Thursday, September 23, 2010

from small beginnings... what makes a social entrepreneur?

Ever since, I got interested in the field of Social Entrepreneurship (which is quite recent in life), I was fascinated by the small beginnings from where some of the life/world-changing social ventures started.

Describing the beginning of SEWA, Ela Bhatt once wrote:

"In 1971, migrant women working as cart-pullers in the city’s cloth market came to me in TLA, where I had started my work life working for textile mill workers of Ahmedabad. The women who lived on the footpath, were seeking help for better living conditions. Next month came the head loader women of the same cloth market, feeling agitated about very low rates of payment (30 paise per trip carrying the bale of cloth from a wholesaler to a retailer). They felt exploited by the traders. Then followed the used garment dealer women in search of credit facility... That was 1971. Some of these urban, poor, self- employed women workers came to the meeting that I called in a public garden where we formed our trade union (1972). We called it the Self Employed Women’s Association, SEWA."

Similarly, David Bornstein described how Grameen Bank was born out of Mohammad Yunus’s chance meeting with Sufiya Khatun who would work hard to make bamboo-stools throughout the day, and yet earn just about 2 cents:

"… When Yunus asked why her profit was so low, she explained that the only person who would lend her money to buy bamboo was the trader who bought her final product - and the price he set barely covered her costs.

(Yunus) wanted to see if there were other villagers in similar circumstances… and compiled a list of forty-two people whose capital requirements, in order to buy materials and work freely, added up to about $26.00.

Through the years he would recount that story hundreds of times… "I felt extremely ashamed of myself being part of a society that could not provide twenty-six dollars to forty-two able, skilled human beings who were trying to make a living."


  • Delhi-based GOONJ, which collects about 40,000 k.g. of garments every month, and reaches them to the needy across 20 states, started in 1998 when its founder Anshu Gupta was struck by the bundle of garments lying unused in his almarah: “Here we are, a young family of two adults, new home-makers for just three years, not wealthy by any means and we have 67 pieces of good, usable garments we don't want any more. Yet, but for the disaster we wouldn't be giving them away."

  • AID (Association for India’s Development), which has 36 chapters in USA and operates more than 100 projects in 18 Indian states, started with a modest proposal by its founder K Ravi to his friends to contribute $10 to start a school in some Indian village.

  • The idea of providing affordable solar electricity to rural poor came to Harish Hande, the Ashden Award winner founder of Selco India, when he visited the Dominican Republic as a part of his Master’s thesis. Today, Selco has more than 30,000 installations and 25 service centers.

  • The Rickshaw Bank was conceived when veterinarian Dr Pradip Kumar Sarmah asked his rickshaw puller how much money he makes, and found that even after 16 years, he did not own the rickshaw, earned a paltry Rs. 25/day, and had to pay half his earning as rent.

  • Child Rights and You (CRY) started when 25-years old Rippan Kapur and 6 of his friends, sitting around his mother’s dining table, contributed Rs.50/- each to create a fund that could “do something for the underprivileged Indian child”. Today, it has grown into one of the largest child rights movement in the country.

    …the list goes on.

    What also puzzled me was that people who started these ventures were ordinary individuals. They had limited means and modest backgrounds. What stimulated them to create/do something significant was also just a commonplace occurrence, similar to myriad situations which we all encounter in our lives.

    And yet, there was “something” they had, which allowed them to transform an everyday experience or act into sustainable ventures which could create major social impact.

    So, what was that “something”?

    As I learned more about such social entrepreneurs (be meeting them and reading), even their field of work may have been different (e.g., tribal and rural development, primary education, women empowerment, micro-credit lending, etc.), five qualities seemed to be common across them:

    a. Belief in possibility of change and human potential
    Underlying their efforts was the optimism that despite adversities and lack of resources/support, it is possible to create large transformations in a social system. This optimism is supported by a belief in the human potential – their own and of those others who are focus of their efforts - to make such changes happen. Ela Bhatt, for instance, was driven by the firm belief that even the poor illiterate women have a vision of personal change, and the capacity to make it happen.

    Similarly, Harish Hande’s vision of reaching solar power to poor communities was based on the conviction that poor can afford, pay for and maintain technology.

    It was this optimism and certainty that allowed them to envision futures that can be created by leveraging on this human potential for self-empowerment.

    b. Inspired Pragmatism
    While the underpinnings of their motivation was an internal need to create ‘social value’, to ‘do something for the marginalised’ or to ‘contribute back to the society’, etc., they did not adopt any charitable model to address the social issues. Their effort was to develop a model of “business” which was sustainable, and therefore, scalable. As Prof Yunus once explained his approach to eradicate poverty:

    ‘…I wanted to give money to people… so that they would be free from the moneylenders to sell their product at the price which the markets gave them …. (I charged interest because) I thought if you do things in a businesslike way, then the project can become as big as you want it to because you are… not dependent on anybody.… This is not charity. This is business: business with a social objective, which is to help people get out of poverty.’

    c. Capacity to Reframe Problems as Opportunities
    Perhaps, what distinguished them from most of us was their opportunity-orientation. Their actions do not start from the decision about how best they can deploy the resources that they have; rather, they start from the issues need to be addressed, and then work backward to identify the resources that are needed to solve those problems, and innovate opportunities for generating those resources.

    Consider, for instance, the Delhi-based Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT), which provides education, meals, boarding facilities, information on basic hygiene, counseling and medical help, and rehabilitation to around 3500 street- and platform- children each year. To partly finance its activities, SBT innovated the “guided street walks”, which are conducted by the street children. Not only this helps in humanizing the interface between the street kids and the social elites, it also provides a source of income to them and SBT.

    d. Heightened Sense of Accountability to Those Served
    The ventures they created were, of course, based on a deeply felt sense of obligation and accountability to the constituencies they served. There was an ethical impetus which guides their actions. But there is another, more important rationale for this sense of accountability.

    Unlike the business entrepreneurs, markets do not work well for social entrepreneurs in providing a feedback on their actions. When one is in the “business” of creating social/environmental value, it is difficult to evaluate – and monitor - the intangibles such as social improvements, public good (or harm), or benefits for the marginalized, etc.

    To offset this inefficiency in the environment in which they operate, they developed mechanisms to assess the needs of the communities which they aim to serve – and the extent to which their efforts and actions make an impact in meeting those needs. Wherever possible, they design market-like feedback mechanisms that reinforce their accountability to their constituencies. SEWA, for instance, developed a unique methodology to monitor its impact by asking 10 questions related to its twin goals of providing ‘full employment’ (including income and social security) and ‘self-reliance’ to its members.

    e. Ability to Work Across Boundaries
    They built not just the organizations, but also a collaborative network across different stakeholders in the issue (e.g., local population, state machinery, technology partners, micro-financial institutions, donors, etc.). Selco India, for instance, tied up with micro-finance agencies to provide credit to their customers/ beneficiaries; Goonj works through more than 100 grass-root organizations across the states to deliver need-based garments; and, CRY works with more hundreds of NGOs to reach the resources to those who need them, etc.

    What perhaps made their ideas and actions sustainable was their ability to collaborate, to create networks, to share ideas, resources and credit with others to increase the sense of ownership in that network.

    After all, as Harry Truman had said long time back:
    “It is amazing what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit”