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Why it Pays to Be a Social Entrepreneur Mobilising the rural population by providing the adequate means to help them earn and sustain a livelihood, and even flourish, is the surest way of swatting the peaking poverty graph down

By Ami Shroff

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When I was asked to write this article about being an entrepreneur, I was not sure how to begin; after all, I don't fit the mould of a traditional entrepreneur, at least based on general perceptions. With the start-up buzz at an all time high in India, isn't an entrepreneur seen as someone who drives exceptional revenue growth, one who lays out ambitious plans for his company and one that seems to be raking in the moolah?

Yes, that's probably the kind of image that gets conjured up for anyone who thinks of entrepreneurship, at least in today's context. But I had a different lens growing up, and that is what has shaped my view of entrepreneurship. And that's the view I want to share with you today.

I was born into a business family, so yes I always knew what running a business meant in the traditional sense. However, even as a little child, my impressions of entrepreneurship were formed, not seeing my family's business but instead, because of a small enterprise started by my mother more than 47 years ago, when she had visited Kutch on a relief mission. She started with a group of 30 women, encouraging them to use their innate skill for embroidery to help them earn a livelihood in a region that was always threatened with harsh weather conditions and one where agriculture as a source of income was unreliable.

What started as a small, homegrown organisation, has now become a beacon of hope, a source of reliable livelihood and a truly successful social enterprise known for its superior quality of hand crafted embroidery from the Kutch region. But more than that, and the aspect that we take most pride in, is the fact that it became a breeding ground for creativty and an enterprising spirit. In its lifetime, the NGO has given birth to over 20,000 women artisans who have become empowered enough to uplift their families, to provide an education to their children and given them a chance to receive exposure to a world that was unknown to them, all while taking their work far and wide to reach discerning handicraft lovers, the world over.

Now, how many start ups can claim to have such an enormous impact on lives, and enable upliftment while modelling a business that has a true purpose? And one that also manages to breed an entrepreneurial spirit, no matter how large or small the impact is.

It's a good time to get "social" with entrepreneurship

We celebrated the second anniversary of the National Handloom Day over a month ago, and the buzz around the handloom industry from connected industries, such as fashion, textiles or even exports has been hard to miss. Even the media has started to slowly wake up to the potential and the need for this culturally rich industry and the role it can play in the sustenance of India's economy.

NGOs and not-for-profit organisations in the handloom industry, as a result, are now seen striving towards empowering women from the marginalised sections through skills they are already familiar with – weaving, stitching, embroidery, handicrafts, etc more actively than ever before. In doing so, these organisations are creating an ecosystem that will support the second largest source of income among rural populations, with the estimated number of Indians engaged in craft production expected to grow to 13.93 million in 2017 and 17.79 million by 2022. While the effort has been an ongoing one, it has started to come into the limelight only now.

And this is just one example of the growth opportunity that lies within one sector. Imagine if we are able to utilise the skill and labour that already exists in India's interior pockets and engage them to become self sufficient and entrepreneurial more effectively? Suddenly the narrative for India's growth story seems plausible, even within one short decade.

Even when it comes to the youth in urban cities considering entrepreneurship as a career choice, wouldn't it be wonderful to choose an industry that not only has lucrative prospects, but one that serves a larger purpose too, that of uplifting the society that we live in?

Making Social Entrepreneurship Sustainable

Mobilising the rural population by providing the adequate means to help them earn and sustain a livelihood, and even flourish, is the surest way of swatting the peaking poverty graph down. It means preserving a culture that is close to India's traditions, it means enabling a society from the grass roots and creating an impact that will eventually have a lasting outcome.

Today, social entrepreneurs, whether they build not for profit organisations, for profit ones, or NGOs, all have the opportunity that many haven't had before them and I do believe the tide has turned due to these 4 broad factors:

  • Technology & Social Media: Social entrepreneurship is all about using innovative approaches to solve social issues. Technology is not only inherently innovative but increasingly, has become a cost effective method to solve social problems. It also helps in bringing together all stakeholders by helping entrepreneurs connect to customers, to venture capitalists, to corporates as well as individuals and organisations around the world. It is truly a driver of social innovation. Also, the younger generation, which is an influential segment of the society and contributes to the overall development of the nation, is waking up to the importance of being socially responsible. It is the youth who is the harbinger of change and it can be seen in their willingness and enthusiasm to support a strong cause by aiding important social causes and organizations.
  • Demand for fair trade: NGOs are active in all areas of trade, from the international to the local level. The growing number of "humanitarian' organisations reflects a trend of their increased involvement in trade development. Moreover, both NGOs and the end customer have begun to realize that developing trade and businesses proves more effective in fighting poverty and other social ills, than humanitarian aid alone. Today's consumer, as a result, is seen pushing for fair trade practises as it makes them feel "positive" about products, and is more likely to increase their purchase interest, a win win situation for everyone involved.
  • Access to support: There was a time when social organisations had to go knocking on doors to garner support for their projects. Not so, anymore. This is a smartphone generation where people want to help, and be part of something bigger. Moreover, the government push for "Make in India" has created a conducive ecosystem for end users to lend their support towards a greater cause than just fueling the economy with their purchasing power. Another aspect that has made a definite difference is the mandatory CSR drive among corporates in India, ensuring a greater drive to support causes that mesh well with businesses and their CSR mandate.
  • Increased media attention: Again technology is the backbone for this media attention, new innovative solutions, youth coming forward to participate in India's growth story, and the influx of digital press have all helped even small 3 member teams, get the right attention and support for their cause, because the media has many more avenues than there ever were before.

It is an undeniable fact that, in India, the social economy is still at a developing stage and the social entrepreneurship business model needs to gain relevance and consistency. However, the magnetism of creating a positive impact is high amongst today's generation. In fact, according to Forbes, 94% of young people surveyed, want to use their skills to benefit a cause. That is enough hope to look forward to for the coming years and for the upcoming generation of social entrepreneurs!

Ami Shroff

Director at Shrujan

From summer training at NGOs to working as an intern with an agro company in the borderline region of Kutch, Ami Shroff, has had a varied journey before she formally joined Shrujan in 1998. She initially joined the family trust run, not for profit organization, Shrujan, as a project coordinator in Kutch to work at the grassroots level and also lead the “Design Center on Wheels” project for the organization, the first of its kind and scale in India. In fact it was her deep involvement and commitment for the operations at Shrujan Trust that led to the genesis of the first of its kind research and documentation project in the Kutch region called “Pride and Enterprise” which documented and researched the embroidery craft story of the Kutch region. This initiative went on to win the Rolex Awards in 2006 for Chandaben Shroff, the founder of Shrujan, and also Ami’s mother. 

Today, Ami has taken forward her mother's vision and championed yet another successful project under the Shrujan Trust ambit, the Living and Learning Design Center (LLDC). This ambitious project has been launched in a 9 acre green campus in Bhuj, with an ambition of becoming an inclusive hub for all crafts within the Kutch region, creating a collaborative environment that not only enables but also empowers. 

The campus at LLDC also houses’ India’s largest 'Crafts Museum' that is comparable to any international museum of high caliber both in terms of collection and presentation capabilities. Ami intends to build profile for the LLDC as a melting pot for craft enthusiasts and craft experts from all over the world, and also a place where anyone, from any background can be empowered with the power of creativity and art. 


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