Francisco Noguera

Net Impact: Social Entrepreneurship at Work

Katherine YueGuest blogger Katherine Yue is a second-year MBA student at Thunderbird School of Global Management where she has assisted in research on business and capacity growth in microfinance and health microfranchises. She interned for FINCA Jordan in its founding year, strengthening business risk management disciplines.

Prior to Thunderbird, Katherine was a project manager at the largest health care organization in the US, leading in process redesign and enterprise risk management systems. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics with a focus on society and technology. By Katherine Yue

The second day of the 2008 Net Impact Conference took me from an interactive workshop on scaling enterprises at the base of pyramid to a session on strategic philanthropy.? Bringing it all home was a session called Social Entrepreneurship At Work, Moderated by Mark Milstein from Cornell University, with panelists Jordan Kassalow, Co-Founder and Chairman of Vision Spring, Christine Eibs Singer, Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of E+Co, Nand Kishore Chaudhary, Founder of Jaipur Rugs Company and Jaipur Rugs Foundation.

In the audience, Jordan Kassalow pointed out Neil Blumenthal and Jocelyn Wyatt’s attendance and their instrumental participation in the initial growth of VisionSpring.? Tal Dahtier, who started MBAs Without Borders, was also on hand to encourage MBAs to pursue their passion in social entrepreneurship.?

Looking at the 100+ faces around the room, I wondered if combining what the panelists knew about scale and about mentorship came with the territory.? Their advice captivated the attention of everyone in the audience.

The panelists represented different types of social enterprises:

VisionSpring, the “business in a (physical) bag,” started with a pilot funded by a “30 second elevator pitch”. They scaled through three partnership models and started plans to support 69,000 Vision Entrepreneurs through BRAC.?

E+Co was incubated under Rockefeller Foundation’s support, applying public-private capital before it was popular.? More than fifteen years later, they brought capital and capacity support to 250 energy and 5 million new consumers.

Both VisionSpring and E+Co were recognized in the room.? But the students responded the most strongly to Mr. Nand Kishore Chaudhary’s story.??

Nand started the Jaipur Rugs Company in India, and later the Jaipur Rugs Foundation, on a $110 loan from his family.? He emphasized his experience of learning his craft – artisan rug weaving – and maintaining strong values in caring for his employee’s welfare.? His model eliminated handoffs between the artisan and the market.? Thirty years later, it is now a $22 million enterprise still based in India and exporting 90% of their products.?? From two weaving looms to 4,000 area managers and their village troops of weavers and looms. As a fan of microloans, I very much appreciated Net Impact inviting Jaipur Rugs to participate in the panel.

This was a social enterprise founder’s panel for future founders.? After the panelists explained their models, Mark quickly figured out that there were twenty or so aspiring and active social entrepreneurs in the audience. ?As the session progressed, the audience wanted to know about sources of funding, calculating returns in a social enterprise, scaling, and evolutions in their organization.

Themes and Take-Aways

Small returns does not equal small success. The three organizations reinvest in their communities and in their organization’s ability to scale.? Along those lines, in the process of changing cultures on the client level, success often meant baby steps.??

Growth by replication.? VisionSpring sought after key partnerships with PSI and BRAC for their broad reach.? Nand Kishore started by training 20 weavers in one town, who then went 800 miles further to train additional weavers, and continued expanding their radius to 4,000 area managers now.?–

Persistence when your idea’s not yet sexy.? Glasses, carpets, and off-the-grid energy. When their business concepts were not popular, they stuck with selling on impact, not relying on funding fads.

Standing strong in your values.? One of the key points that Nand Kishore Chaudhary pressed on was his belief in supporting a viable living for the artisans he worked with.? He also pushed a professional standard in how they conducted their business.? “Equality, justice, and peace,” so they could “live a life of quality and unity,” he said.

Flexibility in your model. ??Each of the panelists evolved how they viewed their product and its relationship to the market.? Vision Spring, for example, addressed market failures and needed to create the market rather than operating as a simple retailer.

Managing human capital by cells or regions.? Jaipur Rugs operates by area managers.? E+Co and Vision Spring both divide up by regions around the world.

I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs talk about benefiting from more experienced entrepreneurs in encouraging the heart, opening doors, and helping them stay focused.? For the aspiring social entrepreneurs in the room, the panelists stories was a great note to end on for the conference.?

I spent the next hour with the aspiring social entrepreneur who sat next to me during the session.? Her name is Rachel Magario, an MBA student at Kansas State.? Her business concept targets accessibility gaps for the blind population in the US. ??Throughout the session, she actively filtered factors favorable and potentially challenging for her model.?? More than Rachel, there was a class of new social entrepreneurs who benefited from your advice this weekend.

Nand, Christine, Jordan, and Mark, thank you for traveling out for the panel!? No doubt your encouragements will go a long way.