Nilima Achwal

At Echoing Green’s Inaugural Global Conference in Mumbai: With 400 million without electricity, you can’t talk in small numbers here

For the first time ever, Echoing Green’s annual fellows conference – five days that bring together fellows from all over the world to collaborate and learn from each other – wasn’t held in the U.S. Instead, it took place, in the words Cheryl Dorsey, president of the social finance and support organization, in Mumbai, India – the “exciting global center for social enterprise.”

Dorsey explained that Echoing Green’s work is becoming increasingly global, and managers see this as an opportunity for their global fellows to learn from their Indian counterparts. USAID’s Global Development Lab has partnered with Echoing Green to “get more voices from the developing world working in the developing world” in sourcing, testing and scaling global development ideas, according to Tahalia Barrett, Global Partnerships Advisor at USAID. Her colleague Leena Chakrabarti, Specialist for Innovation and Partnerships at USAID India, explained that the American development agency has made a change in its approach since 2013: instead of the traditional donor-recipient model of international development, it is looking to develop equal exchange with countries like India, taking solutions and applying them globally.

“With 400 million without electricity, you can’t talk in small numbers here,” explained Chakrabarti. “You at least have to be talking about impacting a million people.” This inclination toward scale may, in part, contribute to Echoing Green’s and USAID’s excitement to replicate Indian innovations in other parts of the world.

Perhaps one of the oldest and largest angel investors in the world, Echoing Green has made 600 investments in more than 60 countries around the world. In the U.S. this includes Teach for America, City Year (which inspired Bill Clinton to start the AmeriCorps program) and Michelle Obama’s Public Allies program in Chicago. In India, Echoing Green has funded 50 entrepreneurs, including CV Madhukar, Gaurav Singh and Aditya Natraj (and for better or for worse depending on who you ask, Vikram Akula). EG’s metrics show promise as well: 66 percent of its fellows show financial sustainability in the medium to long term. For the 2010-11 class, Echoing Green invested $2.8 million and the class collectively raised an additional $29 million in follow-on funding in the next year.

While the social entrepreneurship movement in the ’90s was mostly confined to middle class American youth from well-resourced universities, today social enterprise is “exploding globally,” according to Dorsey. This is due to in part to the developing world’s increasing technology, growing middle class, new rhetoric and action in youth leadership, and possibly a loss of faith among the younger generation in the ability of institutions to solve their countries’ problems. “The new wave of entrepreneurs will be indigenous entrepreneurs who may not even necessarily identify themselves as social entrepreneurs,” predicts Dorsey.

Another major trend has been the rise of double- and triple-bottom line businesses in Echoing Green’s portfolio (as compared to NGOs) since 2007, as well as an increase in technology solutions for development. These are not without risks, however. In our sector, for-profit entrepreneurs face a nascent impact investing market where investors are often unable to accurately assess risk profiles of enterprises. As a consequence, entrepreneurs often face difficulty raising follow-on funding after the seed stage. Technology is often heralded as a solution instead of as a tool and hyped as a vehicle to “scale.” Dorsey is well aware of these ongoing challenges. Echoing Green treats technology as merely a means to an end, and Dorsey suggests that bringing entrepreneurs’ voices into the conversation on social capital markets, as well as investor education, could go a long way in facilitating appropriate financing for for-profit social ventures.

As for now, Echoing Green is primed to find its “new wave of indigenous entrepreneurs.” It has partnered with Unitus Seed Fund (which, incidentally, just raised funding from Bill Gates) to branch into second- and third-tier cities in India and ran an informational session for Indian entrepreneurs on Tuesday, drawing 90 attendees from across the nation to Mumbai to learn about Echoing Green’s fellowship.

I say, welcome, and let the ideas roll.

Note: Applications for Echoing Green’s global fellowship open Dec. 2 and close Jan. 5.

Nilima Achwal is a Mumbai-based social entrepreneur, working on two initiatives toward gender equality in India: Yuja, which brings sexual/reproductive and gender education to the youth, and Badal Ja!, a platform for individual action toward gender justice.

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