Seeing it differently: 5 ways to challenge the social enterprise story

UnLtd India helps new social entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. The organization offers speed mentoring sessions (pictured above) where subject matter experts work with investees to give them feedback and help them address their specific organizational challenges. Photo by: UnLtd India

In India — home to about one-third of the world’s poor — seeing the development problems can be all too easy. Seeing what lies beneath, though, takes a bit more time.

“[A]s an outsider, you don’t realize at first what wealth of value there is behind those problems — and if you can tap into that, how much amazing change you can create,” said Tej Dhami, senior director at UnLtd India, an incubator that helps new social entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.

Dhami, who joined the organization three years ago, isn’t exaggerating: Many of the entrepreneurs she works with have direct experience of the issues they want to address, including malnutrition, poor health care and unreliable energy supply.

But if there’s real need for scalable, successful social enterprise here, there’s also promise.

UnLtd India has set its sights on the many high net-worth individuals who’ve made their own fortune as entrepreneurs — and also, according to Dhami, great potential in the “spark” she sees in the investees.

The company itself, meanwhile, is challenging some of the thinking around social enterprise and how to support its growth. Here are five ways that it is challenging conventional thinking.

1. Entrepreneur doesn’t always equal business.

UnLtd India has supported more than 180 social entrepreneurs to date — almost half of them women — but not only to start businesses: Equal Community Foundation, for instance, which works with men to end violence against women is grant-funded, as is Masoom, an education charity.

That’s partly because some things simply don’t function on a revenue-based model, Dhami said. It’s also because UnLtd India believes where the cash comes from is less relevant than what you do with it.

“We define a social entrepreneur as anyone that is taking an entrepreneurial solution to a social problem,” she said, emphasizing the ability to attract and use resources as a key criteria. “That can be in a for-profit or nonprofit model, but what distinguishes them is that they are prioritizing impact, and they are looking for systemic change, as opposed to case-by-case change.”

One investee, Rafique Ansari, saw the extreme violence and drug use in his neighborhood, but came to UnLtd India talking about the community spirit underneath it all. He began organizing football sessions, followed by football with life skills and then football for girls. A few years down the line, the community started contributing financially toward his work.

“He has transformed the place,” the senior director said. “That is essentially what social entrepreneurs do, they re-envisage the world. They say: Let’s not see these problems, let’s see everything that is amazing and use that to create the change.”

2. Support the person, not the enterprise.

UnLtd India supports social enterprises from before they even exist — many entrepreneurs won’t have piloted their idea yet — right up to four years from launching operations.

That fills a crucial gap, according to Dhami: While the past few years have seen thousands of dollars of funding for ready-to-go business plans, investing in early stage and pilots is sparse.

But it’s not just about the money.

“India is not a place where people are encouraged to do something different,” she said. “To say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not going to be a doctor or an engineer, I’m going to be an entrepreneur’ … and then to say, ‘I’m not going to be an entrepreneur, I’m going to be a social entrepreneur’ … it’s not something that’s always met with applause or [encouragement].”

The value of being told not only that you can do this, but that you should, she continued, “is really worthwhile — it can take a lot of people who are on the fence to say: ‘Yes, I’m going to try it out.’”

That early-stage support also means that it has to be about the person, not the pitch. Often, the original idea that investees propose isn’t the successful one — and that’s normal, Dhami said: The team behind ECF, for instance, started with a pitch around solar cinemas.

“What we’re looking for is not people committed to the outputs — so [in the case of ECF] they’re not committed to solar cinema, but to ending violence against women — and they will work toward finding the best solution to address that problem,” the senior director noted.

Supporting the person means UnLtd India works to build skills and confidence, rather than providing solutions. That still translates into impact, according to Dhami.

“Even if they don't carry on with the idea that they came to you with, they will carry on making social change — and those skills you taught them of leadership, of business planning, of marketing will apply that to everything they do,” she said.

Helping the entrepreneurs raise capital, for instance, means that for every one rupee they get through UnLtd India, investees raise on average another 14.5 rupees ($0.24) themselves.

3. Experience is optional.

UnLtd India prides itself on the diversity of its entrepreneurs — including some who have business experience, and some who have none. In fact, they may not even have secondary education certification, but, Dhami said, “they’ve lived the issue and they know it really well.”

That openness means less risk of missing out on those who may not be that articulate or pitch-perfect. What’s really important, according to Dhami, is the “spark.”

What does that mean exactly? Ashok Rathod created a sports program to build life skills and keep children in school that has since received support from football’s world governing body FIFA and sportswear manufacturer Adidas. He had no experience in entrepreneurship and was still in school when he approached UnLtd India. But, Dhami said, “he had that passion, that conviction. He inspired us.”

That, for UnLtd India, is the crux of it.

“As a social entrepreneur, you need to be able and you need to be effective, but more than anything you need to be inspiring because you’re selling a vision of how things could be,” Dhami said. “And if you can inspire, you can attract the right resources.”

And it’s also about humility.

“One of the biggest obstacles is actually if you think you can do everything,” the senior director noted. “No one has all the skills. But if you know what the gaps are you can fill them.”

4. Success doesn't necessarily mean scale.

For many, the big challenge for social enterprises right now is how to scale it up. But, Dhami said, “we don’t necessarily believe in scale for the sake of it … we believe in quality of impact.” If impact is clear, she figured, it doesn’t matter whether one goes for “really deep local impact” or “wide” national impact as: “we need both.”

Rafique Ansari’s priority, for example, is not to expand his football project into other communities, but to work more effectively and comprehensively where he already is.

Indeed, scale might be achieved more effectively through replication — people copying the model in another context or place, which is something that’s happened in Ashok Rathod’s case.

There’s also a risk, Dhami warned, that outsiders working with an entrepreneur will try to project their own vision — believing that something promising should be scaled up really fast.

“That’s not necessarily how to get the best out of that organization or individual,” she argued. “It’s about what the entrepreneur wants, because if they are doing what they want and if their own passion and vision is aligned with the organization, that’s when it will have the most success.”

5. It is not a race.

UnLtd India offers support and investment that is consciously long term.

“Sometimes the transformation you see between years two and three is astounding — and if we’d given up after year one, either that person might not have got there or it would have taken them five years to get there,” Dhami said.

The social enterprise world can be too impatient, she noted.

“Sometimes we don’t give entrepreneurs enough time and space to build things, and sometimes entrepreneurs don’t give themselves enough time and space … a lot of the models we look at require behavioral change to create impact and that is one of the hardest things to achieve,” the senior director stressed.

When UnLtd India’s mentors work with investees on their milestones for the first year, she continued, “we typically end up saying: ‘You know what you wanted to do in the first quarter, let’s spread that over the year. People are excited about the potential, but you also need to be realistic: it’s hard for companies to get credit, payment cycles are bad, building trust takes time.”

For the incubator itself, success is also measured in the long term.

“It’s not about scaling up in year one … for us, success is if they’re still creating impact 10 years down the line … when you can amortize your investment the returns are incredible,” Dhami concluded.

What is the key to launching and sustaining a successful social enterprise? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Headshot anna patton

    Anna Patton

    Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.