Nilima Achwal

Building India’s Social Enterprise Ecosystem – Where it Matters

The social enterprise ecosystem continues to grow by leaps and bounds in the world’s largest democracy, assisted by the openness to market-driven approaches, foreign capital that sees jugaad-driven entrepreneurism in India as the future, India’s new rich who are beginning to explore alternative philanthropy, the multitude of domestic social impact funds that have supported the ecosystem for the last decade, and even the government, who has recently announced a $1 billion fund for social entrepreneurs.

Simultaneously, a huge number of highly talented college students are rejecting the deeply rooted familial and cultural pressures of following the treaded path. Instead, they’re trying something largely unheard of among their families and peer groups: to try to change India and to do so through the equally unconventional high-risk path of entrepreneurship. In response, every elite university now hosts its own social venture competition – often sponsored by India’s major corporations (for example, the new Tata Social Entrepreneurship Challenge at the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta, and the Global Social Venture Competition–Asia held annually at the Indian Institute of Business.) Support organizations have sprung up to connect budding social entrepreneurs to the capital, networks, and mentors they need to test and launch their products in the difficult-to-reach “hinterlands” of India where 80 percent of the entire population of India – approximately 900 million people – reside.

However, while the dozens of conferences, competitions, incubators, impact investors, and online platforms have ushered in a new wave of dedicated social entrepreneurs, they still only reach urban-educated entrepreneurs. For these entrepreneurs, the connection to rural India can be as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In order to truly tap into India’s potential and unleash scale in the social entrepreneur pipeline, it’s necessary to target the largest base, i.e. to extend the social enterprise support ecosystem to the 80 percent in rural India.

How do we reach the numerous fledgling ventures across the tens of thousands of small towns? There is a need to identify them, highlight their work, and connect them to local – and national – advice, funding, and partners.

Recently, different platforms have begun to reach out beyond the busy metropolises. Intellecap hosted the Sankalp Regional Summit in the under-developed state of Bihar, corporation Mahindra’s Spark the Rise challenge brought in 1,000 ideas from across the nation, and Villgro’s Unconvention|L (the new version of the previously urban Unconvention) has launched in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns.

But to strategically address all three issues of identification, recognition, and connection, an exciting new partnership has formed – the two largest social enterprise conferences in India, Intellecap’s Sankalp Forum (known for bringing in investors and global participation) and Villgro’s Unconvention (known for finding lesser-known social entrepreneurs) have joined forces. This April in Mumbai, the Sankalp Unconvention Summit aims to go even bigger, becoming “the SOCAP of Asia,” by combining the power of investors with the sharp understanding of localized social entrepreneurs.

Some of its initiatives to drive up ecosystem engagement will include:

The Sankalp Unconvention scholarships will reach out to less-connected early-stage social entrepreneurs, facilitating their travel and stay at the Summit. If you or your organization knows of a deserving recipient, you can nominate her/him before Feb. 28.

The Villgro Awards 2013 will recognize the most influential incubator, journalist, academic, social enterprise, and social investor in India. Past recipients of Villgro Awards include SELCO’s Harish Hande and SEWA’s Ela Bhatt, and past chief guests include former President Abdul Kalam. Hurry to apply, because applications close on Feb 17.

As we know in India, scale is crucial to making any significant impact – and we’re finding that this holds even more true when it comes to catalyzing the social entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s only by consistently smashing silos – between urban and rural, educated and non-educated, English-speaking and not, and maybe even “social enterprise” and enterprise – can we unleash the latent potential of India’s people, its greatest resource.