got little of what is due. But Villgro has made the right moves and continues to do so. Three companies that were incubated by Villgro have gone on to become self-sustaining businesses. Many from its impressive list of other incubated innovations are waiting to become profitable businesses. In that way, Villgro is truly a social organization with its heart at the right place. Can an organization have a heart? Yes. Villgro incubates innovations that impact rural poor. Its mandate is to “productize” these innovations and build a viable business out of them.
Unconvention, the annual flagship event of Villgro, seeks to provide a platform for social entrepreneurship. Started last year, the event has generated great interest among the social entrepreneurial ecosystem players. The thought that has gone behind designing the Unconvention platform itself speaks volumes about Villgro’s focus. All the essentials of reaching out to the social entrepreneurs are rightly fit into this two-day event.
Starting with Wantrapreneur (business plan competition for startups), the Unconvention covers a wide span of social enterprise ecosystem. Wantrapreneur encourages the startups with a Rs. 4 lakh, Rs. 2 lakh, and Rs. 1 lakh prize. These three prizes are awarded by an eminent jury. Villgro Awards in seven categories (lifetime achievement, social enterprise, investor, incubator, grassroot innovator, media, and journalist) encourage the ecosystem players with a cash award. Recognition from an organization with heart, Villgro, adds its own sheen to your achievements. This year, Shradha Sharma, founder of YourStory, was awarded the journalist of the year. In the acceptance speech, she reflected upon her journey for two years, struggling alone and with little recognition in the initial days. This award is in a way a recognition for YourStory, which has showcased entrepreneurial spirit across India and across sectors. “I need this award, but I also deserve it,” said Shradha.
The Summit part of the Unconvention provides food for thought. This year, apart from threadbare analysis of social entrepreneurship in India along with challenges of incubation, impact investment, and opportunities for innovations, workshops of real value to social entrepreneurs in the areas of investment, law, and impact analysis were included in the agenda. The participants felt these workshops were of real use.
The Investor Forum, in which selected social entrepreneurs pitch to investors, provides the right connections for investors as well as social enterprises. Eight investors, in a jury style, listened to 10 shortlisted pitches. We learn from our sources that at least three are likely to be funded.
Innohub is a showcase of innovations from enterprises that have established businesses. If you were to question what is the outcome of all the noise generated in the social enterprise sector of late, this showcase provides real answers. Many of the companies showcasing this year have not only been able to fulfil real needs of customers, but have gone a step beyond to help them plan better. Skymet, which provides weather forecast, helps farmers plan their crop. It has established itself as a reliable weather forecasting institution.
Put in a nutshell, Unconvention is the yearly one-stop stop for social enterprises. The entrepreneurs need knowledge to grow, investments to scale, and an opportunity to showcase their products/services. All this is made available under one roof in the two-day Unconvention. This besides, Villgro chooses to award the ecosystem players who have contributed to social entrepreneurship.
If Paul Basil calls it the celebration of social entrepreneurship, he seems to be on target. Social entrepreneurs struggle to find a voice and hardly find a platform to celebrate. The trend of recognizing social enterprises has emerged in the last year at least. But Unconvention can claim to have done it first last year. For YourStory too, Villgro has provided an adrenalin shot to carry forward our work. “Villgro is doing phenomenal work and this award gives us inspiration to carry our stories,” said Shradha in her acceptance speech. What more to conclude Villgro’s celebration of social entrepreneurship!