Incubators support entrepreneurs from the earliest stages of development, providing financial and non financial resources, mentorship and high value connections until the ventures are ready to fly on their own. UnLtd Tamil Nadu is an incubator for social entrepreneurs based in South India. We support 15-20 ventures per year from diverse sectors – primarily livelihoods, agriculture and education, half of which are hybrid or for-profit models. Since 2013, we’ve incubated 30 startups impacting more than 80,000 beneficiaries and creating more than 90 jobs, over half of which were (co-)founded by women. Find out more about our startups.
UnLtd Tamil Nadu has been running selection rounds twice a year since inception, and we are always inspired to meet so many passionate individuals applying for our program, but identifying the right social entrepreneurial mix within applicants is not an exact science. As a startup ourselves, we’ve fine-tuned our selection process from one round to the next. Now, we’re sharing what we’ve learned.
We look for individuals who…
1. Start with the impact
Beneficiaries are at the heart of the model. This means identifying the social problems they are facing and tailor-making an offering to best address these gaps. We often meet individuals passionate about an idea, which may very well be a solid idea, but who stare back blankly when asked what is their long-term vision. The long-term vision for a commercial entrepreneur is pretty straight-forward: more profits, more markets. Ask yourself: ‘What is the ideal state I want to achieve? What inspires my work?’ If your answer revolves around the welfare of your beneficiary community, if you’re willing to compromise on market size for quality of impact, you’re one step closer to being a social entrepreneur.
You can articulate the long-term change you want to achieve and map it back to your intervention within the community over time by creating a Theory of Change.
2. Look at root causes
Focusing on your beneficiaries is the first step, how you look at their needs and propose to address them is just as important. It’s about differentiating between symptoms and root causes. Symptoms can be treated with a one-off intervention, but will reoccur if the underlying factors causing these symptoms are not eradicated. What sets social entrepreneurs apart from social workers is that they look at the structure of the system affecting our behaviors as a whole. This does not mean that social work isn’t impactful, rather that social entrepreneurial models are disruptive. A simple way of getting to the root cause of a problem is to ask yourself “Why?” five times in a row. By getting to root causes, social entrepreneurs design systemic solutions to systemic problems.
Want to learn more? Check out these other tools and resources on Root Cause Analysis!
What sets social entrepreneurs apart from social workers is that they look at the structure of the system affecting our behaviors as a whole.
3. Walk the talk
Social entrepreneurs don’t mind getting their hands dirty, in fact they actively seek it. Many people come to us with the “Next Big Idea”, if only they had that one person or that one donor on-board to consider implementing it. Quite frankly, if your idea hasn’t gotten any traction yet, it’s probably because you haven’t managed to prove that it works. If you truly believe you’ve struck gold, put your money where your mouth is and go test out your assumptions. Social entrepreneurs aren’t inventors or professors, they directly incorporate feedback from the field to validate and refine their offering for deeper impact. Ask yourself: “Have I tested this with the community? What is the response? How do I make it better?” If a full-fledged pilot is too resource-intensive, you can prototype your idea using a minimum viable product and spot early-adopters.
Read more about Lean startup & testing.
There can be no personal agenda. Are you really serving your community’s needs or are you just assuming?
4. Make it clear whose needs they are serving
Even with the best intentions, it can be tempting to lose sight of the big picture as you get caught up in day-to-day operations, especially when resources go scarce. As a social entrepreneur, it’s critically important to stay true to the needs of your beneficiaries no matter what. At UnLtd Tamil Nadu, we don’t support projects with any political or religious affiliations. There can be no personal agenda. Are you really serving your community’s needs or are you just assuming? A good way to incorporate this in your offering right from the beginning is to adopt a Human-Centered Design approach: any assumption you might hold over what your beneficiaries expect and what you offer them should be tested and accurate. As your organization grows, seeking support from advisors and building a strong Board is a good way to keep yourself in check.
Find out how to run a Human-Centered Design study for your beneficiaries on IDEO’s interactive website.