Mentoring grassroots social warriors: Looking at a familiar landscape with fresh eyes

MANAV AND SWATI SUBODH

By Moin Qazi*

One of the dispiriting features of the modern development model is that despite oceans of research and studies, there has not been a substantive transformative impact on marginalised communities. Much of the outcomes have been purely academic and we need more dedicated, courageous and purpose-driven champions who can creatively apply their core competencies and new knowledge to enhance people’s well-being. Similarly, we need to design tools and techniques that can help translate these insights into effective public policies and professional practices that can sustainably deliver quality outcomes on an exponential scale.

There is now a tribe of passionate entrepreneurs who are collaborating with like-minded allies and with those with different perspectives, to build a colleagueship of expertise to address pressing human challenges and accelerate the transition of the underprivileged from subsistence to sustainability in emerging economies. Some of them are bright people working to uncover and scale breakthrough disruptive solutions for leapfrogging meaningful social change. They have the vision to see the world the way it should be and create what is missing. They are combining business acumen with their conscience to solve problems in the community and foster a fairer society in an efficient and sustainable way.

A brother-sister duo, Manav Subodh and Swati Subodh, with diverse backgrounds and with careers on the cusp of steady and promising trajectories, decided to change track and pursue something that had relevance and meaning to the wider world, and in particular to the underserved communities. Manav was Global Manager, Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Corporate Affairs at Intel but found the canvas dimming his social horizon. Swati obtained her post-graduate in biotechnology and did her doctoral research in genomics at AIIMS.

It was here that she had her moment of epiphany. Her laboratory was opposite the outpatients department where the daily sight of struggling patients stirred her and fired the imagination to furrow a path of concrete action. Manav and Swati realised that their path was never going to lead to the right level of fulfillment, because they were not doing something that exactly fitted the values they had cultivated over time.

Since it wasn’t possible to change their values, they knew they needed to switch their careers. Manav was the first to take the plunge when he conceptualised the 1M1B (1 Million for 1 Billion) Foundation, an  initiative  to inspire a million young leaders, educators and entrepreneurs to generate jobs that will create better lives for a billion people in the underserved communities. The idea was to empower entrepreneurs who would undertake social innovations, job creation and meaningful development in their communities so that each in turn would create jobs and more stable economic lives for a thousand more.

With Swati’s expertise in healthcare and Manav’s expertise in entrepreneurship education and ecosystems, a social entrepreneurship model was conceptualised. They visualised that a million entrepreneurs — spanning different geographies and sectors — can come up with the right solutions that can impact one billion people. Everyone, according to them, is a natural entrepreneur and can play a vital role in promoting resilience in their communities.

They believe that with relatively simple and inexpensive tools we can put the needle on tough problems but interventions fail to reach the right person at the right time. Sharing them equitably across the world to maximise the impact is a big challenge. Addressing these and other burning social problems requires understanding and reframing them with a fresh view. It is here that entrepreneurs like Manav and Swati are stepping in and filling the vacuum. With a team of like-minded people who share this passion 1M1B started taking shape.

Manav and Swati understand that interventions for rural regeneration cannot be played out in the same way that society perceives the poor: Desperate citizens who need to be rescued by the elite. “We have to understand the local challenges to improve their composite livelihoods. You can’t solve the problems of the last mile from the headquarters,” explains Manav. According to him, it takes local entrepreneurs, empowered to adapt easily to the nuances of local culture, to create and drive change sustainably on the ground.

The 1M1B Foundation is serving as a micro-accelerator for grassroots entrepreneurs by giving them skill training, access to technologies, finance and then helping them launch their own micro-enterprise. “We scan the local environment  to get better assessment of needs of the area and prospective interventional aspects and  partner with these entities to provide our know-how and execution pipeline to enable last mile access to maximise impact”, he adds.

There are several interventions being promoted by 1M1B across segments. The Skills Accelerator programme helps individuals develop relevant skills to ensure that they are in line with the market needs. Fifty per cent of the participants get formal jobs and 15 per cent of them land up starting their own business. 1M1B is honing the leadership skills of micro-entrepreneurs along with building rural co-innovation labs.

It helps accelerate the access of indigenous technologies to rural markets by pairing these entrepreneurs with mentors who help them in developing their ideas. It also connects global start-ups to rural markets. This access and exposure allows them to test their solution on the specific populations through other village-level players.

The programme provides training in computer skills, communication, accounting, finance, access to technologies and hands-on growth support to help them launch their own micro-enterprises. 1M1B believes that communities of artisans, particularly women, deserve economic opportunities and aims to keep alive the rich tradition of their craftsmanship.

The foundation is working with Kalamkari weavers to provide a more robust economic base to the weaver community. It is also an implementation partner on providing training in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to 5,000 schoolchildren in New Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. Students are encouraged to come up with project ideas on how AI can be applied for societal good. Those selected are given access to   the AI Youth Lab to advance their projects and create prototypes.

The Future Leaders programme is dedicated to identifying and nurturing the next generation of leaders committed to positive change. The target group comprises high school students and undergraduates who have the potential to have a meaningful influence on topics of relevance. During the course of the programme, they are imparted high-impact leadership development skills to develop the knowledge, resources and network needed to become an inclusive and socially-minded changemaker. These skills include thinking critically and from multiple perspectives, collaborating inclusively, communicating effectively and becoming empathetic leaders. The coaching also exposes them to an array of educational experiences  that  broaden their world view.

The latest batch participated in the fifth annual 1M1B Activate Impact Summit at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York. The summit provided them the opportunity to learn about leadership through the lens of the experiences of leaders of civil society, government, industry, non-government bodies, private entities,  venture funds, entrepreneurs and influencers.

The foundation is a UN-accredited non-profit organisation with special consultative status to the UN Economic and Social Council and associated with the UN Department of Global Communications.

The foundation has a very innovative business development programme, called Business Raja (king). An AI-enabled chatbot, it is guiding aspiring entrepreneurs in rural India to grow their nascent ideas, raise funds and run their businesses successfully. It is simple in design. For the user, it is just another contact on WhatsApp they talk to about their ideas in three languages — Telugu, Hindi, and Kannada — as of now.

The chatbot asks a user about their ideas, how they came up with it, measures the person’s personality and attains a complete profile. It also assesses their responses to tough questions — a sort of psychometric test.

An aspiring entrepreneur needs to follow a three-step process: First, share a business idea. The chatbot will provide reference resources that need to be completed. Then, the candidate will have to design a financial plan such as product pricing. Finally, if the idea works well, the chatbot will help in raising funds. A final score of investment readiness is then sent to the lending institution.

“The idea of Business Raja emerged while our team was working with grassroots innovators and helping them navigates the challenging entrepreneurial landscape. The AI chatbot and the resources associated with it help to do this, at scale so we can enable more entrepreneurs faster”, explains Swati.

It doesn’t require a flash of genius or invention of any radical idea to change the story line. What is ultimately needed is practical compassion. Most revolutionary solutions have been evolved by people like Manav and Swati who looked at the familiar landscape with fresh eyes. They saw promise where others saw hopelessness.

*Development expert

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