Adversary to Ally: Why My Social Enterprise Joined Forces with a Competitor
Collaboration is a popular buzzword in the social impact sector for good reason: Can we really solve the world’s largest problems without working together? Buzzy jargon aside, organizations that create energy access and fight poverty are competing against each other for the limited tranches of funding available to get their jobs done. There are tons of normative barriers shrinking the funds social businesses rely on (watch Dan Pallot’s TEDTalk for more). Although some innovative nonprofits and hybrids are raising rounds in a way traditional venture capital is raised, social enterprises are mostly locked in a perpetual raise. They have to apply for every relevant grant, subcontract or prize they can manage. So how can social enterprises collaborate when we are constantly forced to compete or die?
Struggle to Scale
In 2011, I founded Empower Generation to build a powerful network of women entrepreneurs in Nepal. Our mission was twofold: increase the status of women as leaders in their communities while bringing clean energy to Nepal’s rural villages. We recruited rural women and supported them in their entrepreneurial journeys by equipping them with the business skills, tools and confidence to sell life-changing products like solar lights, sanitary pads or clean cookstoves, in their communities.
Since our bootstrapped beginning (we launched with a $7,000 crowdfunding campaign) we have overcome countless acts of gender bias, technical failure, supply chain issues and even the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015. We have persisted, going on to train and employ over 500 women who have collectively sold over 60,000 life-improving products. Women in our network have leveraged the skills they learned to build promising careers, run for and secure political office in their communities, further their education or take their family business to the next level. Over the years, we have been recognized for our unique empowerment model and our impressive sales growth.
Yet, in spite of our success, we’ve struggled to raise enough funds to scale and I have never been able to properly resource my company (i.e. pay myself or other U.S. staff a meaningful wage). Then, 2017 saw a significant drop in sales of solar products in Nepal due to an unexpected improvement in public utility reliability in urban centers and the perception that the grid will reliably extend country-wide. Having become a mother in 2016, I was rethinking how much time and earning potential I wanted to sacrifice going forward. My ability to work 70+ hours a week and travel globally became increasingly restricted. The future of Empower Generation was uncertain and it was time to change course.
Pivot to Partnership
My Nepali co-founder, Sita, and our U.S. directors spent time exploring options to pivot our business focus, replace me or close down. It was a hard reality to face. Although devastating thoughts of letting down the dozens of women who currently owned franchises, the hundreds who relied on us for training and meaningful employment, and the hundreds of thousands whose access to life-improving products we were threatening to cut off, plagued us. We knew that continuing on as we were would be letting them down too.
During this period, I started exploring collaborations with some female founders of organizations I had previously flagged as competitors. One of these founders was Alexie Seller, CEO of Pollinate Energy, another alumna of the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Since 2012, Pollinate Energy has been serving families living in India’s urban slum communities. At the heart of their organization are the sales agents, called Pollinators, who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves and gain new skills, as well as a meaningful income, while selling life-changing products on affordable payment plans.
Alexie and I not only learned about the challenges we respectively faced, but also that we could actually help each other solve them. We set a simple ground rule: we would be open and honest in sharing our successes, failures, and current status – both as leaders of our companies and as human beings. This quickly allowed us to forget about our “perfect pitch” and drill down on real problems, but it took time and hard work to develop the trust we needed to maintain that level of honesty. Following our regular discussions, we agreed that without face to face meetings we wouldn’t be able to go further, and so I traveled to India late in 2017 and Alexie joined me in Nepal. All of the financial due diligence aside, this is what confirmed the opportunity for us. We both felt at home when visiting each other’s teams and target communities. Confident in our ability to do better for our teams and customers together, we set out to bring our boards, staff and advisors on board with our strategic decision to join forces.
Sixteen months later, and we can proudly say that our organizations have officially merged to more efficiently tackle those challenges – together. (The combined company is going through a rebranding process and for now we’re retaining our original brand names) As Alexie said at the recent SE4ALL conference in Lisbon: “With a problem that is as big as energy access with 1.3 billion people still needing electricity, partnerships have to be the way to go.”
Greater resources for greater impact
Our partnership has accelerated us on our path towards greater impact. We are not letting down our entrepreneurs, our staff or our customers. Instead, we are creating more jobs, more opportunities to lead, and we are reaching more families across India and Nepal.
Within three months of joining forces, we have already seen sales increase in Nepal by 158 percent, along with renewed excitement from our entrepreneurs. With the sophisticated sales management system Pollinate Energy is introducing, we can better support our network with streamlined supply chains, data collection and analysis, product procurement, while offering payment plans for our customers.
The Pollinate Energy team is working on empowering more women into leadership positions across their hives in India. Already, they have created new professional growth pathways for Pollinators and together, we have set an ambitious goal: to recruit and train 1,000 women into the network by 2020.
We focus on women because they are set to gain the most from income-generating opportunities and life-improving products we offer. They are the strategic investment for our business because they are best placed to understand the needs of our target customers – women who are disproportionately affected by energy and economic poverty, and who are most likely to benefit from our household product range.
The merger has also allowed Pollinate Energy to identify gaps in their skill development processes. By improving the early stage training and ongoing support for Pollinators, they expect to increase their average Pollinator activity rates from 45 percent to 80 percent within 12 months, and they’re on track to achieve that.
“An exciting development for India has been adopting Empower Generation’s best practices when it comes to training methodology. The resulting higher Pollinator activity means we can reach more families who are currently missing out on accessing our life-changing products,” Alexie said.
The partners’ path
Right now we’re heading into our final month of our second integration stage, where we have aligned our back-end operations, set a sales strategy for Nepal, and identified priority projects to launch in the next phase.
Transparency has always been a top priority for both Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation. Our honesty brought us together in the first place. It also means we are not shying away from talking about challenges that come about when merging our work. Our passion for our mission drives us to recognize our bias and our skill gaps, and to learn from each other in this collaboration.
Stronger together than we ever were alone, we aim to reach one million people with our life-changing program by 2020.
Anya Cherneff is the founder of Empower Generation, which recently merged with Pollinate Energy.
Photo provided by the author. Sales manager in Chitwan, Nepal is trained on Pollinate Energy’s Salesforce platform.
Homepage photo via Pexels.