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How to marry social impact and business, and win

Sunday, 24 October 2010 - 9:23am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: dna

At the annual National Social Entrepreneurship Forum confluence, experts shared wisdom on running a successful and sustainable social business.

Bangalore sure seems to have no dearth of social-minded youth if the turnout at the annual National Social Entrepreneurship Forum (NSEF) confluence on Saturday was anything to go by.

The conference, themed on youth and social entrepreneurship, saw a packed audience and had several thought leaders and successful social entrepreneurs speaking from their experience, expelling myths that shroud the sector.

Running a successful social business is akin to appeasing two Gods - social impact and profit - both of them not always liking each other, said Priya Naik, CEO, Samhita Social Ventures, demystifying the halo around such ventures.

This opinion was seconded by all the other sector experts as well, who stressed the importance of sustainability and commitment to end users. Paul Basil, founder and CEO, Villgro Innovations Foundation, cited several examples from the field to drive home the point. He defined social entrepreneurship as visioning social change, taking reasonable risks and relentlessly pursuing social goals.

In the last few years, it’s been fashionable to talk of social business, and many youngsters get into the sector with a lot of passion and several fantastic ideas. But not many of them are able to push it through the years and shut it down dejected. One way to solve this sustainability issue is to look at profits, and not equate social ventures as non-profit alone. While scaling-up isn’t easy for a for-profit social venture, even sustainability can be tougher for a non-profit one, Neelam Chibber, co-founder and managing director, Industree said.

“Charity doesn’t work,” she quipped. “To be self-sustainable in a livelihood area, you have to make profits. When talking about social side, you talk about capacity building and empowerment. While talking business, it is about breaking even and profits. But actually, the difference is only in the language,” Chibber said, underlining that profit isn’t a bad word at all.

Basil identified a few guiding principles for setting up a sustainable social venture. Affordable pricing and localised value/ wealth creation, he said, were fundamental to it. Also, the product or service on offer need have no frills as the beneficiaries of the venture focus on meeting their specific requirements. In the rural sector, hardly anyone has money to spare on frills, Basil explained. Financing is another area that needs attention. Shared channels, be it distribution or procurement, could help towards making the venture more cost-efficient, he said.

Shanti Raghavan, Founder, Enable India, explained how passion for the cause is a vital catalyst, which would reduce the gap between the need and solution. Even during her corporate stints, right from her first job with Bell Labs, till she was working on GE aircraft engines, “everything mattered, every day counted,” she said.

The same drive spilt over to Enable India. In 1992, when her brother was diagnosed with an illness that rapidly led to blindness, she was stunned. But she chose to focus on a solution. “From emotion, you move to action, and during action, you come up with a solution,” she spelt out her simple formula.

However, without a strong connection to the end-users though, social businesses can fail, Priya Naik warned. Her first start-up was shut down because of this. “It’s not about the big idea. It isn’t about the self. Before you start anything, think who you would be responsible towards. You simply cannot let down those you have committed to help with your social business,” she said. To this Chibber added, “If you focus directly on your primary stakeholders, you cannot give up on them.”

Anshu Gupta, founder, Goonj, Solomon JP, country head, Ashoka India, Ramji Raghavan, founder chairman, Agastya International Foundation, Prof Madhukar Shukla of XLRI, Dr Vivek Desai of  Hosmac Foundation, Vishal Vasishth, founder and managing director, Song Investment advisors, Dr Satyajit Majumdar of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Anurag Gupta, founder and CEO, A Little World, Aparajita Agrawal, vice-president, Intellecap, Abhijit Ray, founder and director, Unitus Capital, Prof Sourav Mukherji of  IIM-B, Dr Meena Jain, founder, Sambhav Foundation were other speakers at the conference.

NSEF promotes social entrepreneurship in universities across India and has student-run chapters at universities and colleges including IIMs, BITS etc. They designed this confluence to play as “a platform to catalyse social entrepreneurship among the youth, be a place to drive home various social innovations and different facets of social entrepreneurship and a place to mutually learn about effective solutions to the most pressing social problems”.

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