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The power & over-promise of the ‘role model effect’

I’m glued nightly to CNN International and BBC World News – my work with Endeavor’s International Expansion team in the Middle East & North Africa ensuring a pull, and stake, in the outcome from changes sweeping the region. I cheered alongside local citizens when Tunisians drove out Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Egyptians forced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. In promoting entrepreneurship development, I frequently observe the power of the ‘role model effect’. Think Maktoob’s acquisition by Yahoo, which in turn drove multiple technology upstarts to launch in Jordan – Jeeran and Akhtaboot, to name just two. Now the ‘role model effect’ ripples between neighboring countries looking to topple long-standing rulers. I was struck by a statement made by an anti-Qaddafi protestor in Tripoli – “the time to beat is 18 days” (indicating that it took Egyptians 18 days to oust Mubarak, and Libyans would like to rid themselves of Qaddafi in less time).

I’m not trying to diminish the importance of a movement that is creating history as I write this. It’s that I find myself asking “what next?” in response to the ‘less than 18 day’ goal. A powerful role model provides a marker of success, an example to follow, a motivating push – the rest has to be a self-made vision. The Jordanian high-tech entrepreneurs know they require a differentiated business model, and a visualization all their own. Emulating a role model only goes so far. For Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain,… what is the long-term vision and who will help determine the steps to get there? A focus on removing one long-standing dictator is perhaps easier than figuring out how to unite, and better govern a country post-protests – and ultimately how to grow economies badly in need of a robust private sector, and job creation. These outcomes will require much more than 18 days – and there are few clear role models to follow.

A mantra to live by: If no one else will take the initiative, then do it yourself.

I am writing a series for Beyond Profit Magazine on women social entrepreneurs. Below is my second contribution from a conversation I had in August, 2009 with Pooja Warier, co-founder of Unltd India, and someone I am proud to call a friend.

Pooja Warier, the co-founder of Unltd India, has this to say for women entrepreneurs, “If being an entrepreneur is tough, then being a woman entrepreneur is tougher, and being a young woman entrepreneur is tougher still.” But this hasn’t stopped her.

Pooja has never opted for the easy path in life. In fact, her dream job when she was a girl growing up in Kerala was to become an astronaut. When she reached adulthood and realized math and science were not her strengths, she became interested in psychology, which eventually led her to become a social entrepreneur. Pooja describes this career change as an unconscious decision; one day she looked up and realized the work she was doing constituted the work of a social entrepreneur. The process of transforming into a social entrepreneur started when Pooja was working with an organization in Mumbai focused on educating street children. After six months, Pooja noticed a major difference in the way she viewed her work as compared to the way the founders of the organization felt. The organization’s work was their life’s passion, whereas for Pooja, it was just a job. Through them, however, she understood the power to create social impact by living and breathing what you do each day. She quit the next day. Pooja cites this experience as a key juncture on her path to becoming a social entrepreneur. It turns out that determining what you don’t want to do, is as important as discovering what you do want to do.

Unltd India provides seed funding, along with start-up services, to individuals with an idea or early stage social venture. The organization is unique in the social investing space in that it focuses on investment in individuals with no prior track record–essentially, Unltd takes risk where other investors would not. Pooja was first exposed to Unltd’s investing strategy while working in the Unltd UK office, where she met her founding partner, Richard. The potential for the Unltd model to work in India was clear. Pooja carried that passion forward and gained internal support to shadow three entrepreneurs in India in 2006 to understand their specific start-up requirements. Encouraged by her findings, Pooja approached large Foundations and NGOs in India to adopt the model. Although intrigued, none of these incumbent organizations were willing to run with the idea. Feeling frustrated, Pooja recalls a conversation with Unltd UK’s CEO at the time, John Rafferty, who said, “Why don’t you just do it yourself?” And so she did.

Armed with a strong co-founder in Richard, she launched Unltd India in 2007. They have provided monetary and management support to 44 investees in India and are adding more. Now, Pooja says, her brain will not turn off. She constantly sees possibilities for new social ventures. She and Richard are the force behind, Journeys’ for Change, and the recent launch of the HUB in Mumbai, a creative workspace that brings together and encourages collaboration among those working on the most pressing social issues. When asked if she views herself as a leader, Pooja answers yes, but she defines it as part of being a role model to her investees and staff. Her view – “If you are asking others to take initiative, you need to exemplify it yourself.”

Recognizing the opportunity…and having the guts to take the first step

I am writing a series for Beyond Profit Magazine on women social entrepreneurs. Below is my first contribution from a conversation I had back in July, 2009 with Ms. Chetna Gala Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Bank, and a truly inspiring woman.

Chetna grew up in Mumbai, India, as the third daughter in a middle-class family with six children. The expectation for daughters was clear – prepare yourself for marriage. A young Ms. Sinha, however, had other ideas. She recalls experiencing anger over the inequality between herself and her brother, who got to continue his studies undeterred. She deferred many a marriage proposal to continue her education in economics and commerce. In time, Chetna did marry and accompany her husband to his rural farming community. However, her passion for commerce and economics, along with her drive to question the status quo, went along with her.

In 1997, Chetna started the Mann Deshi Bank, the first in India to loan to rural women. The bank now serves over 120,000 women, with five branches in Maharastra and has spun off a business school to advise rural women looking to start a business. Her organization’s success is undeniable, but we were more interested in knowing what motivated her first steps.

Interestingly, her motivation was the shock that came when no bank would loan to the ‘backward castes’ in her village, including her husband, when market prices plummeted after the harvest in 1995. Clearly, a need existed for a financial institution that would provide support to these local farmers, and her attitude to the large incumbent banks that refused to see this opportunity became, just you wait…we will show you. And she did – gritty resolve makes for the start of a powerful movement.

This is how Chetna describes Mann Deshi, not as a bank, but as a movement. The vision to empower rural women means ongoing advocacy work to change outdated policies and systems that block women’s rights to control the household finances. Obstacles are ever-present, dealing with bureaucracy and local corruption are common occurrences. Chetna’s mandate to put solutions into practice has not wavered though, and support grows from both men and women across rural India willing to follow her lead and speak out.

The incidence of successful women social entrepreneurs is growing. Those who work at Mann Deshi get to see this trend first hand as it is often the women customers themselves that drive the agenda for their credit needs. Indeed, Chetna comments that most of the implemented products and services at the bank have come from suggestions from their women clientele. When asked why this is, Chetna responds that women are already in the habit of listening to their families, communities, and the market to work out sustainable solutions. A lifelong practice Chetna herself clearly demonstrates.

How to conduct a thorough job search.

Slowly realizing I have no idea. Before now I had never had to conduct one. I was hired out of undergraduate, mutual liking that was determined during an internship.

Simple enough process, right?

1. update the cv – check

2. add to google reader all relevant job sites, send word out to contacts  – check

3. make a list of all companies you want to work for – check

4. call them, make connections, gather information – check

5. write up a short ‘blurb’ to introduce yourself – check

6. get your ‘what am I looking for’ story down to 60 seconds – check

7. start writing those personalized cover letters – check

8. make some time to feel totally overwhelmed – check, check check!

Forget what I said about simple above.

How do you ever filter through all the possible opportunities? You could spend every waking moment looking (I am not a believer in the power of the Universe to send one my way….although lately this strategy is tempting).

So I have now made a list of criteria to help, problem is when an interesting job comes along that doesn’t meet the newly laid out requirements, I stretch them.

The whole process takes a lot of energy, and at times (as a friend pointed out to me) can feel a little like groveling.

I am starting to like Seth Godin’s idea of not bothering with a resume at all – I will not be put into a box! Unfortunately not sure the prospective employers will agree.

Why conduct a thorough job search?

So I will not have to do it again any time soon!

Cause related marketing to get your heart pumping…

The Girl Effect highlights a true phenomenon that microfinance consumer research picked up – women are better loan candidates – they are better savers and repayment rates are higher than with men, but best of all they spend on health and education for their families, creating a strong ripple effect.

Conclusion – It makes good business sense to invest in a girl.

A tech solution for the print-disabled.

I get excited about technological solutions that add real value to underserved people’s lives. It is why I started to follow Benetech’s blog. Benetech is an organization that develops new tech solutions with the goal to better serve humanity and improve lives.

Benetech launched Bookshare, with the mission to provide those with print disabilities equal and timely access to print materials. Started out of the US, as of last year, Bookshare is now in India where over 10 million have a visual impairment, and 3 million are children.

An individual with a print disability is not able to access books easily. They have visual impairments, physical or learning disabilities that prevent them from seeing, holding or reading a book. This restricts their access, and previous solutions were expensive and time consuming.    

Bookshare’s model is simple, scan and upload massive amounts of print materials (books, textbooks…basically anything that is only found in a print hardcopy). Certify those with print disabilities and charge them a nominal access fee to the online library (400 rupees). From there the printed word can be downloaded and converted from text to speech format.

This solution is simple, fast and provides expansive access to printed materials online that is growing daily. Unfortunately, the Indian copywrite laws do not yet allow organizations working with the print disabled to convert books to scanned online copies.  In 120 other countries this law has been amended. The next step to expanding this service in India is to appeal to the Copywrite Office for this change, as Indian books, in local languages need to be added in large numbers to make the library a viable solution for India’s print disabled.

A Personal Crusader makes for a powerful Social Entrepreneur

This past weekend I attended an Unltd India retreat for their level 1 and 2 investees’ and had the good fortune to be present for Saturday’s guest speaker: Vivek Anand. Now I have heard some powerful life stories of how extraordinary individuals have arrived at their commitment to a given social cause, but none quite like his. In an hour, Vivek gave us a glimpse of himself that was egoless, raw, and beautiful. He had all of us engaged with his forthright and informal manner of speaking, and for many his story brought forth a torrent of emotions. Vivek runs The Humsafar Trust (I am told Humsafar translates to fellow traveler in Hindi), with a mission to develop a holistic approach to the rights and health of sexual minorities and promoting rationale attitudes to sexual minority.

His personal journey of growing up a gay man in India led him to this mission. In his words, homophobia is not as large an issue in this country as in other parts of the world – in India the main issue is ignorance. This creates an uphill battle where Vivek and his team struggle to counter common misconceptions, which he was open to sharing with us. Some believe it is a sickness, a disease, a western phenomenon brought to India. Others worry about the acceptance of homosexuality leading to acceptance of beasteality and child sexual abuse. Yet others worry that Vivek’s work will convert people into being gay, meaning a stagnant population growth and less marriages. These are myths Vivek has to patiently dispel time and time again, with educated media personalities no less!

Until a few weeks back when section 377 was overturned in the high court, homosexuality was considered a criminal act, a law that was established back during the British Raj era. It is good news that the tides are shifting, but the decision has also brought many fears to the surface.

This is why the support and education work that Vivek and Humsafar are doing is so important, but he doesn’t see it as work, but as his purpose in life. Vivek grew up knowing that his natural preferences were considered criminal, that is not an easy path to walk and has created a man that will never stop trying to shift attitudes to accept homosexuality in India.