Kannan Gopalakrishnan worked in the retail and consumer goods sectors among others, building brands and businesses for nearly two decades. He believes people are the key to success and predicts huge change in the social enterprise sector in the coming years. To know more about him, read on:
Why are you excited about the social enterprise space?
I realise that there is so much happening in the social enterprise space as I begin to get a bit involved in this area. There are a large number of people who are passionate about various causes in various areas and have been doing a tremendous job of bring about change. It is clearly, very different from the corporate sector. Both the social and the for-profit sectors can learn from each other with active engagement between the two.
I am personally excited as it is a tremendous opportunity for me to learn and also share some of my learnings from the for-profit sector. I am hoping that this will be more meaningful than the previous experience. I am also hoping to do my part in bringing about some social change.
What is your background?
As an individual, I have always been passionate about brands as a consumer and this lead to my passion for understanding consumer behaviour and how to build strong and sustainable brands. I have been lucky to learn that part well in Pond’s and Hindustan Lever in my first job after doing my PGDM from IIM, Calcutta. The opportunity to build a brand came when I joined Adidas to launch the same in India in 1996. I was part of the team that set up Adidas in India.
However, when I got the opportunity to run the business as a whole as Managing Director of Adidas Singapore, I realised that I thoroughly enjoyed balancing the short-term with the long-term, hiring and engaging employees and get synergies across functions and geographies. Managing and balancing the contradictory pressures, especially growth and profitability, was very important in leading a business. I also enjoyed the opportunity to work outside India (10 years in South East Asia living in Singapore and Thailand) that helped me understand and develop an appreciation for other cultures.
Subsequently, I moved back to India and joined Nokia as part of the leadership team and heading the retail business. I love technology (as a consumer) and was keen to be a part of the turnaround of Nokia brand.
In the meantime, I was keen to reinvent myself and learn to do something totally different and also share my learnings and help others build their own businesses. I am keen to involve myself in a social cause and live a more meaningful life. I am currently exploring a social venture idea, but it is a bit early to share the thought.
What have been the biggest learnings in your career?
Clarity of strategy and diligent execution against strategy is the key to success. There are many contradictory pulls and pushes and it is important to be able to stay focused and execute against strategy. Most often it is this ability to execute that determines successful outcomes.
People are the key to success. The ability to involve people in drawing up the strategic direction helps in speeding up the execution process. People are more engaged as they feel they are contributing to the success of the organisation. It is important to attract the best talent and empower them to the fullest extent. Diverse teams generally do better in the long-term, even though many leaders are tempted to hire people who think like themselves to help speed up execution in the short term.
What is your forecast for the sector and entrepreneurs?
I see a lot of youngsters coming into the social enterprise scene. This is fantastic for the social sector as these youngsters bring their passion and drive and commitment to bring about change. There is also a decent amount of capital available even for the social enterprises (though the for-profit garners a huge share). The next decade will see change unlike the past decades.
I also see a lot of people with experience move from the for-profit sector to social enterprises. This will help social enterprises to become more efficient while staying focused on the social objectives. This might also further increase capital flows to social enterprises when managed more professionally and efficiently. I see a need for more outcome orientation and a lot of data orientation to measure effectiveness of social enterprises.
There will be a bit of blurring of lines between for-profit and social enterprises. Where there is a strong emotional and rational need, a social enterprise can and will generate much higher profits and hence have a bigger ability to scale up. An example is in the area of Collaborative Consumption. These have a social objective while behaving like for-profit enterprises and have been hugely rewarded with fantastic valuations and capital flows.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Follow your heart for the cause while being open to influences from others in running a focused business. Experiment a lot (low-cost and quick) and learn from them as you scale up. Where possible, build alliances or partner with other similar organisations to build scale and impact.
Eventually, it is your business. Do what you feel is right.
Why do you like being a mentor?
I get to learn while I get to share my experiences. When I do that with a few enterprises, I also get the benefit of a wider experience and an opportunity to cross-pollinate learnings.