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What I learnt in our search for social entrepreneurs

By Ullas Marar
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When Villgro started out its journey in 2001, social entrepreneurship was unheard of in India, let alone understood. Fifteen years later, while entrepreneurship has become a badge of pride, social entrepreneurship is still finding its feet, especially beyond the big cities. Application of market-based models to solve problems for the poor in India, is just beginning to find resonance among entrepreneurs. With Unconvention, we are trying to accelerate that process of understanding and embracing social enterprise by organising business plan pitches and conferences all over India, in order to seek out and nurture budding social entrepreneurs.

The 2015-16 season breezed past the Unconvention team, as we travelled to eight cities, inspiring and surfacing social entrepreneurs. We started out with Delhi in September 2015 and concluded the season with Ahmedabad in March 2016, traveling to Jaipur, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune and Kochi, in the interim. Each city has its own vibe and its own story to tell. But if there is one thread that runs through all, it’s the growing realisation that the young and restless in India no longer want to wait for solutions; they want to be the solution.

Across eight cities, we saw participation from more than 1200 people and our business plan competition attracted more than 700 applications. From creating devices for small farmers to making education more accessible to the poor to creating low-cost diagnostic devices, ideas were in ample supply. More heartening is the energy that is coursing through the ecosystem right now. There is a new understanding, new enthusiasm and hopefully, this will be the start of lasting solutions to problems that have plagued the poorest sections of our society.

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Investor and social entrepreneur perspective in a panel discussion

Personally, it’s a gratifying experience to be part of a movement. Just as humbling are the stories we discover as we move from city to city. In Ahmedabad, we had a team of four social entrepreneurs that travelled all the way from Kharagpur, just to spend some time with the jury and get their feedback. In Delhi, team members of our partner organization opened their homes to us. They worked late hours with us, cooked for us, helped us troubleshoot more than once. Their hospitality during a typically stressful build-up to Unconvention|L Delhi reflected a true sense of collaboration. Speakers who went out of their way to make it to our events, mentors who were generous with their time and ideas, entrepreneurs who wowed us with their zeal and innovation, every city threw up moments that challenged us, taught us and amazed us.

I have many takeaways from this journey so far but here are my top five in no particular order. While the first three are just observations, I have taken the liberty of offering a tip or two as well:

Not everyone wants money
Don’t get me wrong, funding remains a huge concern but a huge number of Unconvention attendees just want access to mentors. In almost every city we travelled to, the Villgro team stayed behind long after the event to talk to young social entrepreneurs, offering feedback, making connections and brainstorming with them. Entrepreneurs, on their part, realise that as long as their idea and execution are solid, the money will follow.

Small cities are waking up to impact
One of the most heartening aspects of going beyond the Bangalores and Mumbais is the growing interest we see in social entrepreneurship. Thanks to free-flowing information, there is a greater awareness about the changemakers who are tackling social issues. This, in turn, is inspiring many youngsters to follow in their footsteps. We were impressed by the ideas we saw in cities like Kochi and Jaipur.  

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Building ecosystems goes beyond supporting entrepreneurs
Villgro has always focused on building ecosystems as opposed to merely focusing on investorspeak. So while finding investable social enterprises remains important, it is equally vital that we encourage incubators, academic institutes and government bodies to come together and create local hubs of support. And we are moving in the right direction, if our experiences are anything to go by. Local incubators approach us for training modules on social entrepreneurship, industry bodies invite us to speak on impact-creation and academic institutes seek out support to structure impact-focused conferences and B-plan competitions.

Business plan competitions are a means, not the end
If there is one thing I wish entrepreneurs, especially first-time social entrepreneurs would do, it is create an honest pitch. Ask yourself this, ‘what is the problem that I’m trying to solve?’ If the honest answer to that is, ‘Trying to win a business plan competition,’ then abort mission. The jury is smart and will see through your presentation.

Peppering it with obvious facts and Googled-up statistics won’t cut it. The jury is looking for insights, not statistics. Insights come from having spent a considerable amount of time in the field. And that kind of immersion is fuelled by your passion towards solving a problem. As we keep telling our pitch participants, this BPC is just the beginning of a conversation, nothing more. Not winning is not an indictment of your enterprise. Similarly, winning it doesn’t automatically translate into success.

Prepare for the pitch but be ready to improvise
Quite often, I see social entrepreneurs making a pitch get thrown off when a jury member asks them to skip a few slides. That happens because their preparation is way too linear. Understand that jury members are seasoned entrepreneurs/investors/mentors and probably know all about the problem and are more interested in what you are doing about the problem. They sit through many pitches in a year so chances are, they have come across solutions that are similar to yours; hence, they just want to understand the key differentiators. In such cases, it is important you are able to cut to wherever required without losing your footing.

The Unconvention events will begin again in August 2016. In the meantime, if you would like to pitch to us or participate in an event, write to us at unconvention@villgro.org

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About the author

Ullas is a senior associate in the Unconvention team. He has 10 years of experience as a marketing communications professional. He has written copy for advertising agencies, managed account relationships for a content start-up, mentored a team of business writers and held marketing responsibilities for a globally reputed tech corporation. Ullas holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Marketing Management from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Bangalore, and a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Gujarat University, India.

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