Harsh Mariwala’s ‘Trust Groups’: Chicken Soup for the entrepreneurial soul

I believe an entrepreneur’s role through the enterprise journey transcends from ‘doing things’at the early stage, to ‘getting things done’ at the growth stage, and finally to ‘inspiring others into action as both the entrepreneur and his enterprise mature,

says Harsh Mariwala.

As Marico Ltd. matured, Harsh as also mindful about intumescing his role from entrepreneur to leader. At first, it was just Marico’s body of employees and stakeholders that benefited from his wisdom. Next came the idea of Marico Innovation Foundation as their Corporate Social Responsibility that cradles innovative social organisations and catapults them into great scale and greater impact.

Harsh identified two key areas where he wanted to channel his time, passion and learning — entrepreneurship and wellness. “From my own entrepreneurial experiences and through mentoring various entrepreneurs, I observed that scaling up — of self and enterprise — is where there are maximum blind spots for entrepreneurs. That’s when I arrived at the idea of creating a peer-to-peer learning platform where entrepreneurs can identify their own blind spots from each other’s experiences. Thus, ASCENT was conceptualised and formed,” says Harsh.

For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs

Founded in 2012, ASCENT is a not-for-profit catalytic peer-to-peer platform that creates a jamboree of startup entrepreneurs at different stages of their journeys and lives and divides them into ‘Trust Groups’ so that they can share, give, receive and learn from each other. With the added third-person perspective on their own problems, entrepreneurs can “focus on the solution, rather than the problem.”

“We carefully select entrepreneurs who are looking to ‘grow by design,and not by default,’” Harsh explains.

Selected members are segmented by enterprise stage and size for placement in Trust Groups of 8–12 members, to ensure cohesive discussions around shared concerns and complexities of their experiences — ranging from cost accountancy advisory, to strategic analysis of the marketplace, to emerging trends within global markets.Trust Groups are kept non-competitive by business and diverse in composition, to maximise degree of objectivity and confidentiality and keep biases and vested interests at bay.

The annual turnover for applicants with manufacturing or product-based businesses must be between Rs 2.5 and 50 crore to be in ASCENT’s strata A, and Rs 50 crore and above to fall under strata B. Similarly, services-based businesses must clock between Rs. 0.5 and 10 crore to fall under strata A, and Rs 10 crore and above for strata B.

Each Trust Group becomes an organism of its own, but only after ASCENT has intervened to ensure it has an efficient metabolism. Each ASCENT Trust Group is thus enabled and set up as a self-governing group with its own constitution, facilitators and active peripheral support from the larger ASCENT executive team and ecosystem.

Value you can see

Each Trust Group’s facilitator moderates the meetings for a one-year tenure. The group members also distribute roles among themselves. The Trust Groups meet every month and are fully in charge of their affairs, one of which is inviting ‘knowledge gurus’— individuals and firms with specific expertise, serving as enablers.

The only other time ASCENT intervenes is to provide active support through workshops on facilitation, lifeline exercises, periodic health check-ups, interventions for challenged Trust Groups, and access to domain experts or knowledge gurus. The last intervention can be in the form of “huddles with role models,” mixers, or retreats, which are organised regularly so that members from across the ecosystem get a chance to mingle.

The online portal, myASCENT.in, also helps the community interact. Besides, it provides its members exclusive access to the entrepreneurial platforms it partners with.

Sweta Mangal, founder of Ziqitza Health Care Ltd and former Marico employee invited to apply for membership by Harsh, is one of their oldest members and was part of one of the first Trust Groups formed. She describes how the sessions cover themes from banks’ and investors’ funding activity and ‘Inspiration’ by fellow entrepreneurs to‘Expertise’ from domain experts and ‘The Sounding Board’ delivered by advisors.

And value that you cannot

 ASCENT creates a no-judgment, confidential, and trusting environment.

As an entrepreneur, life is very lonely,” says Sweta.“There are so many questions that are unanswered and the frustration level keeps increasing. And you don’t know who to share it with. ASCENT provides you with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who are going through the same business challenges. They can understand and appreciate your woes and guide you, and over a period of time become your friends. I believe this group is like my board of advisors for my enterprise,” she adds.

The grind

In order to build an entire ecosystem and not just a mere programme, ASCENT approached large trade organisations, including any formal and reputed organisation that worked for entrepreneurs, brought outreach partners on board, participated in other events in the entrepreneurial space and industry specific events. Besides, ASCENT also held events of its own to gain traction.

However, one of the biggest challenges they encountered was that people were hesitant to commit to something which is lifelong, no matter how much it enabled them to scale up and enrich themselves as entrepreneurs. “The other challenges were the mindsets of the people — the concept of less ‘gyaan’ and more experience was not something that people were used to,” Harsh points out, adding, “so, the benefits of ‘power of collective’ and learning from diverse business owners were reiterated to overcome this bias.”

 ASCENT’s rise

Currently, ASCENT has over 24 Trust Groups, with 300 active members across diverse industries.

The plans to scale up include the ASCENT Conclave which is happening on November 26 in Mumbai, through which they intend to reach out to over 300 prospective member entrepreneurs in Mumbai and Pune. More such events, along with plans to enhance the referral system, are also on the cards.

The model will also encompass a coaching or mentoring session, very specific to bridging the gap in understanding cash flow, branding and marketing, funding, new marketing strategies, innovation techniques, how to retain talent or any specific challenge the entrepreneur is facing. Next year, they will also foray into a new city.


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