Loud and Clear: Bird’s Eye View of Social Enterprise in India | Vishnu Swaminathan

Vishnu Swaminathan, Country Representative, Ashoka Innovators for the Public

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“I think in 5 years if we are able to make ourselves invisible, and irrelevant in the kind of work we are doing, that is the goal.”

Before Ashoka, Vishnu co-founded and led two companies working on financial transactions and Animation technology in Singapore for 8 years. After one of the companies was acquired he moved to India to head a leadership school for three years, where he led the school’s social effort by creating an independent Centre for Social Development and Governance.

He started his career as a 3D and Film Special effects artist. He holds a couple of patents from his ventures and has worked on a wide range of hybrid business models, technologies, innovations, communities and geographies. He lives with his family in Bangalore, India and enjoys photography.

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Teresa Khanna: Hello Vishnu and welcome to the Khemka podcast series. Thanks so much for sparing the time in your busy schedule and we look forward to speaking to you today.

Vishnu Swaminathan: Sure, thanks so much for having me.

Teresa Khanna: Vishnu I would like to know that given your vast experience at Ashoka, having seen entrepreneur’s up-close, could you tell us how the profile of fellows has changed in the last 10-20 years? If it has changed at all that is.

Vishnu Swaminathan: Definitely, I think a lot of changes have happened in the social entrepreneur sector and in my opinion for the good. So firstly I think the age of people who are becoming social entrepreneurs is reducing. In the sense, earlier people used to take up Social Entrepreneurship a little later in their careers, but now we can see even people in their twenties, even early twenties have chosen this path of social entrepreneurship, even though it doesn’t give them a lot of benefits as some of their friends or colleagues who are working for the for profit sector. The second one is the kind of work we are seeing is changed quite a bit from being activisty, you know in the sense that there used to be a lot of activism driven entrepreneurs. But now we are seeing a lot of people who are moving from providing products and services rather than being totally activism driven. Now Im not saying one is better than the other, I think is a society activism is equally important as much as anything else but I’m just seeing that the profile is changing, and the kind of work what people who are opting to do Social Entrepreneurship. Thirdly I think geographies. Earlier we only saw that wherever there was a large disadvantaged population we saw a lot of social entrepreneurs coming up. But now we are seeing ideas even from the urban areas.

Teresa Khanna: When dealing with Social Entrepreneurs and reviewing their proposals, what do you identify as the missing links and where do you see these proposals lacking?

Vishnu Swaminathan: So Ashoka looks at the individual rather than the idea per se because we are selecting individuals as Ashoka fellows for life. So we need to be convinced that this person will continue to drive this change even beyond these problems. Then you know the couple of other things which have been, which are generic and which can be applied to all kinds of social entrepreneurs. One is obviously many times people forget the marketing and media related aspects of their proposal or sometimes they take it for granted or they give less importance to it. But I think given todays scenario, marketing and media cannot be ignored and lot of importance has to be given. The other areas which we have seen the proposals lacking is in the area of building the second line of leadership. So I think the plans to build a brilliant team must be part of a proposal and we don’t see that coming out very clearly these days. And the last one I just want to touch upon is something very interesting and which has not been considered traditionally in the field of social entrepreneurship is about an exit strategy. So when I say an exit strategy it’s also about the individual and the organization per se. even today it’s a little crazy to consider how is a social enterprise going to exit. But I think at some level it is important, it’s not going to be like the traditional ways of for profit where they get acquired or they go IPO or they do something else as an exit strategy. But here it is a social organization, what is your exit strategy. It could be that the work is no longer relevant. So you don’t need to exist anymore, it could be that. Or it could be a ways and means to find an exit. So I think these are some of the areas where some proposals what we receive or majority of them need some work.

Teresa Khanna: In a life cycle of a social enterprise Vishnu, from start up to maturity to scaling, what are the services required at different stages. And do you think there is support for a social enterprise at all these stages? And if it isn’t there, where is it lacking?

Vishnu Swaminathan:  So the first one is business planning itself, you know because writing a formal business plan for a social enterprise is a difficult task because one there is no clear metric or a driver, for example in for profit enterprise it’s profit, but here it is not there. And what kind of a regulatory framework or what kind of a structure does a social enterprise needs to take is also missing. The second one is advice around intellectual property I think is extremely important, and also talking about how do you scale the impact rather than scaling the organization. But generally people tend to be measured against how large is your organization or how big is your number of employees or the  number of people who you are targeting, but hardly people are questioned about how do you scale your impact.  The third one like I mentioned earlier. People really need help in building a team. How do you identify the right people. What is the kind of structures you need to have in your organization to build a very good team is definitely missing. The fourth point is about mentoring and building a strong board of directors and advisory board. Because many people are confused and struggling to find good people to be on their board of directors and advisors. And lastly I think I would say scaling up strategies. There is support available in all these areas, but definitely not enough as much as we like.

Teresa Khanna: Right. In case of social enterprises and their greatest needs in todays time, with respect to information and learning. What do you think is the best and most effective way of communicating these needs to social enterprises? Is it through case studies, toolkits, conferences, forums, webinars, what is it according to you?

Vishnu Swaminathan: For me I have started to believe that toolkits can be really a powerful method to disseminate, because I think if the toolkits are designed right and well the impact can be really large, and with a really small investment. Comparatively you know conferences, events take up to much time and money. And for me I have seen that partnerships and you know kind of networking is really small compared to the amount of investments made in conferences or events. But if a toolkit can be designed and of course co created with the right stakeholders, then distributed, I think then it can be a really really powerful method.

Teresa Khanna: That really is encouraging to hear because one always hears that the time for toolkits is gone because everybody wants to meet and network and exchange business cards as we know it. In todays time especially in India, do you think there is an enabling environment to encourage social entrepreneurs? Who in your opinion are social entrepreneurs to look out for? Or any organizations that show promise and we should watch out for them?

Vishnu Swaminathan: well you know I think globally India is known to be one of the best environments for social entrepreneurs. People see India as a place where amazing ideas are taking shape, to make the future definitely better. But I think what is needed in India is better collaboration and incentives to collaborate. How do you provide the incentives for people to actually come together and collaborate? But I think we have seen a kind of pattern in the qualities in those enterprises which can really succeed. I think one is definitely organizations which are not satisfied about their work but wanting to impact the national policy. And people who are really open to building teams, both internal and external.

Teresa Khanna: Right, so according to you which are the social enterprises that attract investors? Do they have a DNA that can be clearly explained? What do you think entrepreneurs need to do to attract capital that can further their social agenda?

Vishnu Swaminathan: Before even deciding to kind of accept or even to start look for capital I think we need to understand very clearly that every form of capital comes with a lot of caveats. In the sense that everything comes with either a metric or either something which you have to perform to be able to demonstrate to that person who’s giving you the money. But I think sometimes the wrong kind of capital from the wrong kind of, or even from the wrong kind of investor or stakeholder could either make or break the whole organization and the idea. So I think firstly what is the bare minimum question everybody needs to understand is do we really need capital, and what kind of capital it is. Many times people tend to ignore the professionalization of grants. So you know I think one of the best ways to move to accepting professional capital is to actually make your organization capable of delivering professional results even with grants. I think if you’re able to demonstrate it over a period of time, then an organization can be ready to accept formal capital, social capital or patient capital, whatever they are called as.

Teresa Khanna: What is an ideal network or a platform that social enterprise should be connected too? Do you think that such a platform exists in India right now?

Vishnu Swaminathan: Well you know I don’t think there is a one platform or an organization which is providing the platform, there are various you know groups and various organization which are around. So for example I am sure people have heard about Centre for Advancement of Philanthropy which is providing all the information about you know strategy, resources, what kind of organizational set up we need to have etc etc. Of course there are platforms like Dasra who provide access to philanthropic capital and stuff like that. Then you have events which are like Sankalp, a Unconvention and of course there is the Khemka Forum as well. But I think there is no one platform which is available but as a social enterprise I think or an entrepreneur you need to kind of plug in to the right networks which are prevalent. And I don’t think there is one common platform is also possible because it depends completely on the stage the social entrepreneur or enterprise is, and what is the area of work and what kind of support will be needed for that organization. So I think it’s best to plug into smaller geographically limiting networks to scale up rather than looking for one national network of people, and of course the newer one which was established called the National Association for Social Enterprises, which is NASE, which is also coming up.

Teresa Khanna: Right that brings us to the end of the podcast with the final question being what would you set as a goal for the social entrepreneurship sector for the next five years?

Vishnu Swaminathan: Well I am quite ambitious, so I am going to tell you my ambitious goal. I think it’s not just for social entrepreneurship but also the entrepreneurs themselves. I think whatever levels we are all working with I think we need to become irrelevant, soon. I think in 5 years if our work becomes irrelevant. We don’t have that kind of work to do anymore, I think it is an amazing goal and a success which will define us. If we are able to make ourselves invisible, irrelevant in the kind of work we are doing that is the goal.

Teresa Khanna: wow Vishnu I am thoroughly impressed and I hope that vision comes true not only for you but for everybody who works in this sector. Many thanks for spending your time, and we look forward to connecting with you in the future. Thank You.

Vishnu Swaminathan: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure and thanks to all the listeners as well.


Views expressed here are solely that of the person interviewed and may not represent the views of The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation.