Gen Y change agents: Starting Young

The social enterprise sector in India is seeing an infusion of youthful energy and passion thanks to an increasing number of students choosing to start something new and impactful right after college.


The social enterprise sector in India is seeing an infusion of youthful energy and passion thanks to an increasing number of students choosing to start something new and impactful right after college.

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Bano Fatema of Weaver’s Hut trains and mentors artisans at her hometown in Lucknow

For Bano Fatima, a final year undergraduate at New Delhi’s Lady Shriram College, her journey began when she took up a course in ‘Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow’.

Fatmia’s ancestral village near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh is famous for traditional handloom weaving but for over past four to five decades, the weavers have been facing cash crunch. “Coupled with caste discrimination, the Julahas, a community of artisans who weave on handlooms, find themselves in abject poverty because they are looted by local middle men and they also don’t have the means to market their products beyond a restricted geographic region”, explains Fatmia.

Along with her cousin, Nabila Kidwai, also an undergraduate student at Delhi University, Fatmia decided to start ‘Weaver’s Hut’, a social enterprise that mentors and trains weavers and connects them to the urban markets like Delhi and Mumbai.

“The course motivated me to channelise my skills and my education helped me in aiding the weavers, who are completely disconnected from the market economy”, adds Fatima.

Another case in point is ngoFuel, a start-up founded by engineering student Apurv Agarwal (it started as a project in September 2010). Agarwal and his four-member core team, all of whom are undergraduate students of social sciences and engineering, design and maintain websites for NGOs and social organisations at minimal costs. Agarwal started ngoFuel because he wanted to give something back to the society, but was unsure about doing conventional social work.

“There is a huge technological gap in the development sector. NGOs shell out huge amount of money to buy web space and end up getting a raw deal. Since, I’m an information technology student, my skills set matched the needs of these organisations perfectly”, feels Agarwal. ngoFUEL currently makes about Rs 5,000 and Rs 3,000 as revenue and profit, respectively.

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Aditi Agarwal from ngoFuel offers IT service for NGOs.

There are many such entrepreneurs rising from India’s various colleges. Professor R. S. Veeravalli, who heads the Entrepreneurship Development Forum at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, says that on an average about 10% of students in a batch are serious about starting their own venture. “Eventually, it boils down to about 5% of these who actually go on to make something out of their ideas”, he adds. Student entrepreneurs are not necessarily restricted to the products of business schools and come from a variety of educational backgrounds, and even from undergraduate programmes.

Starting out as a social entrepreneur, particularly as a student, doesn’t come easy. There are some common obstacles that every student faces as an entrepreneur, like attracting capital funds, zeroing in on the revenue model, sustaining the original ethos and spirit of the business plan, recruiting and retaining genuine talent among others.

When Yashveer Singh wanted to start a venture in 2008 soon after his masters in BITS-Pilani, he found the ecosystem unfavourable for a fresher hungry to make a mark as an entrepreneur. “I wished for some mentorship and guidance from someone who had been in my

position. This is even more difficult to find in the case of social entrepreneurship”, he says. Noting that there was space for capacity building and training, Singh started the National Social Entrepreneurship Forum (NSEF), a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering and nurturing young social entrepreneurs in India.

NSEF offers complete mentorship and training services, in association with academic institutions like the Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore and Lucknow) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It conducts workshops that equip student entrepreneurs to give life to their ideas, provides fellowships to students giving them exposure in the social sector, as well as follows up networking services to make their own venture a reality, and offers a placement programme that connects youth who aspire to work in development organisations.

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Apur Agarwal from ngoFuel as well offers IT service for NGOs.

National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) is another such organisation that is looking to improve the climate for aspiring entrepreneurs in the country. Established in 2003, NEN is known for its flagship First Dot Programme, a competition that identifies and eventually nurtures workable and scalable models.

Agarwal vouches for the support he has received from such organisations. “I was always able to count on mentors from NSEF to give me sound and practical advice. Their guide proved to be vital, as it kept me grounded and also acted as a morale booster. Finishing in the top thirty in the Tata First Dot Programme in 2011 was a major push for us”, he says.

Entrepreneur cells that run in college campuses also contribute towards providing an amicable environment for aspiring student entrepreneurs. Bharat Bhatia, a member of the entrepreneurship cell at Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Ghaziabad, says that they provide physical infrastructural support, like renting out some space in the campus for a nominal fee.

Professor Veeravalli talks of a non-invasive, hand-holding approach that a campus-based entrepreneurship cell needs to take. “While we have a basic system in place in Great Lakes, we’re looking to enhance our support structure this year by starting a full-blown incubation centre, which will offer hands-on support”, he says.

However, the environment for entrepreneurs is not a bed of roses. “The social cost of failure in India is high”, emphasises Professor Veeravalli. “The more educated the youngster, the higher the social cost. There is immense pressure from family and even peers to just settle for a job with an established firm. Once failed, the chances of coming back to restart a venture is quite low.”

Fatima admits to having a very supportive system. “We borrowed money from our parents for the initial funds, and my entire family, which has a lot of entrepreneurs, have been of great help.” There were venture-specific hurdles, as Fatima remembers the initial uneasiness Nabila and she faced, while working in the village. “It is a patriarchal society and it’s not easy for two girls to build a rapport and gain the confidence of the weavers. It has been a struggle, but we have gained their confidence now.”

Agarwal says that one of the areas he doesn’t have trouble with is in recruiting volunteers. “Since the cause is worthy, there is a steady influx of volunteers”..

Some student ventures are experimental and are hatched so that the people involved test out entrepreneurial waters, but a majority of them are serious, and are long term, sustainable career choices. “I’m planning to enrol in a Master’s degree after my graduation, but I see myself returning to Weaver’s Hut”, states Bano.

Gunajit Brahma, a student of IIM-Indore is a partner in ‘Renewable Bazaar’, a trading and networking platform for renewable energy. He holds a Master’s degree in microbiology and is studying business management to ge

student-enterpreneurs_Yashveer_NSEF

Yashveer Singh started NSEF for students like him looking to get into the social sector

t insights into how to run his own company. “Our target clientele live in rural areas, and we reach them by networking with NGOs and grass-root organisations. I am definitely looking to take my venture further after my stint at the B-school”, explains Brahma.

Student social entrepreneurs who are often limited by resources in a world of opportunity need to exercise caution but not stop taking calculated risks. A balanced approach to the idea is essential for aspiring entrepreneurs, opines Professor Veeravalli. “Passion is associated with entrepreneurs, but in reality, a certain amount of dispassion is required for deliberation. This attitude coupled with ample groundwork is what successful ventures are made of.”

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hamsini Ravi is a Chennai-based development communications professional. A trained journalist, she has worked in documenting and producing media for non-profits in the areas of gender violence, equitable management of natural resources and health. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hamsini Ravi is a Chennai-based development communications professional. A trained journalist, she has worked in documenting and producing media for non-profits in the areas of gender violence, equitable management of natural resources and health. more

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