Meet India’s top 10 social entrepreneurship heroes

Nelson Vinod Moses
posted on 15th August 2013
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When it comes to social entrepreneurship, India is often referred to as the epicenter of impact investing, and the world’s laboratory for testing new ideas. With a billion dollars waiting to be invested in social enterprises and success stories like Husk Power Systems, Rangsutra, dLight, Waterlife and Vaatsalya Healthcare regularly making the rounds in global social entrepreneurship circles, the country is clearly a very important market. Unlike other countries like the UK, Italy, Korea and Singapore where the agenda is being driven by government and large private enterprises (especially Korea), India’s journey into the world of social entrepreneurship has been led by the vision and energy of outstanding individuals. Today, on Independence Day, we salute 10 of these social entrepreneurship heroes who have shaped India’s tryst with social entrepreneurship. If we have inadvertently left out a luminary, apologies in advance.

Here they are, the top 10.

1) Mahatma Gandhi:

Why Gandhi? The Mahatma was a man obsessed with sustainability, being environment friendly, making the best use of local resources, growth of villages, power of cooperatives, promoting local industry and community-driven initiatives. If social entrepreneurs can be described as visionaries who solve old problems with new ways of thinking Gandhi certainly fits the bill.

He always spoke of growing local cottage industry, like Khadi, being self-reliant and having the community own enterprises. The best example of his insistence of leveraging local resources and not being depending on imports is his ‘Salt March’ to Dandi, where he called for local production of salt, after there was salt tax levied by the British. Gandhi’s love for Panchayat Raj, empowerment of women and ban of imports can be looked at as seeds of social transformation, sustainability and self-sustaining local communities.

2) Dr Verghese Kurien, father of the India’s milk revolution:

Tribhuvandas Kishibhai Patel might have founded The Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union (now better known as Amul) in 1946. But if it wasn’t for Varghese Kurien- who had just arrived from the US after pursuing a Master’s Degree- the co-operative would never have become a household name. Kurien’s contribution to the social entrepreneurship movement in India is monumental.

Thanks to Kurien’s foresight, planning and execution, India through the ‘white revolution’, went from a milk importing country to the world’s largest producer. In a career spanning close to 60 years, Kurien founded around 30 institutions of excellence like Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) and The National Dairy Development Board’s (NDDB).

3) Sanjit “Bunker” Roy, founder of Barefoot College.

In 1965, Roy was a young post graduate student from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, when he volunteered to spend the summer mapping 100 drought prone areas in famine-affected Palamu District, of Jharkhand (earlier part of Bihar). Roy was never the same following this experience and he made it his life’s mission to fight poverty and inequality thereon. He founded Social Works and Research Centre (SWRC) in 1972 to find ways to address rural poverty by using new models and strategies.

His first initiative was to address the water situation by making the villagers self-sustainable by setting up water pumps that were maintained by the villagers. These efforts through SWRC morphed into Barefoot College. Roy through Barefoot College trains villagers to adopt solutions in solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.

In 2010 Roy was recognized by TIME magazine in 2010 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people for training 3 million rural folk to be self-sufficient by providing them training, life skills and making them literate. Roy, incidentally is married to Aruna Roy- the woman who made the Right to Information Act a reality.

4) Anil Kumar Gupta, IIM-A professor and founder of Honeybee Network:

Gupta, a professor at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad since 1981, is a true advocate of the grassroots revolution. He’s famous for recognizing rural innovators, helping commercializing their inventions, protecting the intellectual property rights of inventors by filing patents and creating a knowledge network at different levels for augmenting grassroots innovations and inventions.

He is the founder of Honey Bee Network, fellow at the World Academy of Art and Science and is the executive vice chair of the National Innovation Foundation. Through the Honey Bee Network, and with the help of Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) Gupta converts grassroots innovations into viable commercial products. To date, his endeavors document more than 1,00,000 ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices.

Gupta organizes a biannual ‘Shodh Yatra’ that takes participants into different villages to learn more about ‘knowledge, creativity and inventions’ at the grassroots.

5) Harish Hande, co-founder Selco Solar:

Hande, co-founded Selco in 1995, to bring renewable energy solutions to India’s poor. When he first started he had problems with creating awareness about solar and had to install the first lighting solutions free of cost to demonstrate its value. Selco’s impact since then? In the past 18 years more than 1.35 lakh solar home lighting systems have been installed. His stellar efforts has won him Asia’s ‘Nobel’ prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2011, for “his pragmatic efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor, through his social enterprise SELCO India.”

Hande’s genius has been his efforts to not just sell solar lighting solutions, but creating an entire ecosystem around it, including tie-ups with banks, NGOs and farmer co-operatives for innovative financing, creation of income generation activities using solar, high-quality products and superior after sales service.

Hande has adopted an open platform for growth, and has created the Selco Incubation Centre, where he mentors other social entrepreneurs to empower them to do exactly what he’s done. To date the centre has mentored four social entrepreneurs, with another six currently going through the mentoring process.

Hande has also started Selco Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Selco, which seeks to provide the rural poor with renewable energy services, that can be leveraged for income generating activities.

6) Dr. G. Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Hospital:

Dr. Venakataswamy (also known as Dr V) founded Aravind Eye Hospital in 1976 as a way to provide affordable eye-care to the millions who had no access to quality healthcare. From its humble origins of a 11-bed clinic manned by 4 medical officers, it has grown into one of the world’s largest facilities for quality eye-care. The story goes that Dr. Venkataswamy very nearly did not become a doctor because he developed rheumatoid arthritis when he had enrolled in the Indian Army Medical Corps, which was so severe that he was unable to hold a pen. He returned to medical school, earned his degree and ended up doing 100 surgeries a day at his peak.

Aravind Eye Hospital demonstrated that you could provide quality eye-care at prices that couldn’t be imagined in the past through innovation. “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must also be the joy of doing something beautiful. Being of service to God and humanity means going well beyond the sophistication of the best technology, to the humble demonstration of courtesy and compassion to each patient,” said Dr Venkataswamy of his work.

To date, his hospital has attended to 32 million patients and performed nearly 4 million eye surgeries, majority of them being low-cost or free.

7) Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder of Airtel:

Wondering what telecom mogul Mittal is doing in a list of social entrepreneurs? Simple, there are many who consider his company Bharti Airtel, as India’s largest social enterprise for putting the power of telecom in the hands of the poor. Mittal is the secret social entrepreneur in this top 10 list. His ingenuity lay in driving down costs of mobile telephony that allowed for the poor to use mobiles for news, information, entertainment and keeping in touch. Farmers can now receive crop and weather related information over the phone, blue-collar workers can search for new, higher paying jobs and fishermen can get a better price for their catch.

Currently Mittal’s Airtel is involved in a huge push into rural areas, this will lead to more rural folk becoming part of the information revolution. His company has more than 188 million subscribers who enjoy voice and data services, out of which 84 million are based in the hinterland. Besides his work with Airtel, Mittal also set up the Bharti Foundation in 2000, to do philanthropic work in the area of education and empowering youth from low-income communities through entrepreneurship.

8) Vineet Rai, founder of Aavishkaar:

Rai could be the most important man in the world of Indian social entrepreneurship at present. He is founder and the CEO of India’s first social venture firm Aavishkaar Venture Management Service and also co-founder and chairman of Intellecap, a provider of business solutions for social enterprises. His inspiration to start Aavishkaar came when he was the CEO of Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN), an incubator for rural innovations and ventures.

Rai was a visionary, because when he started Aavishkaar in 2001 with a seed capital of Rs 1 lakh, there wasn’t any precedent to investing in social enterprises.  He has nurtured plenty of social enterprises by investing in them including rangSutra (art and craft producer), Vaatsalya Healthcare (an affordable hospital chain based in semi-urban and rural areas) and Waterlife (affordable water solutions for the poor). Besides making good investments, Rai had taken it upon himself to boost India’s social entrepreneurship ecosystem through a series of initiatives.

Through Intellecap, Rai is instrumental in organizing Sankalp-Unconvention Summit, Asia’s largest conference on social entrepreneurship. In recent years he helped kickstart India’s first angel network of high net worth individuals and institutional investors- Intellecap Impact Investment Network (I3N) and India Impact Investor Council (IIIC) that is seeking to lay down the standards for impact investing in India so that it doesn’t befall the same fate of the microfinance industry during the ‘Andhra crisis’ in 2010.

9) Vikram Akula, founder of SKS Microfinance:

Akula founded SKS Microfinance in 1998 to provide micro-loans and insurance, and within a period of 12 years (does not include a brief hiatus to McKinsey), had taken the company to a blockbuster IPO of $347 million in 2010. His roots in microfinance went back to the time when as a Fulbright Scholar in India in 1994-95, Akula led a government-funded action-research project that provided micro-credit to poor farmers for food security. Prior to which he was named in Time’s list of 100 most influential people in 2006.

Since the microfinance controversy that involved his company SKS Microfinance, and his acrimonious exit from the very company he founded, Akula has made very few public appearances and largely stayed away from making public appearances. The reason why Akula makes this list is very simple. He showed India and the world that social enterprises can achieve enormous scale. We won’t go into debating the methods that were used by SKS Microfinance in gunning for growth or the ethics of profiting from the poor. Akula, for all criticism, had his heart in the right place when he started the company.

10) Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda (better known as Sam Pitroda), chairman, National Innovation Council:

Pitroda is not your topical social entrepreneur hero, but he makes the cut for the work that he put in for more than 4 decades, in areas like telecom and information technology leading to him being commonly referred to as the ‘Father of India’s communication revolution.’  He was the technology advisor in the 1980s, to the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, during which he heralded the telecom revolution in India. Having enjoyed an illustrious career, in the past, he has been an advisor to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovations and chairman of the National Knowledge Commission.

Currently he is the driving force behind the National Innovation Council, the council tasked with driving innovation in the country, by adopting the principles of inclusive growth. Some of the interesting initiatives that Pitroda is driving through the council is the setting up of a Rs 5,000 crore venture fund for social ventures, the open government data drive and the Planning Commission organized hackathons.

The Rs 5,000 crore India Inclusive Innovation Fund plans to invest in social enterprises that are driving innovation at addressing problems at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP). Pitroda believes that the data.gov.in (open government data) initiative will help tap the power of the developer community to build apps that will be helpful in different sectors like education, healthcare and government social welfare schemes. “Today we have over 3,500 sets of data but in next six months we would like to see that this goes up to 10,000 data sets and we would like to challenge developer community to make at least 100 applications in next month to use this data,” remarked Pitroda at the launch of data.gov.in

Photo credit: www.rediff.com


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