Notes from the Field

Powering India’s Next Generation of Social Entrepreneurs

February 15, 2012

Nearing its 65th year of independence, India, the largest democracy and second-most populous country in the world, is undergoing another transformation: a second freedom struggle. Birthed from decades of frustration over rampant corruption, a large-scale movement led by activist Anna Hazare has energized the country’s youth, charging them with the desire to rebuild India. As a relatively young country, with an estimated 780 million Indians under 35 years old – or roughly 65 percent of the population – investment in the country’s young entrepreneurs will undoubtedly be a vital part of India’s future.

Mobile Phone Shopping in a mall in Mumbai

India’s broad development issues, the widening divide between urban and rural populations, lack of comprehensive public services, and freedom from strict regulations that exist in other globalized countries make an ideal testing ground for budding social entrepreneurs. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

Although India has become an increasingly important stakeholder in the global economy and its development over the next two decades will undoubtedly be looked to as a model for the rest of the world, it must first find ways to overcome the enormous challenges of infrastructure, healthcare, poverty, hunger, education, and corruption. It is clear that India will be relying on these 780 million young people to take the lead. As a Luce Scholar in Bangalore, I am working with Ashoka, a global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs, observing first-hand the opportunities and obstacles these young leaders face.

In December 2011, I traveled on the Jagriti Yatra, an annual 7,500 km chartered train ride that takes highly motivated young Indians, and a few international participants under 25 years old, on a 15-day national odyssey to meet with entrepreneurs who have developed innovative solutions to India’s challenges. The 450 participants and facilitators came from 26 states and territories across India, and six continents abroad; 63 percent were from non-urban areas and 37 percent were from urban areas. The yatra took each of us out of our familiar surroundings, stripped away our comfort zones of language, physical space, and geography, ushering us into a new realm of learning.

View from the train on the Yatra

The Jagriti Yatra, an annual 7,500 km chartered train ride takes highly motivated young Indians, and a few international participants under 25 years old, on a 15-day national odyssey to meet with leading entrepreneurs.

Along the way, we heard the extraordinary experiences of successful social entrepreneurs like Bunker Roy of Barefoot College, who, upon moving to the small rural village of Tilonia in the 1970s, founded a solar-powered school that teaches people from impoverished villages the skills they need to become doctors, solar engineers, architects, and more. Mr. Roy urged us to find solutions to development challenges through the real-life accounts of people who are struggling the most, instead of relying on global reports or statements. For example, Anshu Gupta of Goonj, which repurposes clothing materials for India’s poorest, shared a heart-wrenching story of how it was only when he met a young child who lay beside dead bodies for warmth during a cold Delhi winter, that he was inspired to launch Goonj.

We also heard from doctors at Aravind Eye Care, one of the world’s most efficient and successful eye care centers. The family members of Dr. Venkataswamy, who founded the center at the mandatory retirement age of 58, shared with us his ambitious “McDonaldization” approach to cataract surgery. During another discussion in Ahmadabad with Harish Hande, the founder of Selco, a solar electric light company supplying affordable, environmentally sustainable energy services in rural India, offered sobering advice that many of us don’t take the time to really understand the issue or problem: “Live with the problem that you are trying to solve.”

While some of the yatris (yatra participants) already owned successful enterprises, most were simply intrigued by the idea of being part of the forthcoming generation of Indians to make an enormous impact on sustainable social business. Although many of the yatris were in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, they expressed interest in crossing over into the social sector, stating that a major reason for selecting their field was because of parental pressure. It became clear along the yatra that while the interests of my fellow yatris covered a wide spectrum, they shared the common interest of wanting to carry their nation forward.

India’s broad development issues, the widening divide between urban and rural populations, lack of comprehensive public services, and freedom from strict regulations that exist in other globalized countries make an ideal testing ground for budding social entrepreneurs. However, while there is an abundance of promise in Indian social business, and a thriving technology environment (75 percent of Indians have access to mobile phones), significant barriers like low staff retention rates, lack of willingness to create partnerships with similarly focused organizations, scaling difficulties and a social space characterized by thousands of non-profits that unfortunately lack the resources to make a national impact, still exist. Consequently, as some of the yatra participants mentioned, many of India’s existing and budding enterprises are struggling to scale their impact.

Despite these challenges, such investments in India’s young people – like in the Jagriti Yatra – will provide better understanding of the tenacity, dedication, and passion needed to build and sustain the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

Zimuzor C. Ugochukwu is a 2011-2012 Luce Scholar at Ashoka in Bangalore. She can be reached at zim.ugochukwu@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Christian Niksch:

    A very interesting article.

    I am both German and Indian. I am very interested in setting up businesses in India and this article showed me that Indians can make a difference without government.

    I believe that the most important hard skills for social work come from science, engineering and mathematics. I think that many Indians lack the so called soft skills which will only develop over time and through adequate education.

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