From entrepreneurship to the environment: Bangalore BizLitFest 2020 speakers share tips for changemakers
At the end of October, the sixth annual Bangalore Business Literature Festival (BBLF) will kick off online. As media partner for the festival, YourStory shares insights from four speakers in this preview article.
See also YourStory’s Book Review section with reviews of over 270 titles on creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation, social enterprise, and digital transformation.
Speakers at BBLF include Rohit Bhargava (author of Non-Obvious Trends), Prateek Raj (Evolution of Business and Markets), Rahul Chandra (The Moonshot Game), and Sudhir Sitapati (The CEO Factory). In addition to book launches and workshops, the winner of the BBLF CK Prahalad Best Business Book Award will be announced.
See our reviews of the books Social Entrepreneurship in India, Doing Better with Less, Eight Steps to Innovation, and Why I Stopped Wearing my Socks, written by speakers Madhukar Shukla, Navi Radjou, Rishikesha Krishnan, and Alok Kejriwal.
The event charges only a nominal fee, and is expected to attract around 3,000 participants, according to Benedict Paramanand, founder of BBLF and author of CK Prahalad: The Mind of the Futurist.
See also YourStory’s write-ups on the earlier editions of the festival in 2019 (skills, entrepreneurship, storytelling), 2018 (storytelling, founder tips), 2017 (entrepreneurship, failure insights, founder stories), 2016 (grassroots entrepreneurship, startup ecosystems) and 2015 (business models, startup boom, storytelling).
Resilience during the pandemic
The BBLF speakers shared their observations on resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has turned the world upside down.
“The response of local communities and organisations, which stepped up for food relief during the lockdown in India, especially women’s grassroots organisations, was outstanding,” said Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University and author of Canopies and Cities, in a chat with YourStory. She pointed to Kudumbashree in Kerala and the Deccan Development Society in Telengana as notable examples.
“Anyone who has not let the fear of the pandemic stop him or her from performing an essential function or doing a good turn is an example of resilience,” added Meghaa Gupta, author of Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India.
She commended medical professionals, security guards, delivery personnel, and social workers in this regard. “We've had several examples in the papers. They have given me much hope,” she said.
A number of other examples were cited by TN Hari, author of Say No to Jugaad: The Making of Big Basket (see my book review here). “CSR funds were all diverted to the ‘PM Cares’ fund during the pandemic. Therefore, several NGOs that depended upon CSR money have been under tremendous stress, along with their supported communities,” he explained.
“One organisation I know that coped beautifully with this is Labournet,” he added. It repurposed its capabilities to create new employment avenues around new services that became relevant in the post-pandemic world, such as sanitisation of vehicles.
“I know several startups that saw demand suddenly shrink and revenues dropped steeply as soon as the lockdown hit, but many of them stayed the course and revenues are now picking up,” Hari said.
But he also knows a few startups that had to shut despite everything they did. “These entrepreneurs are now waiting to bounce back either with a new idea or the same idea if conditions change,” he added.
Serial entrepreneur and investor Madan Padaki, Co-founder of 1Bridge and Charter Member at TiE Bangalore, shared some of his own experiences during the pandemic. His work is in the area of empowering ‘ruban’ (rural-ruban) consumers and entrepreneurs.
“I have experienced the pandemic setbacks first hand at 1Bridge – from literally no business in April to delivering 1.5 million packages in July, in the midst of the pandemic. This has been a huge revelation to me with respect to the strength and resilience of the on-ground teams,” he recalled. The way team leaders of every district galvanised their teams was unbelievable.
From start to scale
Some of the speakers addressed the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from startup to mature firm.
TN Hari identified nine dimensions of scaling, where entrepreneurs face challenges in their journeys. These are size of market opportunity, being part of a megatrend, founder ambition, foundation building, making a few great strategic choices, executing strategically, being maniacally customer-centric, building a great culture, and developing the right human capital practices.
“How an entrepreneur can address each of these challenges is a chapter in itself,” Hari explained. They are covered in detail in his next book, From Pony to Unicorn: Scaling a Startup Sustainably.
The situation gets more complicated for social entrepreneurs, where a larger human impact is key in addition to business gain. “Any entrepreneur goes through three phases in their journey,” Madan Padaki explained.
These three phases are I will do it, I will get it done, and It will happen. “Typically founders get stuck in the I’ll do it mode and never really build the next level of teams and empowerment to get to the It will happen phase,” he said. This is more pronounced in social enterprises as the entrepreneur tends to hold on to the purpose and personal touch much more strongly.
From business to environmental change
The pandemic has put a harsh spotlight on environmental realities as well. “We're good at ideating and making plans, but the key way to tackle climate change is to become just as good at executing these plans,” emphasised Meghaa Gupta, author of Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India.
At the individual level, she recommends adopting sustainable lifestyle changes instead of only voicing concerns over environmental deterioration. “This includes being prudent about consumption – what we use and throw,” she advised.
At the national level, she calls for effective implementation of the National Action Plan for Climate Change that was announced in 2008, and cooperation at the international level. “Countries have to work with each other to find their strengths and how these can be leveraged for mutual benefit,” Meghaa recommended.
She suggested using the Sustainable Development Goals as indices to map global development and sanction loans to different countries for developmental work, after thorough due diligence.
Harini Nagendra emphasised the importance of climate change awareness and action at multiple levels. “At the individual and institutional levels, the key lever is to engage with systemic change. We all need to reflect on and cut down our consumption, reduce our use of plastic, and generation of garbage, recycle, and compost,” she explained.
But it is even more important to get together as groups and engage in action that is transformative.
“For example, pushing for rainwater harvesting, renewable energy use, and composting on-site in corporate campuses cannot be evangelised by individuals alone but must be done as a group, either within a campus or group or across the organisation,” she advised.
At the global and national level, there is need for better policies and action plans that are multi-level. “Government plays a crucial role but cannot do everything and in all places. So these plans need to explicitly build in collaboration and trust-building with communities, local governments, corporates and civil society networks,” Harini emphasised.
Eco-friendly policies and actions
The best environmental protection policies and practices are those that stem from the grassroots and offer practical, long-term solutions, according to Meghaa Gupta. “My biggest worry is that often our plans and policies have a top-down, instead of a ground-up approach. So, even though they look great on paper, the ground reality is different,” she lamented.
Quick fixes pose the biggest challenges but unfortunately abound, she observed. “Just constructing a toilet will not solve the problem of lack of sanitation. People need to be educated and convinced, human waste needs to be tackled. Banning plastic without coming up with usable, practical alternatives is another example of a terrible quick fix,” Meghaa observed.
She pointed to three environmentally-friendly changes that she has personally witnessed. “The first is a reduction in the use of paper. I'm perfectly happy getting my bills and statements online and only printing things only when necessary,” she explained.
The second is eco-friendly festivities. “The use of firecrackers during Diwali has gone down a lot and I've found more people opting for biodegradable idols during festivals like Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi,” she added.
For example, her earlier building community used to get a small clay idol for Ganesh Chaturthi. “This would be immersed in a tub of water and once it dissolved, the water would be spread in the garden. Hardly any waste would be generated in the course of the festival. Many companies and people are also opting for zero-waste events,” Megha commended.
The third urban example is the growing use of energy-efficient electronic gadgets with the requisite ‘star’ marking.
“Wastefulness ranks high in urban areas – we generate a majority of India's waste. So practices that seek to curb waste in urban areas – whether it's wasteful use of energy or creation of physical waste - are great,” she said.
Bouncing back from failure
Business and social changemakers unfortunately will go through a number of setbacks, pitfalls and challenges during their long journey. Resilience and perseverance are called for in large measure.
“Failure in a product is almost always about not understanding a customer pain point well enough or not anticipating a dormant need well enough. If a product fails, first go back to the drawing board and review the customer need better,” TN Hari of BigBasket advised.
He urges innovators to apply the ‘Mom Test’ seriously. “Don’t ask questions that force customers to give you answers you want to hear. Finally if a product doesn’t work, pivot appropriately and see if by making some fundamental changes you can address an adjacent market or need,” he added.
Failing with a company is a different ball game altogether, Hari observed. “Failure can be around people, culture, leadership, technology, customer, competition, funding, product, and a host of other things. Regrouping depends upon the predominant failure mode,” he said.
“Failure is an event – an individual or company is not a failure,” Madan Padaki explained. “The most effective teams use failure as a feedback loop – they try to fail forward and fail faster,” he advised.
The journey of his social enterprise encountered many challenges. “With the number of ‘failures’ that we have seen at 1Bridge – from rural BPO to rural health to rural demand generation and so on – we should have shut shop long ago. But we used every failure to learn and build our muscle,” Madan proudly said.
He also advised changemakers to improve chances of success through partnerships. “All partners should realise that every entity has a contribution that is equally important, just like a humble pinch of salt in sambhar,” he joked.
“A startup should be like the salt in any partnership – while it is a ‘small’ entity, the contribution and value has to be significant,” Madan emphasised.
The journey ahead
The featured authors are working on a number of new book projects as well. For example, Meghaa Gupta’s next book will focus on people's movements in contemporary India.
Harini Nagendra is working on a book on water in Indian cities, with her colleague Seema Mundoli. “Along the lines of our 2019 book Cities and Canopies, this will explore how humans live with water from multiple dimensions,” she explained.
TN Hari has two books scheduled for release in December this year: From Pony to Unicorn: Scaling a Startup Sustainably and Sailing through a Storm: Making a Crisis Work for You. Two of his other books are scheduled for release in April 2021: Diversity Beyond Tokenism: Why Being Politically Correct does not Work and Find the Zen in Your Life: Work, Life and Joy in a Fast Paced World.
All four speakers offered words of advice and encouragement for founders and social entrepreneurs in these uncertain times of the pandemic. “Stay experimental, and never get stuck in a rut. Always refresh yourself and try something new,” Harini Nagendra urged.
“Lage raho Munnabhai is my only advice. Keep your faith and keep at it,” Madan Padaki advised.
“The world has never been certain, our lives are never certain. Keep learning and improving, through thick and thin. It's the only way to be,” Meghaa Gupta suggested,
She cited philosopher Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
“Frankly the world has always been uncertain. Every generation thinks the world they live in is more uncertain than the world their predecessors lived in,” TN Hari explained.
He identified five human traits that help increase the odds of succeeding in an uncertain world. They include a burning curiosity, first-principles thinking, and valuing character over intellect.
“Deal with both success and failure with equanimity. Neither get excited by success nor depressed by failure, because there is neither success nor failure – just living and enjoying life,” Hari explained.
“Develop a blend of the feminine and masculine in you. Neither extreme is good for an uncertain world,” he signed off.