It’s the age of the entrepreneur in India. Twenty years ago, IT companies brought in a new wave of organisations that changed India’s landscape. Today, young entrepreneurs heading e-commerce startups are showing the way for a new and exciting future. Social entrepreneurs are not far behind. While there have always been individuals going against the grain to create social change, this is perhaps the first time that there are systemic efforts to support their work.
UnLtd India is one such organisation that provides incubation support to help early-stage social entrepreneurs and organisations reach their potential. In the past eight years, they have supported over 180 early-stage entrepreneurs running more than 120 organisations across the country. A list of their entrepreneurs gives you a glimpse into the hidden world of social entrepreneurs – whether its Vijaya Pastala and her enterprise Under The Mango Tree (a social enterprise to improve farmers’ livelihoods by promoting beekeeping), Dhruv Lakria and Mirakle Couriers (a courier service managed by the deaf), or Mansi Shah and Abhishek Tatiya at Happy Feet Home that provides palliative care to children in a municipal hospital in Mumbai.
We spoke with Ratna Sinroja – Senior Associate at UnLtd India to learn more about their programmes and offerings for social entrepreneurs who are just starting up. Several of HelpYourNGO’s NGOs like Toybank, Arpan, OSCAR Foundation, QMed Knowledge Foundation, Masoom and New Resolution India have received incubation support from UnLtd India in the past.
What is the story behind UnLtd’s model and work?
UnLtd India was co-founded by Richard Alderson and current CEO Pooja Warier in 2007. Inspired by UK-based UnLtd’s model where they worked together; they resolved to bring the UnLtd model to India when they recognised that Indian start-up entrepreneurs faced a dearth in support.
We find, fund and support the development of exceptional individuals who have the ideas, passion and entrepreneurial skills to bring about long-term solutions to India’s social problems.
UnLtd India is an Entrepreneur First Launchpad, meaning that the needs and interests of the entrepreneur are at the heart of what we do. Because we work at very early stages, we believe our greatest leverage point for creating high-impact ventures is through supporting the development of the entrepreneur. We recognise that ideas may fail or succeed, but that entrepreneurs can be made for life so we place a lot of emphasis on the personal growth and leadership development of the individual entrepreneur.
Our Incubation Program works with social entrepreneurs at various stages in their lifecycle. The Growth Challenge programme, for example, is one of our flagship offerings. We invite applications from organisations under 5 years of age that have a proven model on the ground and are looking to scale their work. We provide our investees with comprehensive support in the form of seed funding, personal and strategic coaching, access to experts, access to other funders/investors, peer learning and leadership development. We are both sector agnostic and model agnostic, and support for-profit, non-profit and hybrid approaches to solving a social issue since we believe that not all problems can be monetized.
What are some of the common mistakes that early stage entrepreneurs make?
When entrepreneurs are first starting out with their social ventures, they often want to create a change overnight resulting in them trying to do too many things at once. However they don’t realise that trying to cater to many different target groups or providing too many offerings makes it more difficult to remain focused and be truly effective in addressing the chosen issue.
Tell us more about the way you coach investees who are part of the Growth Challenge.
Each entrepreneur is assigned to an associate on our incubation team with whom they meet at least once a month. The initial meetings are spent understanding their personal and organisational challenges, clarifying their vision by doing the Theory of Change exercise with them and setting quarterly milestones for the coming year of incubation. We place a lot of emphasis on helping entrepreneurs hone a clear vision and Theory of Change at the outset. This helps them narrow their focus and develop a more systematic approach.
We help our investees map their value chain, understand where they fit within it and which other stakeholders are important to the delivery of their offering. As they embark on executing their model, part of our job is to keep them on track with their mission and impact by setting clear, specific and targeted goals for their ventures.
After the initial meetings, meetings are customized to the entrepreneur’s needs. It involves a combination of updates, brainstorming, setting priorities, identifying gaps and making relevant connections. Overall, we try and build a one to one, trust-based relationship with the entrepreneur so that they feel comfortable reaching out to us for any problem they face.
What do investees say is the biggest benefit they got from UnLtd India?
Investees have found the networks, going through the selection process and moral support to be the most useful services provided by UnLtd India while the personal coaching appears to be the most highly valued offering.
One of our current investees, Apni Shala runs sessions to develop life skills like empathy, communication, problem solving, critical thinking etc. in children from low-income communities. They are currently in their 3rd year of support with us, and the founders Swetha Ranganathan, Anukriti Goyal and Amrita Nair say that “given we’re a non-profit, our associate’s insights about pricing and ‘being confident’ during this scale-up period has been extremely useful, and something that we’ve put into practice.”
Another investee, Mimaansa recently graduated after 3 years of support and has joined our pool of alumni. Founder Poojaa Joshi shares her take on UnLtd India – “UnLtd India’s support helped in the entire journey made by Mimaansa from the onset. They helped Mimaansa grow with a strategy. The hands on mentoring and coaching ensured that every little query and problem was taken care of. The financial support helped us recruit skilled educators which led to the impact that we have had so far. Mimaansa would not have been able to reach out to its beneficiaries without UnLtd India.”
Do investees remain engaged with UnLtd India after their mentorship? Do investees reach out to other investees from prior years?
Given the close relationship built with their associate, many investees stay in touch with the individual team members they worked with and continue to remain part of the UnLtd India community. We are currently in the process of structuring an alumni engagement program that will allow them to continue to access our networks and resources. Some alumni who have grown in experience have joined our expert pool and give back to UnLtd India by sitting on our selection panels, mentoring current investees and making their networks accessible to other early stage entrepreneurs.
Can you describe one of UnLtd’s success stories for us?
One of our most successful Growth Challenge investees is the Equal Community Foundation (ECF). ECF is based in Pune and seeks to end gender-based violence and discrimination, but what makes ECF’s model unique is that they are doing this by engaging with men. Through their Action for Equality (AfE) program ECF provides training and develops male mentors who can serve as role models to successive generations of men, helping men use their power and privilege to promote safety and respect for women. These mentors and ECF staff work with groups of men to help them re-evaluate their paradigms around women and identify and change harmful behavior in a safe and supportive environment.
Now that its model has proven very successful in and around Pune, ECF is expanding its reach by building the capacity of other organizations that are working for gender equality.
ECF has gone from being supported and coached by UnLtd India to now supporting, incubating, and training other organizations across India in just four years. That’s the kind of impact acceleration that can happen when social entrepreneurs receive support in the early stages.
What advice would you give someone looking to start their own social enterprise or non-profit?
- Invest a lot of time in understanding the feasibility and potential impact of your proposed enterprise! Do market research, engage with potential beneficiaries as much as possible to really understand their needs and judge if your solution is appropriately addressing their requirements.
- Draw out a value chain to understand the gaps and, hence, the challenges in delivering your solution. Further, understand the important stakeholders for your solution and build partnerships to help cover the gaps
- Stay focused. Understand that change doesn’t happen overnight and that trying to do too many things at once, especially in the beginning, will ultimately make your venture less effective. Focus on a few core things and that will help you determine almost everything else.
- Recognize what skills you have and what skills you don’t and actively seek to hire someone who brings those skills or past experience to the team. This is especially important for organizations that are in the process of scaling because as your team grows, you will want to bring on people whose skills and strengths complement your own and hence create a strong, well-rounded organization
UnLtd India’s is currently accepting applications for its Growth Challenge incubation programme, which is aimed at social ventures which have a proven model and are now looking to initiate scale. This is a great opportunity for organisation which are less than 5 years old, have a clear Theory of Change and strong evidence of impact. If you are the founder of such an organisation and would like to apply for their support, please fill out the following Expression of Interest form. Applications close on 5th August, 2015. For queries write in to firstname.lastname@example.org.