Indian Social Entrepreneurs Discuss How to Have an Impact
One organization is working to get rural Indian women new stoves and lights, minor-seeming appliances that can have a major impact on their lives. A second is training women and youths in small towns to work in IT, helping to staunch the flow of people from countryside to the cities and bring greater opportunity to entire communities. And a third has redesigned the rickshaw, and in the process, discovered a way to help drivers finally pull themselves out of poverty.
Representatives of these three organizations spoke at a panel discussion at Yale SOM on September 21. They were on campus as part of the Global Social Entrepreneurship course. Led by Tony Sheldon '84, executive director of the Program on Social Enterprise, the course develops the consulting skills of students from Yale SOM, the School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, and the Law School by having them work on concrete projects with social enterprises in India.
Students spend the fall semester working with India-based organizations. Much of the consulting with the groups is done long distance, except for summer trips by two students from each project team and a week in September when representatives from the organizations come to New Haven for seminars, lectures, and an opportunity for face-to-face interaction with the Yale students.
The course weaves together practical training in writing business plans and making presentations with a deeper study of social enterprises, the role of civil society in India, and how the core disciplines of finance, data analysis, and marketing relate to enterprises that seek to be financially sustainable as well as to improve society.
Each of the three social entrepreneurs who spoke at Yale SOM targeted a different problem facing low-income households and communities in India, but they approached the problems in similar ways—through enterprise, not charity. For the Self-Employed Women's Association, a trade union of poor women with 1.3 million members in India, the issue is how to free women from the health hazards and the toil of gathering firewood for cookstoves, an activity they must do two to three times per week, traveling five kilometers each time, while providing a solar alternative to the current, low-wattage, kerosene lamps popular in rural areas. The group has identified stoves more than three times as efficient as the current ones. "Every day we can save a woman from going to the forest to collect wood, she can work," said Anurag Bhatnagar, manager of the SEWA Hariyali project and CEO of the Grassroots Trading Network. "This leads to a direct increase in incomes. The challenge for us is we don't want to do it as a donation. We want to make this a sustainable enterprise that can scale up to serve all of SEWA's members. We need to find a way to make the price affordable, to make customers move from a free product to a paid product. This is the project we're working with Yale on."
Anudip Foundation, an organization based in eastern India, is also working with poor women, along with youths, who often find that even with a high school education, there is no work for them in rural areas. Radha Basu, Anudip's executive director, has helped the group build 28 rural development centers, mostly around Calcutta, where they've trained nearly 7,000 people in English, workplace readiness, IT skills, and in many cases, how to start and run their own business. The project with Yale SOM focuses on expanding the "business process outsourcing" centers that Anudip operates. Since most of the outsourcing jobs in the country go to more urbanized areas, Anudip needs help luring employers out to rural areas, where their presence can have a major impact. "When a project like this is successful, it doesn't just change the lives of the people we've trained," said Basu. "It changes their families' lives, as they are now often the biggest earners, and it changes their communities. The economic empowerment just radiates outward."
The third organization was the Centre for Rural Development, which is attempting to change the economic model for the country's nearly 10 million rickshaw drivers. Currently, drivers pay daily rent for a rickshaw, but without any access to capital are never able to become owners, a situation that Pradip Sarmah, the organization's executive director, says prevents them from ever rising out of extreme poverty. Sarmah's group has created Rickshaw Bank, which works on a rent-to-own model. Drivers (usually called pullers in India) continue to pay a daily fee, but after about 18 months, they become owners of the rickshaw. The Centre has also worked with MIT, among other organizations, to come up with a larger, more aerodynamic rickshaw.