US-based Upaya is betting big on Indian social ventures, has invested in 12 so far


Entrepreneurs who will be the part of the Upaya 2017 Accelerator Programme can pitch and raise investment from Upaya Social Venture and other investors, benefit from one-on-one mentorship, and get the opportunity to interact with industry experts. 

During her long stint in the microfinance space, Sachi Shenoy worked closely with small business entrepreneurs across both urban slums and rural villages. She found that entrepreneurs from those areas struggled owing to the lack of access to capital. Many of them ran bigger businesses and needed investments larger than what the microfinance institutions serving in those areas could offer.

This gave her the idea of empowering these entrepreneurs through access to large amounts of funding. She believed that sums between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 50 lakh would help such businesses scale and, in turn, create hundreds of jobs for the local poor. Says Sachi,

“The problem was that no funder existed to cater to these businesses. Time and time again, I would see businesses stagnate and sometimes fold—they were starved for capital—and unemployment, and hence extreme poverty, would stubbornly persist in these areas.”

An Economics graduate with an MBA in finance and entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago, Sachi spent three years at Unitus Seed Fund, where she served as Director of Global Programs and led the Social Performance Management Implementation Project (SPMIP) and Sorenson/Unitus Ultra Poor Initiative.

Prior to Unitus, Sachi served as area manager at SKS Microfinance, leading the organisation's entry into the New Delhi urban microfinance market.

The team at Upaya Social Ventures.

Sachi founded Upaya Social Ventures in 2011, and till date, the venture has invested in and provided mentorship and guidance to 12 Indian companies, including Krishi Star, Parvata Foods, Karmantik, Saahas, Maitri, Elrhino, Tamul Plates, Samdidhi and Drishtee. Besides, they claim to have created 4,000 jobs through these companies.

Upaya's Investment philosophy

Upaya Social Ventures invests only in Indian social ventures for now, given the extreme poverty in the country. This year, they have received over 60 applications from a wide variety of ventures, out of which they have selected eight.  Kate Cochran, CEO, Upaya Social Networks, says,

“So far, we have invested in and worked with 12 companies in a one-by-one model. Our new approach is to work with groups of eight to 12 companies at a time before we invest in them. For each group, we imagine making one to three investments.”

Upaya recently announced the launch of its 2017 Accelerator Programme. The eligibility criteria for the programme would be:

  • Applicants would have to be for-profit, early-stage ventures that have started generating revenue or have established proof of concept.
  • They must have a business model that provides job placement, skilling opportunities, and organised sector benefits to manpower sourced from the poorest of the poor communities.
  • They should have availed of limited (less than Rs 50 lakh) or no institutional funding.
  • They must have a strong commitment towards creating jobs for the poorest communities in India, now and in the future.

Entrepreneurs participating in the programme can pitch and raise investment from Upaya and other investors, receive one-on-one mentorship from an expert, and get the opportunity to interact with industry experts and those in the areas of marketing, financial planning, organisation building, and fundraising during three week-long workshops in major metros.

Upaya’s investments so far have been in agriculture and agri-processing, labour-intensive manufacturing, skills-training, and job placement (with a focus on blue-collar jobs). Headquartered in Seattle, the organisation has an office in New Delhi as well.

Mentoring startups

This year, they are enhancing the advisory support by matching entrepreneurs with industry experts in the Upaya network to monitor their progress through the accelerator programme and focus on fine-tuning their pitch to investors. They are also bringing in subject matter experts to advise on areas like financial management, human resources/recruiting, and sales techniques, to name a few.

Sreejith Nedumpully, Director, Upaya lays emphasis on the portfolio diversification, which covers startups from non-metros and smaller cities. He pointed out that, in their current portfolio, they have four startups from Northeast India.

The Upaya Accelerator Programme consists of three residential workshops of one week each, spread over six months. These programmes will focus on product and customer; finance and HR; and scaling up strategy, business plan, and investor pitch, respectively.

“The idea is to provide each entrepreneur with critical feedback in all key aspects of their business and then help them prioritise and incorporate this feedback into their business. Each entrepreneur will have a dedicated mentor in addition to the Upaya team to help them in this,” says Sachi.

Entrepreneurs can also interact with experts and investors and develop a strong peer network.

In addition, the Upaya team will review the month-on-month business performance of these companies during these six months, and will also help them with various tools and systems to manage their businesses more effectively.

For each workshop, they include 15-20 experienced entrepreneurs and investors who share their framework and advice.

In 2017, they will be running an accelerator programme focused on formalising informal sector jobs. And by 2018, they expect to launch at least two more such programmes: one on agribusiness-based companies and another focused on rural manufacturing, targeting agri and agro-processing startups working with small and marginal farmers and manufacturing companies in labour-intensive sectors with a strong product focus, respectively.

Website: Upaya Social Ventures


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