This post was originally published at the Niiti Consulting Blog in June 25, 2013.
The field of social business is relatively new in my country, Brazil, and also worldwide, and professionals from the most diverse areas are increasingly curious to prove whether it is possible to combine a fair paycheck (or profit) with a measurable social change.
Professionals who are coming from the traditional business sector seek a deeper meaning and impact for their MBAs. Those who have been dedicating themselves to non-profit activities, on the other hand, seek more efficient solutions, with focus and financial sustainability. The diversity is also presented in order of age: many young people now have access to the concept from an early age and therefore combining personal and professional fulfillment seems very natural for them. Professionals with 5-10 years of experience, many with promising careers or already with some recognition, question the direction where they are going.
It may seem easy to talk about it, but in practice we are looking for good examples to inspire new entrepreneurs, investors, the media and - not least - good talent.One way to "test" the environment and experience the hands-on social business is through fellowship programs. Fellowship programs are generally aimed at young professionals - graduates or up to 10 years of professional experience - but age varies widely, since the idea is to offer an opportunity for the fellow to understand wonders and difficulties in the field of social business, hoping that they remain in the area after completion. The programs generally range from 3 to 12 months in a single organization or through several.
On the other hand, the startup hosting the fellow have opportunity to work with highly qualified professionals with experience in very diverse environments who can bring new perspectives to the organization's strategy - even if it costs a few months of cultural adaptation.
About a year ago I was participating in the selection process for some of these programs. I made my decision to leave the Corporate Social Responsibility life after 8 years to dive deeper in the entrepreneurial world. I quit my job and started talking to lots of people I admire – from writers to technicians, from entrepreneurs to consultants, from just graduates to super experienced executives. I soon realized it was my time to experience a little more of the world beyond holiday travels.
That's how I got to the Villgro Fellowship program (a social enterprises incubator based out of Chennai) in partnership with edge (a Potencia Ventures initiative to develop talent for business focused on the base of the pyramid).
My experience as a Villgro Fellow
I started my experience in India meeting other six fellows from different countries and backgrounds during an intense month of induction. Spending night after night in a train coach was becoming natural and doing business under banana trees while visiting rural villages too.
During my 2nd and 3rd month at the Villgro Fellowship program, I worked with my colleague-fellow Sandy on the Pune and Jaipur editions of Unconvention|L. This is a sequence of regional events focused on identifying emergent or potential social entrepreneurs, providing knowledge, inspiration and networks. The Villgro’s Unconvention platform consists of complementary strategic initiatives focused on inspiring, discovering, supporting and nurturing innovative market-based social enterprise models with high potential for rural impact in India. Another of its initiatives is the Villgro Awards, on which I’ve been working for the past 6 months.
The Villgro Awards is an unique initiative in the social entrepreneurship scenario because it focuses on the development of the ecosystem. More innovative ideas can grow and become successful social enterprises if investors, incubators, journalists, academicians and other stakeholders support them. That’s why this is not an awards program to recognize big achievements, but to give visibility and take to the next level people and organizations that are working hard to find market solutions that can overcome India’s most challenging social issues.
In December I started designing and planning the new edition of the awards. We then launched the applications and nominations period, where we received 135 nominations and applications. 50 semifinalists were analyzed by our Experts Evaluation Panel, composed by experts in media, innovation, impact investment, academia and incubation. Once the 15 finalists were defined, due diligence was executed by our Process Partner, Niiti Consulting, to be presented to a distinguished jury. Simultaneously, 4,500 people registered their support to the candidates by taking part in the online voting.
The announcement of winners was held at the Sankalp Unconvention Summit, a partnership with Sankalp Forum for the largest conference on Social Business in Asia. Around 1,000 delegates attended more than 20 sessions focused on this year’s theme “Looking Beyond Impact” - if you’re curious to learn about the finalists and winners, check out the Unconvention website.
Now, how to know if you are also ready to participate in a fellowship program:
1. Are you ready to slow down? Especially if you’re going to another country, be prepared for your cultural adaptation - this can take several months! Even if you’re taking part of a fellowship program in the same country, you’re probably doing this to experiment something new – being in a startup, being in the social impact scenario, being in a smaller organization. So don’t expect your professional performance to be exactly as it was before. Your speed may be reduced, but the quality of your work will certainly be higher, since you’ll probably be more attentive to details.
2. I hope money is not your priority at the moment... Some programs charge a fee from the fellows to cover the process. On the other hand, some of them reimburse flight tickets and other expenses. They can also provide facilities like mobile phone and internet. Although programs generally offer a stipend sufficient to cover the fellow’s basic expenses - rent, food, transportation, etc, if you are inclined to some ‘extravagances’ like fancy restaurants, shopping or travel, you may have to use a bit of your savings.
3. How piqued is your curiosity? Curiosity and empathy are the keywords for a fruitful experience. Be careful with your pre-conceptions or behaviors that you were already used to deal with. Everyone around you – with no exceptions! – will have something to teach you.
4. Where is your utility belt? If you come from the corporate world, remember that being in a startup means playing multiple roles - strategic and operational, business and technical - and that this will be a fantastic opportunity for you to know everything about the company and feel in the entrepreneur’s shoes.
Excited? Some of the best known fellowship programs are (in addition to Villgro and edge, of course!), the Acumen, Ideo.org, Kiva, Idex and Frontier Market Scouts (FMS). See a list of 50 programs in this link (warning that the concept of fellowship varies from one program to another ... in some cases, the fellow is an entrepreneur at an early stage and supported to expand the impact of your idea).
Well I’m almost finishing my program with Villgro and I would strongly recommend it, as long as you reflect on what is the meaning of a program like this in your professional and personal life. It can be seen as an investment to gain some field experience and learn a lot about the sector, and also a moment to review your concepts and prejudices and making choices towards the life you want to have.
Cristina Yoshida Fernandes is a Villgro Fellow and an edge’s Growth Business Associate (GBA) working at Villgro Innovations Foundation, in Chennai. She is graduated in Advertising and Marketing with two post-graduate degrees in NGO Management and Globalization & Culture. Cristina has over 8 years of experience in the nonprofit and CSR areas in Brazil, while managing the Social Mobilization department of Itaú Bank Foundation. She co-founded the blog Mercado de Impacto to write on social business for the Brazilian audience and is a guest writer for Next Billion Brazil.