POOJA WARIER is the director of UnLtd India, a launch pad for social entrepreneurs. The organisation funds and supports exceptional
individuals whose ideas, passion and entrepreneurial skills can bring long-term solutions to the country’s social problems. She was in
Kathmandu and spoke to THT Perspectives about the prospects and challenges of empowering social entrepreneurs. Excerpts:
Tell us about your organisation and the kind of work you are doing to develop social entrepreneurship
We started an organisation called Unlimited India in December 2007, and our key aim was to find people with ideas who could solve problems in their communities. In the startup years, we’d to work with them to transform those ideas into real projects, help them make it efficient and develop leadership skills. All the while, the key objective was to see if we could nurture new ideas and new leaders into this space. We call them social entrepreneurs, the difference being that we look for ideas and individuals that use entrepreneurial skills. It does not have to be about money, but about looking at a problem differently from an NGO or any other regular group or body. Currently in India, we have
three different programmes. One is called incubation, where we support programmes with seed fund of IRs 100,000 to IRs two
million and each level is backed by a whole package of support — from hand holding to coaching. The second programme is called Bombay Connect, where we have people who want to work in this sector or contribute to it. So there are startups, journalists, designers and others working out of this space. The third programme is Boot Camp for people who don’t need one or two years of support. With just 10 days of intense inputs, this group is good to go.
What are the challenges to social entrepreneurship being more widespread and is it making a difference?
I don’t think social entrepreneurship is a new phenomenon, only the term is novel. The idea of making it into a separate trend compared to the development sector is new. While we do need social activists, what social entrepreneurs tend to do is come in with solutions after we shake up the system. In India it has helped test out things that have not been thought of before. An example is Druv Lakra, who runs a courier by deaf people called Miracle Couriers. In India, the programmes for deaf people run by NGOs usually deal with imparting vocational trainings and then facilitating them to produce something which the NGO sells. But here, a regular courier company was set up that employs only deaf people, as this work doesn’t need one to be able to hear. The difference is that such employment gives them dignity and doesn’t make them feel different. So stuff like that has made other people look at the model and try new ideas. Because of the nature of social entrepreneurship in India, a lot more professionals are attracted to it. These days, a young person who has acquired an MBA is more inclined to work as a social entrepreneur than join the usual professions. In terms of challenges, different stages have different challenges. If you were to start a project, the challenge would be to get financial support because a lot of support is geared towards established entrepreneurs who have established a model. Once you are established, the challenge is to scale up. We don’t see many social entrepreneurs scaling up or expanding. The ability to increase scale is very limited, probably because it’s a different dynamic when having to handle more employees.
How easy is it to get finance for such projects?
For young entrepreneurs, family and friends are still the first port for funding but nowadays, there are possibilities of getting funded while at college itself. There are a lot of fellowships and business plan competitions available for young people. In India, there are people who want to give money for such start ups, but again the level of risk taking is very low. If you can prove your model, you can get funding. But crowd funding is something that is growing. What it basically means is raising money from neighbours and even strangers through online platforms, et cetera. For startups, that’s the future and I think especially for Nepal that’d be the way to go.
What is your association with Nepal? Are you involved in
organisations that work to promote the same cause in Nepal?
Actually, my association with Nepal is quite accidental. I run a company called Journeys for Change and Catrin from the Nepal Business Initiative was associated with it, and so through her I’ve been working with Change Fusion. While in Nepal, I felt that organisations like Change Fusion can do a lot to build the pipeline for social entrepreneurs in Nepal, because I saw a lot of young people wanting to become entrepreneurs. But there is nobody to help them.
How do you see the situation in Nepal?
I’m not confident that I’ve enough knowledge to speak about the situation in Nepal. Also, because of my bias towards startups, my initial feeling is that there are a lot of large organisations here like the UN and others and there is a lot of money coming into development aid. There seems to be a lot of impact funds as well. What I didn’t see is enough entrepreneurs. I went to this event and there was huge money being offered for social entrepreneurs but very few takers. My question is, how many social entrepreneurs are there in Nepal to absorb that kind of funding? And if there aren’t enough of them, who is working to develop and create more entrepreneurs? The challenge for Nepal is to build that quality of entrepreneurs. The money will always come, but the level of entrepreneurs who can use that amount needs to be built.