In 2012, the idea of taking the annually held national, Unconvention Conference (www.unconvention.co.in) to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities was inspired in hopes of spreading the idea of social entrepreneurship and offering opportunities to enable nascent entrepreneurs. I had the opportunity to work on the Unconvention|L platform since the beginning and have really seen it transform and shape over time. Last years Unconvention|L focused on knowledge building, creating a lasting ecosystem, and sharing stories of social entrepreneurs local to the area we held events. As we finished our fifth event in March 2013, we realized that there was the demand and need for us to expand this platform even further to unearth more entrepreneurs and ideas in the process, providing them with the support of a local ecosystem.
Despite having many years of experience in events, planning them in India was a whole new ballgame. There were many lessons to be learned along the way and I am still learning today. I learned that each city has a personality of its own, with its own needs and wants. In the past eight months I have had the opportunity to travel to many cities across India and speak with a number of students, start-ups, organizations, educational institutions and veteran social entrepreneurs who expressed the importance of what the Unconvention|L platform stood for. These conversations gave us reassurance in our initiative and the motivation to expand it even further.
Yesterday, we were lucky enough to receive the Impact Economy Innovation Fund Grant from Dasra, Omidyar Network, and The Rockefeller Foundation (http://www.dasra.org/impact-economy-innovations-grant-fund ) which will help us continue to build local ecosystems, deliver knowledge and ultimately inspire budding social entrepreneurs through the Unconvention|L platform. In the next year, we will go to over 10 more locations, hold a series of knowledge building sessions in 5 different locations, and unearth more entrepreneurs that have innovative ideas through the Unconvention|L platform. We will continue to connect social entrepreneurs pan-India to the larger Social Enterprise network through a technology platform and our annual national conference, Sankalp Unconvention Summit.
As we start our second round of Unconvention|L, I look forward to learning about the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in even more cities, I look forward to learning about the many innovative ideas in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, but most of all, I look forward to inspiring nascent social entrepreneurs who will become the bright future that we at Villgro strive to create.
After majoring in Marketing and International Management, Sandy spent over two years at McGraw-Hill as an event specialist. She has been active in volunteering and is interested in a more sustainable approach to helping individuals at the BOP.
Last week I was in Barcelona for my sister’s wedding. It was a very emotional celebration, ‘love was in the air’ and I was happy to enjoy that moment with my family and friends, many of them I had not talked to in months. At the end of the night, I realized that most of my conversations had followed the same structure:
1) How is it going in India?
2) When are you going back to Mumbai (from Barcelona)?
3) When are you definitely leaving India? Things must be very hard there…
And yes, it is true, in addition to poverty and the enormous social inequality; sometimes its the little things that are hard in India. There are many people (lots!); infernal traffic, honking by default (in fact all trucks in India ‘command’ so: “Horn OK please”); I wake up and go to sleep with a soundtrack of crows against my window; it’s hard to find (affordable) food less spicy than chili (clarification: Spanish food is NOT spicy, Mexican is); and sometimes there seem to be no rules at all while other times, there are rules for things I wouldn’t believe possible (see photo below).
On a professional level, I find India to be a culture fond of taking chai-breaks rather than fulfilling plans (here I notice some similarities with Spain). Like the Indian head bob to convey yes / no / maybe, everything is more uncertain, as there are more factors to disturb your plans. These factors include power cuts, strikes, finding space to get on the train, what seems like daily festivals (byproduct of many religious groups living together), the traffic, the lack of numbers on the streets (or what is worse, signs for ’24 former 86′). These factors not only affect you, but also the hundreds of people who directly or indirectly influence your work (the rest of the company, suppliers, partners, customers, etc).
But, despite all the things that don’t work, the fact that some forty people during the wedding asked me the same (‘things must be very hard back there’) made me think about what I DO like about working in India. What is NOT hard in India, or maybe what is the other side of the same coin:
- Good vibes. People smile (a looooot more). In fact, I’ve done the test. I go down the street and smile at a random person. 99.9% of the time I get an ear-to-ear smile in return. I’m almost sure that the other 0.01% didn’t see me or had poor vision.
- Things are relative. Although it is important to have the job done on time, if you don’t, the world keeps turning. You realize that here there are millions of things that are urgent, and unfortunately unresolved, and that everything can wait. (NB: this philosophy in excess is dangerous!)
- Natural selection. It is impossible to work here with the mindset of ‘everything is important and urgent’, because one thing or another that escapes your control will stop you. So, you learn to prioritize to make sure, with the available resources, that the important stuff gets done first.
-You develop a capacity to understand any English accent. This is no joke. I have had many problems following conversations, especially on the phone. However, now I feel I can understand most people (I still have some difficulties with my colleague Sandy from sunny California).
- Anything is possible. This is something that I both love and hate. The lack of order or rules in many ways sometimes hurts you, but it can also help you if you can go with the flow. For example: a product sold in packs of 20 doesn’t prevent you from buying only three units, you can end up speaking in a conference like TEDx due to a last minute decision, and you can jump a fence to get to your destination instead of walking 1km to the “official door”(the guard himself will help you use the shortcut).
All this doesn’t mean that I have turn into a ‘zen’ person or that I’m always able to go gracefully with the flow – I still notice the honks piercing my ears… but the fact is that I went to Spain two times during my fellowship and still returned to India two times.
Ah! For the next wedding, I’ll bring a cheat sheet with the points about the other side of the coin of working in India, for sure!
Laura has degrees in Development / International Economics and in Journalism. She has five years of experience in the public and the private sector in Spain, France and Germany. Laura has worked in communication and project development and has been engaged in local developmental issues. She looks forward to keep working in the social enterprise sector contributing to local development.
After spending eight months living and working in India, it would be remiss of me not to share the joys of this wonderful country.
So here are just five (there are more, many more) reasons why a fellowship experience in India is definitely worth considering.
1. Go for Growth
For the young and restless in the recession-riddled countries of the developed world, India will prove a land of great opportunities. It is the fifth largest economy in terms of GDP and it grew at a pace of 7.45% between 2000 to 2011, making India the world’s second-fastest growing major economy.
2. India for Impact
India has recently witnessed an increase in the number and size of investments in business with a clear triple bottom line: profits (or financial sustainability at the least), social impact, and environment impact. The social enterprise sector, although dating back to the early eighties, is still nascent in terms of revenue per company. So where better to test the water, dip your feet, and whet your appetite for a career in social entrepreneurship than right here in India!
3. Food for Thought
The national dish of the United Kingdom might be the chicken tikka masala but nothing actually beats being in India and tasting the real deal. From the pani puri being served on the street, to piping hot aloo parathas to dosas the size of a large flying saucer, you’ll have plenty of fire and food in your belly to get down to business.
4. Travel Time
They say travel broadens the mind and widens our horizons. Taking up a fellowship in India comes with the opportunity to do just that. India is a vast country with mountains to coasts to deserts and everything in between. Most importantly, for those on a tight fellowship budget, travel is affordable and safe (despite what you may have read in the press of late). Don’t forget to pack sunscreen!
5. Live it, Learn it
In today’s interconnected and globalised world, you might already think you know a lot about India and its culture. Perhaps your company has foreign direct investments here, your portfolio may likely have some BRIC stocks, maybe your foundation donates for projects in India, you possibly have Indian friends, or like me you have even have Indian roots… well, good for you. However nothing actually beats being here. Living and working here, allows one to gain insights into Indian culture, its people, and learn nuances on how business is conducted.
All in all, a fellowship in India is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I hope that I’ve been able to inspire some of you to consider a similar opportunity.
To apply for the Villgro Fellowship, please visit http://villgro.org/the-fellowship
Aparna holds a Masters in Finance & Investment followed by a career as an Analyst/Portfolio Manager in the Asset Management industry. She has worked in London’s financial district for nearly a decade and now wants to bring her skills to the social sector.
To turn an idea into reality, an entrepreneur faces a number of challenges. A proper environment, including access to financial, technical and network support, helps his/her products and services to be tested, developed and scaled. In the social business sector, the challenges are even larger. Social entrepreneurs are dealing with innovation – exploring products, services, targets and environments that just a few or even no one else has had interest in approaching before as a solution to a social issue.
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 networking. During the discussions, I realized that budding entrepreneurs need more sector experienced local service providers and technical support. They were also looking for networking opportunities with peers facing challenges while undertaking their ideas or those who had already reached some success in their ventures. These are issues that seed capital alone cannot resolve. It requires the development of the local ecosystem.
There are many examples where market-based solutions provide adequate products and services to the poor while also making a significant change. To support the emergence of such new social enterprises, it is necessary to ensure this favorable ecosystem, composed of investors, incubators, researchers, media professionals, service providers, competitors, among other stakeholders. Over time, the ecosystem players co-evolve their capabilities and tend to find and leverage mutually supportive roles.
The Villgro’s Unconvention platform is compromised 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 one of its initiatives is the Villgro Awards, on which I’ve been working for the past 4 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 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. More than 800 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. If you have any suggestions for the next year’s edition, don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Cristina Yoshida Fernandes
Cristina holds two PG degrees – the first on NGOs management and the second on Globalization & Culture. She has eight years of experience in nonprofit sector, while working for Itaú Bank Foundation as its Social Mobilization Coordinator. Cristina works at Villgro with the Unconvention team.
Shock. Horror. Disbelief. I experienced these reactions from my large, loving, and opinionated family and close circle of friends when I told them I was moving to India for a year. For me, the choice had been simple, I had just gotten accepted into a prestigious program that would throw me into a land of opportunities. They? They thought I was crazy. From the moment I told them to the time I boarded the plane I had a deck of cards thrown at me. I got the ‘overly loving friends and family’ card, the ‘beautiful California weather’ card, the ‘look what you’re going to be missing out on’ card, and their favorite, ‘it won’t be easy in India’ card.
They were right, it isn’t always easy, but it has been worth it. The street food (once your stomach can handle it), the colorful festivals, the loving people, and the beauty of India are just the beginning. I had decided to come to India, the land where my ancestors are from to make a difference. To do something for others. To get my hands dirty. To learn about social enterprise. To be happy going to work. The list of what I wanted was endless. The Villgro Fellowship gave me it all and much more.
My fellowship involves me working for Villgro to build the local ecosystem through Unconvention|L events. DREAM JOB ALERT! As a fellow for Unconvention|L, I get to travel through India to Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, meeting with people interested in the social enterprise sector. The purpose of the events is to help budding entrepreneurs build the networks and knowledge they need through our events. Planning events is my forte and having the opportunity to do that while making an impact just makes it that much more rewarding.
The last seven months in India have been extremely memorable and worthwhile. I have made some lasting friendships, built an incredible network of professionals that work in the sector, met some incredible social entrepreneurs who are truly making a difference in India, and have had multi-disciplinary exposure. In five months it looks like I will end this fellowship the way I started it, a little confused but very excited for what the future has in store for me!
by Sandy Singh
After majoring in Marketing and International Management, Sandy spent over two years at McGraw-Hill as an event specialist. She has been active in volunteering and is interested in a more sustainable approach to helping individuals at the BOP.
Sandy is working with the Unconvention Team on Unconvention | L.
Chapter One: Are we there yet??
As a financial auditor working in the Oil & Gas Industry in Houston, I knew I had two choices.
Option 1: change tracks and transition to a more inspiring field of work.
Option 2: end up in AA (Auditors Anonymous) struggling with the inertia to quit a well-settled, respectable job.
I agree that admittance is Step 1 to career recovery, but steps 2,3, and 4 are convincing your parents that you have found your true calling, in this case the Villgro Fellowship. Once I had my parents on-board, nothing could stop me from entering the world of Social Enterprise.
Chapter Two: Do we enjoy the camp-site? Let’s start the trek!
My finance & accounting background landed me an assignment with Sustaintech, one of Villgro’s incubatees. Sustaintech designs and distributes energy efficient cooking stoves that use 40% less fuel than conventional stoves in low-income areas.
I have always wondered what a fellow from another country could bring to the table to make up for their lack of work experience in India. In a sense it’s like being an exchange student in a new country where the host and the student both benefit from the interaction. In this case, a fellow brings their passion, work experience, corporate work ethic, punctuality, etc to the mix whereas the host start-up presents a gamut of real-world situations for the fellow to tackle.
The first 5 months into this fellowship made me realize that I was merely practicing skills taught in colleges in simulated environments up until now. You know you have the theory in your brain somewhere, but now is the time to implement it. As I started applying different business strategies, management techniques, and financial theories to work, I realized that theories are only useful if they are practiced; a lot like swimming I guess.
So my first ‘practical swim-sessions’ at Sustaintech went in the sequence of progression from drowning in information, to soaking it in bit-by-bit, to finally smoothly floating while still furiously paddling under the surface. My roles and responsibilities here range from accounting system implementation, 5 year financial planning, business development and “capacity building” (I have finally understood this term), marketing, exploring dealership models, grant writing, sales curriculum building, so on and so forth. Since the company is in it’s initial years of operations we find ourselves going back to the drawing board quite often to strategize and re-strategize (and then some more), to get all parts of this Rubik’s cube to align right. To say it’s been a huge learning curve for me is an understatement to this steep climb!
Chapter Three: The view from up here is awesome.
Whether in San Francisco or Bangalore, selling a new smartphone application or fuel-efficient cookstoves, the operational challenges faced by start-ups are almost the same world-wide , only here we are adding the Indian Tadka of religious, cultural, and social diversity of this nation. For instance: 12-hour power cuts bringing manufacturing to a halt every day, or local competitors comfortably making your brochure ideas their own (Copyright =the right to copy of course). In spite of these speed bumps and government policies (or lack thereof), the social enterprise sector is still thriving in India due to the perseverance of passionate and talented people. I am extremely lucky to work with this inspiring group at Sustaintech and Villgro.
“When you start enjoying working long hours, you know you are working with the right team for the right cause in the right space” – Me to my supportive parents
By Aina Gaur
Schooled in seven different states of India, Aina is well exposed to India. She has a BBA and and a Masters in Accounting & Financial Reporting followed by a two year stint at Ernst & Young’s public accounting. Aina will be working with Sustaintech, which manufactures and sells fuel efficient biomass cooking stoves.
One of the ways through which Villgro is creating social impact is through investing in entrepreneurs who are building innovative products in healthcare. You’ve already heard from Laura who is working with one of our health focused companies – BioSense.
This week, I’m going to be talking about what happens before Villgro actually invests in an enterprise – a behind the scenes peek if you will, into the world of start up fund raising.
I was suddenly thrust this opportunity when the founder of Villgro called me into his office one fine morning and asked me to engage in due diligence on an enterprise that had been recently identified as a possible candidate for investment. Much like Laura in last week’s post, I jumped first and asked questions later.
In my previous life as an Investment Analyst in London, I had been in the business of due dligence, analysing stocks and mutual funds. The key difference between my old life and the new one; I was now working with a distinct lack of information. Earnings ratios, Net Asset Value (NAVs), and balance sheets used to be available at the click of a mouse. So to work on analysing an enterprise with no ready product, no operations or no cashflow statements, was new to me.
Fortunately for me, I was working with one of Villgro’s senior advisors who was there to guide me every step of the way. Our first task was to meet the entrepreneurs and get to know them and their product. In this case, we travelled to Delhi to meet with a young duo who had produced an innovative product to be used in neonatal resuscitation. They were passionate, driven and committed to seeing this product come to market and saving the lives of millions of babies.
Although I shared the entrepreneurs’ excitement about the impact this new technology could have, I had to provide a researched and unbiased report. I had to validate claims made by the entrepreneur which is a key part of the due diligence process. This includes confirming whether there is a need for this product and if target customers will purchase this technology. In addition the pricing and competitive landscape was also important to consider amongst many other apsects.
The validation process physically translated to this;
I used the internet to read more widely about infant mortality and gather general market research.
I picked up the phone and spoke with manufacturers, suppliers, competitors, product experts and many others.
I visited hospitals to speak with pediatricians, junior doctors, medical students and nurses.
The latter presented the largest problem. I know doctors are busy people but here in India, they appear not even to stop to catch their breath. Persuading them to let me into their office, let alone give me 15 minutes of their time was like squeezing blood out of a stone.
First there was the matter of getting past the sneering receptionist who would tell me to go away and come back the next day. Quite often I was just told me wait with no explanation of when I might be able to talk to the doctor. India was teaching me patience – a missing virtue which my poor mother had frequently asked me cultivate over the years.
On the occasions I did manage to successfully set them up, my hospital visits were by far the most interesting aspect of the investment process. I enjoyed interacting with potential users (i.e. doctors and nurses), seeing their excitement (or sometimes lack thereof), hearing their feedback, and listening to their constructive criticisms.
Of course the visits also serves a greater purpose; it’s the closest I’ll ever get to really experiencing the gravity of the situation. Seeing with my own eyes the fragile babies fighting to live puts the ‘bigger picture’ in view. That there are young social entrepreneurs working to make the fight just that little bit easier is an inspiring thing indeed. I’m just glad I could play some small part in bringing them the attention and funding they richly deserve to start them on the long road ahead.
Aparna holds a Masters in Finance & Investment followed by a career as an Analyst/Portfolio Manager in the Asset Management industry. She has worked in London’s financial district for nearly a decade and now wants to bring her skills to the social sector. Aparna will be conducting due diligence on companies for inclusion in Villgro’s portfolio and contribute to SEED where she will help a portfolio of companies scale up and raise their first round of funding.
Recently, our very own Laura Espiau had the opportunity to take part in a TEDx event in Mumbai that focused on a the social enterprise she is working with. While the rest of us fellows certainly wished we could been there with her, she was kind enough to share her experience with us.Q. How were you lucky enough to get involved in this?
Q. What can you tell us about the crowd and the energy?
Q. What was going through your mind before and during your presentation?
Q. What was the best part of the experience? The worst?
Claude holds a BA/MBA in Banking and Finance and he has managed transactions ranging from Micro Finance to Corporate Finance. Claude is an avid volunteer and active traveller, has so far visited 4 continents and over 25 countries. He will be working with Villgro Innovation marketing Pvt Ltd. on business model refinement, development of marketing and consumer stratification research.