Intl. Conf. on Social Entrepreneurship in India – Day 1

I had the opportunity to attend the International Conference on Social Entrepreneurship in India on the 4th and 5th of December. In this post I will try to narrate my experience at the conference. In the posts following this one, I will talk about people and organizations I got in touch with, and most importantly discuss some issues that came up for discussion during the conference.

photo credit Sonia Rai

photo credit Sonia Rai

The theme of the event – Inspiring|Connecting|Sharing – set the right expectations for the attendees and, to be sure, lived up to it. The event was organized by UnLtd India and Center for Social Initiative and Management(CSIM).

The conference was spread over two days and events were well planned to facilitate formal as well informal discussions and networking. It was eye-opening and engaging in many ways. Participants from almost all parts of India, and with interests ranging from micro-lending to rural tourism, attended.

Day 1

Proceedings were kicked off by Bert Cherian of Meta Results setting the tone with his humour and energy. The ball was set rolling by an interaction with Nachiket Mor of ICICI Foundation, facilitated by Neera Nundy of Dasra. Nachiket talked about his personal experiences that shaped up the path to his current position as President at ICICI Foundation. He narrated how people in rural areas are not exactly used to the apathy and standard of living prevalent in urban areas. He also talked about evolution of ICICI Foundation. Answering to a question, Nachiket questioned the value of experience as the only source of answers to problems. In his opinion, many a times a fresh look at things from a total outsider can give us out-of-box solutions. On a related note he said that the ability to pay or finance an initiative is not always a plus point. Many an innovative idea has come out in crunch times.

Nachiket Mor photo credit Sonia Rai

Nachiket Mor photo credit Sonia Rai

Nachiket was of the view that the term “Social Entrepreneurship” should not have been a groundbreaking term or concept at all. Enterprises should be socially conscious and socially motivated by default. Talking about scaling up organizations, he cited example of Starbucks which had to operate in centers which were poles apart in their culture.

As you have seen, Nachiket gave us some really interesting perspectives of social entrepreneurship.

In the next session, we listened to Harish Hande, co-founder of SELCO. Selco was started in 1995 and is one of the earliest examples of Social Entrepreneurship in India. He has been in the thick of action and gave us his experience when he (along with his partners) was starting out. He wanted to ensure that technology is affordable and accessible to the rural inhabitants. He echoed Nachiket’s sentiments about how money can sometimes kill innovation. He quoted his own example when they were really hard pressed for money. This also led them to understand what their target customer was facing in terms of finances. This is where use of financial systems to ensure adoption of technology comes into play.

He cited a very simple yet telling incident when a person told him that repaying 300 rupees per month was not possible for him but 10 rupees per day was. Such things, Harish, said could not possibly be learnt in closed classes. He also touched on the topic of how sanity was maintained in a company which was working in an environment and space where repayment issues were common, and conflicts of interest arose in terms of social goals and viability of the company. As per Harish, between themselves, they followed the motto “No friends inside and no enemies outside” and ensured all issues are “fought” out in the meetings. He ended by stressing on the importance of team work in such efforts and the need to have a strong, coherent team where each one understands each other well and works in tandem.

Anand Shah, of Indicorps, brought forth a different yet pertinent and important subject. The approach that he took to drive home his point was unique too. He cited the example of terrorists and the motivation which drives these young individuals to commit such acts. He questioned if this was because there was no other resort left to these individuals to make a mark. A very important point to mull over.

Anand Shah [photo credit Sonia Rai]

Anand Shah photo credit Sonia Rai

He tried to draw a parallel analogy in terms of youngsters entering the social development space. Why is it viewed as an “nonviable” option after college? What are the mechanisms in place to foster entrepreneurship in the social space? Teach For India is one such initiative which Anand Shah has helped bring to India.

Thereafter two parallel sessions were conducted. One on “Learnings from the Ground”, which I attended and one on “Getting Started: Seed Funding and Support for Emerging Social Entrepreneurs”. The former session saw Umesh Malhotra of Hippocampus, and Shaffi Mather, of 1298 share their experiences when they were starting out. The session was moderated by S Deendayalan of Centre for Excellence in Organization.

Umesh talked about his predicaments when he started out. How he had to face some fixed notions which he was able to prove false as he progressed. People did not agree with him when he  said children like to read.  They obviously did not agree when he said that  poor children liked to read.  He also stressed on the numerous learnings and unlearnings he had go through – point being one should not go in with a fixed mindset and be ready for a course correction when warranted.

Shaffi Mather was quite candid when it came to issues that he faced when he started 1298. He made his point when he said that some of the important lessons in business are not taught in B Schools. The stark truth that he discovered was that 90 percent of the ambulances in India transport dead bodies. The reason could be many and not just the non-availability of ambulances. The organization learnt a lot of things in their journey till now and many times brought them face to face with governments. He also explained how their model was more transparent and accountable than the EMRI initiative and the fact that due to their efforts state governments are making the process of ambulance requisition tender based. 1298’s revenue model has evolved over time and makes use of its highly sophisticated back-end systems to function. In his parting comments, Shaffi called upon participants to be persistent to achieve their goals.

The next session that I attended was again part of three parallel sessions. I attended the one on “Can Profit Maximization and Social Good Co-Exist?” The panel comprised of R D Ravindran of Aravind Eye Hospital, Clara Barby of Acumen Fund and Andrea Westall, an independent strategy and policy analyst.

Andrea Westall and Clara Barby photo credit Sonia Rai

Andrea Westall and Clara Barby photo credit Sonia Rai

Clara began by asking if we can flip the question of “Can social enterprises be profitable” to “Can enterprises be socially responsive”? She also brought forth the important point of relative maximization of profits wherein social enterprise will not even be operating in traditional spaces but would be opening hitherto unexplored markets. This also ensures they are not up against well-entrenched biggies. Clara then introduced a few of the projects that Acumen Fund has invested in within India.

Dr R D Ravindran photo credit Sonia Rai

Dr R D Ravindran photo credit Sonia Rai

Dr Ravindran gave some really refreshing insights into how Aravind Eye Hospital was able to achieve its goals of eye treatment for all by maximum utilization of resources, including doctors. He also told us that treatment quality did not vary with the paying capacity of the patient though there were different wings with different facilities. Aravind Eye Hospital has now partnered with some hospitals to help them replicate their success. They have also developed a project to facilitate eye checkup at the local health center by conducting diagnosis with the help of video over high speed internet connection.

Andrea reminded us that “grants” are not necessarily a bad thing as has been made out to be. In fact, they are a legitimate source of income. Her view was that one cannot maximize profits because that may eventually cause one to lose focus of the social angle.

Thus ended the first day of my conference at Dakshin Chitra, Chennai. To be sure these are just events that were planned by organizers. There were a lot of discussions and ideas being exchanged on the sidelines, and as promised, I will write about them in my following posts.

2 Responses

  1. […] on December 29, 2008 by Shital An INSEAD article reflecting on social entrepreneurship after the International Conference on Social Entrepreneurship in India highlights some key challenges and trends for the field.  Some […]

  2. […] the opportunity to hear Umesh’s experiences while setting up and running Hippocampus at the International Conference on Social Entrepreneurship held in […]

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