Thursday, April 22, 2010

Engineers For Social Impact: 2010 Fellows Announced

Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI) Fellows 2010
Contact: Akash Raman, Engineers for Social Impact


Bangalore, India [April 20, 2010] – The Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI) Fellowship Selection Committee is delighted to announce that after receiving and carefully reviewing close to 600 internship applications for its 2010 edition, it has made offers to 17 outstanding candidates for 9 roles at 7 partner social enterprises that focus on development by means of sustainable for-profit entrepreneurship.

E4SI 2010 Fellows come from a number of India’s prestigious engineering schools including IIT Kanpur, IIT Kharagpur, IIT Madras and BITS Pilani – all from diverse backgrounds with excellent accomplishments and potential. E4SI 2010 Fellows include the student union President of BITS Pilani, student President of the entrepreneurship club at IIT Madras and Green Globe Foundation award winner. More information about the Fellows is available on E4SI’s website –

E4SI fellowships promise to be highly entrepreneurial in a way that combines the best of consulting, technology, and social innovation. Fellows will gain unprecedented access to the development sector as they work with leading social entrepreneurs, attend leadership workshops and pitch their ideas to thought leaders as they join an outstanding cohort of exceptional young leaders.

Partner social enterprises for the 2010 edition of the E4SI fellowship program are leaders in microfinance, education, energy, and healthcare. Among them are: Samhita Social Ventures Pvt. Ltd., an enterprise providing social organizations with access to funds, people, knowledge, networks and customers; mDhil, a firm that provides basic healthcare information to the Indian consumer via text messaging, mobile web browsing, and an innovative web site; iDiscoveri, an experiential education organization focused on self-discovery and meaningful learning in economically emerging societies; Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO India), a company that provides reliable, affordable, and environmentally sustainable energy services to rural homes and businesses; Husk Power Systems (HPS), an innovative triple bottom-line company that provides power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner; Sarvajal, a social enterprise focused on delivering clean drinking water at an affordable amount (25 paisa per liter) to rural villages throughout India; and IFMR, a wholly owned subsidiary of IFMR trust, a private trust with the mission to ensure that every individual and every enterprise has complete access to financial services.

About Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI)
The Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI) Fellowship is a unique program that connects top engineering talent to credible social enterprises driving market-based solutions to development in India. It serves a dual need: matching talented students with worthy social enterprises and increasing awareness of for-profit approaches to development.

Engineers for Social Impact has been described as “a group of doers and dreamers” which seeks to imbue a culture of social entrepreneurship in India’s youth. Not only does it provide hands-on training for new doers and dreamers but they also gives its fellows complete freedom to be creative in their immersion experiences.

E4SI’s advisers, among others, include Nitin Rao (Director, E4SI & MBA Candidate, MIT Sloan, Cambridge), Ayan Sarkar (Associate, McKinsey & Company), Anand Shah (CEO of Piramal Foundation), Dr. Parth J. Shah (President of the Centre for Civil Society), Neerja Raman (Author and Research Fellow at Stanford University), Priya Naik (Founder and CEO, Samhita Social Ventures) and Dharen Chadha (former Global Director of Strategic Planning at J. Walter Thompson.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poverty: Its About Choice

Lindsay Clinton, of Beyond Profit is hosting (on Social Edge) a provocative discussion titled "what's wrong with being poor?" She asks "what if we are really just grafting our own notions about haves and have nots and quality of life based on our own limited experience?" The problem of poverty is multifaceted and the discussion thread makes for interesting reading (do check) but after a while I found my head spinning.

The outcome of a discussion should lead to action. So for me the first action is simplification: Its about choice.

Do you know anyone who chooses to live in extreme poverty (unfed, unclothed, unloved etc..)? I do. I met them last year travelling in the Himalayas. They are called rishis, munis, saints whatever. Wise men and women who have reduced their physical needs without compromising their mental prowess and in some cases enhancing it even. Its their choice. It is renunciation though their lifestyle would meet traditional definitions of poverty.

Do you know any child who chooses to live in extreme poverty (unfed, unclothed, uneducated)? I don't. Having grown up in India, surrounded by the poor, I cannot imagine a child choosing hunger over a full belly.

Poverty is no different than other forms of injustice- be it equal opportunity for women, minorities, religion etc. And just like them, it is unnecessary - if we only have the will.

Poverty is not a choice. If it is, I am fine with it. Lets not over-think the issue - this discussion reminds me of the debate in the seventies about working moms versus career moms - what's better?

Its about choice. and society benefits when its people have choices.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mission Drift: The Bogeyman of Social Entrepreneurship

The initial public offer (IPO) by SKS Microfinance is a landmark event: likely to set the stage for other IPOs in this area. I find much to cheer about in this development as financial inclusion goes mainstream and scales so a dream turns to reality for many many more people who live under $4/day. Not unexpectedly, the recent hoop-la about the IPO has come from activists and NGOs who worry that this move spells a mission drift - a profit from poverty mentality versus helping the poor, that has always been the bogeyman of social entrepreneurship.

The issue is that pure philanthropy does not scale. Charity funding is critical in providing a start to change-makers driven by passion for helping the poor. However, once a business model becomes sustainable, its capital need is far greater than what can be met by traditional philanthropic sources.

But change is hard for many to swallow and hence appears the bogeyman of mission drift - all the things that are wrong with the business world. But the bottom line is that there are also many things right with the business world. Besides- just as many albeit different, things are wrong with the charity model. Of course things can always go wrong, with greed overtaking social mission as MFIs go mainstream, but that risk is far lower than the risk of stagnation and besides financial instruments exist to manage it.

With access to more capital, I actually think things will improve for the clients of MFI because there will be pressure to bring interest rates into alignment with traditional banks. In recognition of this Businessworld article says "Earlier this year, India's finance minister said non-banking financial corporations (NBFCs), including some like SKS, can be granted banking licences, signalling a greater role for MFIs. But India's central bank has pulled up MFIs for their high interest rates -- about 25-27 percent. That is about double the rate at which they borrow from banks, but still lower than moneylenders."

Actually this business of mission drift has become a particular peeve of mine because of my past 4 years of experience directly working with social entrepreneurs. The SKS IPO provides an example against which I can generalise. Budding social entrepreneurs face an uphill task as it is. They initially get ignored by traditional capital and foundation money is so scarce that the competition in the field of social entrepreneurship is unhealthy (results in inability to merge or collaborate later on). Two factors come into play: First, self doubt in the mind of the entrepreneur in entertaining a realistic revenue generation (Am I being social enough?) plan for sustainability. Second, many opt for an incorrect business model which later becomes difficult to change, especially given the negative feedback from their initial supporters. The way I see it, the issue of mission drift is an operational issue - to be managed like any other risk whereas having a built-in plan to get to sustainability and scale is a strategic choice which guides impact in the long run.