Rainmakers, changemakers and social capitalists: inspiring stories of 20 social entrepreneurs in India

Rainmakers, changemakers and social capitalists: inspiring stories of 20 social entrepreneurs in India

Monday August 11, 2014,

13 min Read

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think, and those who feel. For too long now, we – the middle class of India – have chosen to be thinkers. We have deadened our hearts and minds to the poor, the hungry the homeless and the hopeless,” begins entrepreneurship expert Rashmi Bansal in her book I have a dream: The inspiring stories of 20 social entrepreneurs who found new ways to solve old problems.


Fortunately, there is a growing community of those who feel and think that in serving one another we serve ourselves and all of humanity – such as the 20 social entrepreneurs profiled in this book.

Rashmi Bansal is the author of a number of books on startups and entrepreneurship; see my reviews of her other books on small-town entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs and slum entrepreneurs. She graduated from Sophia College in Mumbai and IIM Ahmedabad.

The 350-page book provides personal and organisational details of each founder, along with contact information and words of advice. Bansal classifies social entrepreneurs into three types: rainmakers, changemakers and spiritual capitalists.

I. Rainmakers

Rainmakers are revenue-generating social enterprises where profit is not the primary motive. Their model of doing good is not based on charity but on transactions based on humanitarian as well as business value.

Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh toilet movement, grew up in a conservative Brahmin family in Bihar. As a child he once touched a member of the toilet cleaner community, and was forced to swallow cowdung and cow urine to ‘purify’ himself. After his education, he immersed himself in the world of the toilet cleaners (‘scavengers’). He worked on a toilet design which did not require sewer lines, but converted the waste into fertiliser. Years of pushing for government funds and projects finally bore fruit in 1973, and the project based on a community-employment model was declared a success by the Indian government, UNICEF and WHO.

Anita Ahuja, founder of Conserve India handbags, grew up in Bhopal as daughter of a freedom fighter, and later moved to Delhi. The 1994 riots led her to write a book called Flames of Fervour, and her subsequent involvement with resident welfare associations brought her in contact with ragpickers. She started Conserve India as a waste segregation operation, then worked with her brother on converting plastic waste into material for handbags. The designs clicked at local trade fairs, and the company now has a wide range of products including shoes.

Vineet Rai, founder of Aavishkaar Social Venture Fund, was born in Jodhpur and wanted to join the army, but later studied forest management. He then joined the Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN), which became an incubator. Support from investors in Singapore led him to launch his social venture fund, and he successfully scaled products such as Servals stove burners. He later founded Intellecap advisory services for development projects, as well as a microfinance fund.

Sumita Ghose, founder of textile sourcing firm RangSutra, grew up in Calcutta and studied in Bombay. Inspired by the Amul story, she and her husband devoted themselves to rural empowerment work in Rajasthan and then in Assam. However, her husband was abducted by ULFA militants and never seen again. She then founded RangSutra to source textiles and crafts from artisans and retail them at FabIndia, with a strong focus on quality and punctual delivery.

Saloni Malhotra, founder of rural BPO Desi Crew, grew up in Delhi and joined the Leo Club in college, which inspired her to do work in the development space. She worked with interactive ad agency WebChutney, and a talk on rural technology by Prof. Ashok Jhunjunwalla of IIT Madras motivated her to pursue rural IT and BPO work via the IIT incubator. It took a while to understand local challenges and identify working models, and finally settle on digitisation and content work. The rural BPO has opened up new opportunities for rural youth, especially girls. Now larger Indian IT firms are also adopting rural BPO strategies.

Ishita Khanna, founder of eco-tourism company Spiti Ecosphere, grew up in Dehradun and joined TISS, with a master’s dissertation on eco-tourism. She learned about the properties of local berries of the seabuckthorn variety, and started an NGO called Muse to produce berry pulp. Taken in by the local charm and opportunities for tourism via the Internet, she then founded Spiti Ecosphere in Spiti to promote eco-tourism in Himachal Pradesh.

Harish Hande, founder of solar lighting firm Selco, was born in Bangalore and grew up in Rourkela. He studied in IIT Kharagpur and then at University of Massachusetts. He became interested in rural electrification, and visits to Sri Lanka exposed him to the hardships of rural infrastructure on the ground, such as financing and maintenance. He evolved a successful model in Karnataka, based on local technical talent, needs assessment and bank financing. Hande now advocates ‘energy inclusion’ along with ‘financial inclusion’ for India.

Santosh Parulekar, founder of construction training firm Pipal Tree, grew up in Mumbai and attended VJTI. He worked at the Tata Group, Citibank and THINK Systems. After the company was sold to i2 Technologies for $150 million in 1997, he became involved with the world of microfinance. He then realised that there was a huge gap in rural employment for youth, and started construction training company Pipal Tree. He contracted with large firms to secure employment for his graduates.

Dinabandhu Sahoo, founder of seaweed cultivator Project Shilika, grew up in Puri in Orissa, and studied botany in Delhi University. International travels exposed him to the market potential of growing seaweed in India, though it is not part of the local diet but can be used in a number of chemical products. Seaweed cultivation is easier and less harmful to the ecosystem than shrimp farming. Project Shilika, starting off with raft culture in Shilika lake, offers content in a number of local languages to other organisations across India to expand the Blue Revolution, building on the earlier Green Revolution and White Revolution.

Anand Kumar, founder of JEE coaching classes Super 30, was born in Patna and studied at Bihar National College. He excelled in mathematics, and sold papads for a while to earn a living. He started coaching classes for IIT aspirants, along with support from a like-minded police officer. Super 30 was formed as a special annual batch for poor but talented students, all of whom eventually got admission in 2008. Though attacked by the coaching class mafia, Kumar went on to replicate his model as a community-backed initiative.

Dhruv Lakra, founder of Mirakle Couriers which hires only deaf people, grew up in a business family in Jammu. He went to study at HR College in Delhi, worked in Merrill Lynch, and then at an NGO called Dasra in Mumbai. His interest in social enterprise led him to higher studies at Oxford, and he hit on the idea for Mirakle Couriers when he signed a courier package at home and realised there was no verbal communication needed. With support from Thermax and awards funds, he launched Mirakle Couriers and now hopes to hire blind people as well in the back-office.

II. Changemakers

Changemakers have started large movements with small individual steps to launch them. While the world laments and bemoans problems, changemakers are resolute in their belief for change.

Madhav Chavan, founder of education NGO Pratham, was born to freedom fighter parents in Bombay. He was active in student union work and one day protested outside the US consulate – only to line up there a few years later for a student visa to go to Ohio University. He then returned to India and joined the National Literacy Mission and Total Literacy Mission. He launched Pratham around the PPP baalwaadi model with support from UNICEF. The organisation accelerates reading with literacy kits, and publishes the annual Status of Education report.

Anshu Gupta, founder of used clothing recycler Goonj, grew up in a middle class family in UP. He studied media, and an internship led him to discover the needs of rural poor for good clothing. He founded Goonj to take used clothing from city dwellers, sort them, mend them and distribute them to needy poor. Relief efforts during the Gujarat earthquake and Tamil Nadu tsunami highlighted their work. Some clothes are also re-made into bags and sanitary napkins for the poor.

Trilochan Sastry, founder of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), grew up in Delhi and studied in IIT Delhi, IIM Ahmedabad and MIT. He returned as a professor, but greatly pained at the political mess in India he decided to file a Public Interest Litigation asking politicians to declare their criminal records. With legal support and a strong team of concerned corporate citizens, he formed ADR. The organisation has also worked for transparency in elections in Gujarat and other states. On top of all this, Sastry also runs an NGO for farmers, Centre for Collective Development.

Shaheen Mistri, founder of education initiative Akanksha, grew up in Lebanon, Greece, Indonesia and the US – but developed a deep attachment to India during her visits to the country. She got involved in teaching slum children via a team of volunteers and after-hours space in schools. Akanksha raises funds through initiatives like Sponsor a Centre, Sponsor a Fellow, and Adopt a School. The programme gives kids a good time while also learning, building character and acquiring job skills. Mistri then stepped aside to set up Teach for India, adapted from the Teach for American mission. After her divorce, her parents became her support system and she is raising two daughters who are well-adjusted and independent.

Arvind Kejriwal, founder of citizen empowerment NGO Parivartan, was born in Haryana, studied in IIT Kharagpur, and worked at Tata Steel and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He founded Parivartan to help citizens empower themselves via the Right to Information (RTI) act and participatory citizen forums. Democratic rights need to be exercised not just during elections but during budget allocations and project implementations.

Bhushan Punani, head of vocational centre Blind Persons’ Association (BPA), grew up in Haryana and started off in dairy development. He launched community-based training and development programmes for the blind at BPA, and added a professional touch with extensive focus on international training for his team. The agency works in a networked model as well, channelling funds to needy organisations.

III. Spiritual Capitalists

Spiritual capitalists are social entrepreneurs who completely devote themselves to the work of upliftment of people. They believe that purity of purpose and selflessness of spirit can overcome any limitation.

Madhu Pandit Dasa, founder of Akshaya Patra which feeds over a million school children each day, grew up in Bangalore and studied at IIT Bombay. He became a Krishna devotee and then a monk at ISKCON. Inspired by school meal programmes in Tamil Nadu, he started a similar scheme in Bangalore. Blending ‘science and spirituality’ by using process, technology, quality and values, the scheme tapped corporate grants to feed over a million children a day, helping them stay at school and completing their education.

Vinayak Lohani, founder of Parivaar Ashram for orphans, tribals and daughters of prostitutes, grew up in Bhopal, studied at IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta and worked at Infosys. Seeing the work of other orphanages, he decided to move away from ‘intellectual frameworks of humanitarian work’ and more into direct service. He founded Parivaar with support from IIM alumni and colleagues, and also the school Amar Bharat Vidyapeeth; they have changed the lives of hundreds of children by believing in the divinity of every human being.

Shreesh Jadhav, university registrar at Belur Math, grew up in Raipur and was deeply influenced by the message of Ramakrishna Mission. He studied at IIT Kanpur but became more interested in educating village children. He blended his love for teaching with social work, and become a monk at Belur Math, devoting himself to build character in children through education. He realised that though some Indians of earlier generations in the colonial era believed the West was superior, current youth don’t have those illusions and want to stand on their own feet.

Lessons and recommendations

Each entrepreneur narrative ends with a page of advice and recommendations, and it would be good to end this review with a sampling of these tips.

Don’t just think about the welfare of your family or your community, think about the whole country.

Develop mental muscle, emotional muscle, physical muscle and business muscle. Entrepreneurship is a hard slog, and social entrepreneurship or rural entrepreneurship is even harder. Learn about your domain not just through books and courses but by immersing directly and fully in it. Invest in extensive and continuous learning, keep your ear to the ground. Don’t only learn from others’ advice, go into the field yourself. Learn from failures, learn from every experience and encounter.

If you are unsure of what to do, start off with part-time work, small side projects and a few hours of volunteer work. Take some time off if necessary, to reflect, assess and prioritise. Choose something which attracts you, motivates you and inspires you. Create your own identity in your work.

If you focus only on money in your career, you will feel used by the system. If you focus only on social work, you may burn out very fast. So find the balance. Be passionate and compassionate – as well as tactical and practical. See extraordinariness everywhere, even in seemingly ordinary people and actions.

Fortune comes and goes; do not live for it or be attached to it. Wealth creation and value creation are not always the same, understand the difference. Learn how to harness and manage greed in order to create wealth in a sustainable manner.

If you enjoy the entrepreneurship journey, you will succeed. Develop a spirit of adventure and risk taking. Be prepared for continuous ups and downs of the startup journey. Be passionate about your work, half-hearted attempts will not help. Don’t wait for people to say ‘thank you,’ they will thank you in their own way – and even if they don’t, take satisfaction directly from your work.

If you have belief, you can make it happen – be ready to make the leap of faith. Don’t worry too much about the roadmap – just jump into your ideas. Too much planning can make you lose your nerve!

Use gyana (knowledge), bala (strength) and kriya (skills) to make your vision a reality. God may have fixed your milestones – but you have the freedom to run between them. Sincerity and dedication are irreplaceable.

Don’t just talk about development – do it. If you only do your day job and don’t give back to society or make the world a better place, what is the purpose of your living?