5 Lessons Learned from Social Entrepreneurship in Rural India

After a year of incubation, our startups told us what we need to do to be better at “helping the helpers”. Their advice might surprise you.

There are people from all walks of life determined to make a difference, many of them quitting their mainstream careers and jumping into the largely unknown world of social innovation –“changemaking”. Behind these changemakers are the professionals and students advising and incubating their ventures, and providing critical support. UnLtd India is the largest scout and serviceprovider for early stage changemakers in the country, and UnLtd Tamil Nadu is one of the centres focusing on rural based projects, from its offices in Auroville near Pondicherry.

1. Support means more than seed funding.

Seriously, we didn’t pay anyone to say this. UnLtd India prides itself on its personal focus ( “we look at the founder rather than the financials” ) and we were literally glowing during the review meet as founder after founder repeated what we assumed all along: the critical support that changemakers need is to be cared for by the movement. Social entrepreneurship is an extremely tough career with very little recognition by any mainstream institutions, and often little or no material rewards.

 2. “Come spend time with us in the field!”

Ashamed as we are, the truth is that we only visit project locations twice a year on average. Rural India is known for its bad accessibility, and a field visit never goes according to schedule. We comfort ourselves by saying that dealing with donor money requires a certain finesse, so we can’t spend too much time and money on traveling around. This is true, but our social start-up founders shared a message we can no longer ignore: “join our team, our community, move your workshops to the village and experience our realities alongside us.”
 Our Marketing Director, Dani, took her first steps in a paddy field on a field visit to NESI organic farms

Our Marketing Director, Dani, took her first steps in a paddy field on a field visit to NESI organic farms

3. Short & sweet hands on projects are most popular

Ouch! This one was a bitter pill to swallow. We like to believe that helping founders to zoom out of their daily firefighting mode and enter a reflective state is the ultimate in changemaker coaching. Reality check: most entrepreneurs are DO-ers, not DREAM-ers. They learn by trying stuff out, and only with real life data can they reflect and gain insights. We are lucky enough to be able to match most of our social startups with awesome pro bono teams (like the _SocialStarters team) that work on practical projects like test marketing, presentation design or strategic planning with the team.

 The Social Starters Team working closely with our fellows to get them closer to achieving their goals.

The Social Starters Team working closely with our fellows to get them closer to achieving their goals.

4. Peer to peer exchange is the future

If you are building a support network for rural social entrepreneurs, here is one thing you can’t afford to forget: peer to peer exchanges. Every founder lacks funding and talent. Everyone needs help with marketing and finance. But there are only so many interns and pro-bono consultants you can find to fill these gaps. Once the founder has completed our program they are again left alone to face the next challenge – Unless they are connected to other founders with complementary skills and networks.

5. The best results are often the most unexpected

One of our founders (Karthik from Sristi Village) said “do you remember that meeting where you asked me that question about my model? After that I completely changed the strategy!” “Ehm… really?” I replied, digging deep in my memories of our coaching sessions hoping to remember a time when I purposely led him in this direction. Nope.

At the end of the day, it’s not as important to teach entrepreneurs how to use Excel and make gantt charts as it is to help them build a community. Why would any sane individual risk their sleep, income, relationships, and social status by pushing for radical change in systems that got stuck over decades if not centuries? Well, because we are not so sane. Actually, we are all a little unusual –some say mad. This is what brings us together. Together we form a community of changemakers, A tribe. Together we can laugh at the angry family members who complain about our hopeless career choice, about the bureaucrats who keep trying to squeeze bribes out of us while we can’t even afford to pay our rent, about the farmers who demand ownership but then refuse to invest even Rs 100 in their own trading company, about the well-meaning business expert who rushes in and out and leaves nothing but confusion and irrelevant advice. And most importantly: we can laugh about ourselves!