The Yourstory office on Saturday evening was home to some very engaging and meaningful discussions regarding social enterprises. The first of its kind YSMeetUp was organized in association with Collaborative Community to build momentum in the social sector and get views and feedback as to how this platform can be built. The two hour session was a small meetup of a curated crowd consisting of social entrepreneurs (yes, we’ll have to call them that), investors in the area, individuals working in rural India to make a difference and a few who’re planning to enter the sector.
Social entrepreneurship is always plagued with challenges of a different kind. Financial gain is never looked upon as a motive and this kind of reduces the bar for seriousness. It is more often than not looked upon as an NGO which is looking at just ‘giving’. But as we all know, it is a rather tricky situation as many are in the field because they want to make a change but also earn a good living and build a profitable organization.
Talking about starting up, the first topic to surface is funding. Getting financial support is tough and more so because what investors are looking for is a team, scale and technology. The first thing is plausible but scale and technology are always tricky. “When you look at rural India, the average electricity supply is half an hour a day and in this situation how can one even think of tablets and technology!” exclaimed a participant. Very true indeed and inspite of knowing this, most of us shy away because the effort required is huge and the gains are slow and low. And this is the very reason why investors don’t want their money to get stuck and the entrepreneurs can’t get started as they don’t have the backing. Chicken and Egg problem you’d say, yes sir, that is what it is.
Other thing is scale. The startup ecosystem is gaga over scaling up and we even had the very successful Techsparks 2012 themed around it but when one is talking social, the concept falls apart. There seems to be an inherent flaw that seems to be very hard to overcome. “Problems are very local and solving it can go deep and pervade throughout the area, but you can’t employ that in any other region. It is very region specific,” said an entrepreneur from his experience. Scaling up doesn’t seem to be the logical or the correct way forward and the investors accepted it to be a tricky situation.
Talking about challenges in the segment, hiring people and setting up processes came up as the toughest obstacles; be it a rural BPO or a distribution & supply chain company. One key takeaway is about design thinking. A participant of the meetup who has dealt with artisans shared her experience saying, “It’s more about understanding the thinking process of these people. Take for instance, weaving a tablemat. The rural folk who’re employed to do this don’t know what the mat is for? They have their meals on the floor and the whole concept of setting up a table is alien to them. But when you explain them the process and what they’re doing; they understand the whole thing. They themselves realize that embroidering the middle portion of the mat doesn’t make sense as it is going to remain beneath the plate anyways! This increases their productivity manifold.” It is very important to sit with the people and understand their thought process.
Moving on, a social enterprise builds products or services for people in the rural areas but are they really looking for it? It is more of a moral question when sometimes, one asks why are we trying to force things onto the population? Is there something to learn for the social entrepreneurs themselves, about how to live frugally? How to be ‘product’ independent? “People in rural areas are not really looking for a smokeless chulha or a product that will make their life easy. Most of the time, they’ll pick a INR 400 portable radio over an INR 200 Chulha that works with solar power!” said a participant. It becomes very important to know what they want. You cannot just force something that you think they need. The entire landscape is mind-numbingly different. Sometimes one is even left with the thought that should we just let it be?
On the encouraging side, the satisfaction one gets when you achieve some success is immense! When a social enterprise is recognized and is valued by the people for whom it is meant, there is nothing like it. The first meetup succeeded in bringing up some very deep conversation points and has shaped the way for many more ‘theme’ based meetings to follow. The next meetups which will be a monthly affair will have an agenda and a theme with an expert from that field.
Let’s build some momentum and keep the flag hoisted! Keep checking Yourstory Events for more updates.