Naveen Lakshmipathy, Indicorps Fellow
Growing a Corps of Entrepreneurs by Utilizing the Viral Power of Hope
“I am losing my current customers and having to turn away new ones,” he admitted with a deep sigh. I could see in his eyes that he was demoralized.
I was visiting Basavaraj, a 45-year old pharmaceutical deliveryman from the town of Hiryur in Central Karnataka, India as part of my work for a non-governmental organization (NGO) which develops environmentally-responsible microenterprises in poor communities. A few months back, Basavaraj had been selected by one of our local partner NGOs to take over a small business renting out inexpensive, modern lighting systems to hawkers and street vendors at night. The previous operator had been forced to give up the business due to an alcohol problem. I had gone to Hiryur to review the current state of affairs – to get to know Basavaraj and assess his ability to run the project and his aspirations for it. I would then ultimately determine the nature and level of support we would provide to help him meet his goals.
I spent two full nights with Basavaraj, shadowing him as he charged car batteries at a station set up near his home, gathered up the charged batteries in a large burlap bag, slung the bag over the handles of his bicycle, and laboriously walked the bike up and down the narrow—yet still bustling—streets of Hiryur. The equipment he had inherited, which had been purchased on the cheap from disreputable vendors and improperly maintained by his predecessor, was rapidly failing. His charging unit was on the blink, needing to be repaired once every few days. More ominously, his batteries were dying. Batteries that were supposed to power a seven-watt light bulb for four hours were barely working for half that time—and getting worse each night. As a consequence, Basavaraj was forced to give multiple batteries to each of his customers. Due to a finite supply of batteries, this meant that he had to cut back on his customer load by more than half.
Even in these bad and ever-worsening conditions, Basavaraj’s determination to keep his business running—and keep his customers as satisfied as possible—was unfailing. While under normal circumstances, he would only have to make two rounds through town each night (one to make deliveries in the early evening, and another for pickups at the end of the night), he was having to make four and even five rounds delivering new batteries to customers whose lights had gone out—requiring him to be on the go non-stop throughout the night.
Wondering where he found his motivation, I pointedly asked him why he had become interested in running the business and what kept him going despite the challenges he was facing. He explained that he was excited by the idea of taking ownership of the business, expanding it, and using the income to help pay for educating his four young daughters. He had stopped attending school after the tenth grade, but was determined to make sure his daughters’ opportunities were unlimited. I could tell that he was serious about making things work for this reason. I pledged our financial and logistical support. We would help him to buy entirely new equipment and work out a plan in which, if he continued to make timely payments and demonstrate that he could run the business well, he would eventually be able to take full ownership of the business. I had expected a more enthusiastic reaction, but Basavaraj was cautious. I asked where he wanted to see his business in the next two years, and he replied with a tentative, “We’ll see.” It was clear that the weight of his hemorrhaging business was keeping him from expressing his true aspirations.
A week later, a shipment of brand-new, high-quality batteries was ready to be delivered to Basavaraj from Bangalore. I had begun to arrange for a shipping company to deliver the equipment when I found out that it would take a full week for the delivery to happen. Given the way in which Basavaraj’s equipment was failing, that was too long. Short on ideas, I asked my supervisor for suggestions on how to get the new equipment to Hiryur as quickly as possible. He suggested paying Jaikumar, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur running the same type of lighting business for hawkers, to deliver the batteries. Jaikumar is an inspiring success story: he has recently expanded his business dramatically with support from my NGO, including an investment in a brand-new, three-wheeler cargo vehicle. As Jaikumar’s business has grown, his confidence levels as an entrepreneur have been steadily increasing.
I’m not sure if my supervisor knew it at the time, but his suggestion was a brilliant one. Not only did Jaikumar have a vehicle to make the delivery, but this would give Basavaraj an opportunity to meet someone who had overcome the same challenges he was facing right now. For Basavaraj, meeting Jaikumar in person was an inspiration more powerful than my verbal encouragement could ever have been. Seeing Jaikumar’s gleaming new vehicle, hearing him talk about how he had expanded his own business from only 15 to over 50 customers within just eight months—and how the extra income had enabled him to invest in his daughters’ education—all of this caused Basavaraj’s eyes to light up. In Jaikumar, Basavaraj saw the possibilities for his own future.
I learned an important lesson that day – that, more than mere words, the best way to inspire hope is hope itself. In working to grow our corps of entrepreneurs, I now understand the power of using one person’s success to help others fully visualize their own potential. As Jaikumar and I drove away that day, I pulled open the window to say goodbye to Basavaraj. I decided to ask the same question I had asked a week prior. “Now where do you see your business in two years?” I called out. Ever cautious, Basavaraj’s answer was the same: “We’ll see,” he replied. But this time, seeing the smile on his face and look of hope in his eyes, I knew those words had an entirely different meaning.
Indicorps is a non-partisan, non-religious, non-profit organization that encourages Indians around the world to actively participate in India's progress. Indicorps' programs are designed to build principled leadership, empower visionaries, inspire collective action, and unite Indians towards a common vision for the nation by productively engaging the diaspora with the development of the country that defines their identity. Please visit www.indicorps.org to learn more about the organization.
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