Indian entrepreneurs are jiving to a new beat

No one would debate that India is a land of entrepreneurs. From the globally renowned captains of industry like the Ambanis and Tatas, pharmaceutical giants such as the Reddys and well-known IT pioneers like Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji to the millions of men, women and children who are entrepreneurs out of necessity, using their imagination and wit to survive.

While many Indians, young and old, may aspire to emulate the commercial entrepreneurs who have made billions, there is a growing number of talented, educated young men and women who march to a different drummer. They want to use markets to change our broken system. 

They are not content with pursuing short-term profits, irrespective of the costs to society and the environment and assuaging their consciences through acts of charity and ‘corporate social responsibility’. 

Rather than bemoan the travails of shareholder-driven capitalism, many institutions and individuals see this moment of recession to champion new market systems based on entrepreneurship in the public interest. Dhruv Lakra is one such young man. Born and bred in India, with stints at Merill Lynch as an investment banking analyst, Lakra returned to school for his MBA. But somewhere along the way he had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, which changed his otherwise traditional career path. The phrase is derived from the biblical story of St Paul, who converted from Judaism to Christianity on the road to Damascus. And so it was with Lakra. 

mirakle_logo‘‘I got this idea sometime in August 2008 while i was seated next to a deaf boy travelling on a bus. I started talking to him and soon realized he had no opportunities for employment because of the strong negative perception regarding his ability to be productive. On reaching home, i received a courier and there was no communication exchanged with the delivery man. That got me thinking: ‘Why can’t low-income deaf adults become courier carriers?’ And so i started Mirakle Couriers in Mumbai.’’

That was a year ago. Today, Mirakle Couriers has successfully executed 800 deliveries in its launch phase. How big can this business get? Modest estimates put the number of deaf people in India at two million — but some say it is as high as 60 million, and 66% of them are unemployed. 

At the Indian School of Business (ISB), the social enterprise virus is spreading rapidly, thanks to Net Impact, a global membership organization that has its Indian chapter there. 

Net Impact’s mission is to inspire, educate and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world. It spans six continents and has more than 7,000 members, making it one of the most influential networks of MBAs, graduate students, and professionals in existence. Among other things, many of these students volunteer for pro bono consulting projects to learn first-hand how to run a social venture. Teams of up to five students work with the organization for up to three months, understanding the challenge, analyzing the problem and delivering recommendations. Many students go on to work for social ventures, or set up their own. 

One of the biggest opportunities for social enterprise development today is in the area of energy, and Indian social entrepreneurs are rapidly making strides in this as well. Among the most impressive examples i have come across is that of Harish Hande, founder of SELCO, based out of Bangalore. Harish received his engineering degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and his doctorate in energy engineering at the University of Massachusetts. But his real education came as a result of spending two years living in a rural village with no electricity. 

He pioneered access to rural solar electrification for families below the poverty line through a combination of customized lighting systems, innovative doorstep financing and understanding the market needs of different user groups. To further the effects, he created SELCO entrepreneurs who distribute solar powered lights to low-income communities. Thus, he has reached 80,000 clients across Karnataka and Kerala and has recently moved into Gujarat. 

Interestingly, talented young Indians are returning home after years of living and working abroad to set up social businesses. Parag Gupta is one such example. A first-generation immigrant who worked at the World Economic Forum, Gupta will soon be back in India to run WasteBank, a hybrid entity that will use commercial investor financing and technical expertise to turn garbage into a commercially profitable resource. 

Similarly, Amit Chug founded Cosmos Ignite Innovations in 2004 together with Matt Scott to address the challenges of replacing kerosene through a sustainable social venture that substitutes the Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology. Amit came back to India after working as an international marketing advisor in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Dhruv Lakra, Harish Hande, Parag Gupta, Amit Chug and all the ISB MBA members of Net Impact are examples of the direction India’s future leaders are taking. India is well positioned to lead the way. 

The writer is director of Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Said Business School

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