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Lokvani Talks To Raj Melville

Ranjani Saigal
04/01/2009

Raj Melville provides marketing and strategy consulting services to emerging social entrepreneurs focused on building bottom of pyramid solutions. He founded and chaired the Forum for Social Entrepreneurs at Boston University held in 2007 and 2008. He has organized and moderated numerous panels and workshops on social entrepreneurship. He currently mentors several startups that are focused on addressing key social issues. Raj has over 25 years of product management, marketing and consulting experience at four start-ups, and several larger organizations. He has been an active member of TiE Boston where he co-founded the Social Entrepreneurship Group. Raj has an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, a M.S. and D.Sc. in Engineering from MIT, and a M.S. in Management from the Sloan School at MIT. His blogs regularly on Social Entrepreneurship at http://socialecosystem.wordpress.com.

To learn more about the activities of the TIE Social Entrepreneurship SIG and to participate in it, please send an email to ranjani@lokvani.com

What motivated you to start the Social Entrepreneurs SIG?

Most TiE Charter Members are actively involved in supporting emerging business and technical entrepreneurs. Yet when I looked at some of the thorny social issues facing us, the people and organizations that were meeting those challenges showed the same dedication, focus and entrepreneurial drive in solving these big problems. A startup social entrepreneur faces some of the same challenges as technical entrepreneurs when it comes to scaling up, developing a marketing strategy, or considering implementation alternatives. I felt this was an area where we could channel the energy, experience and guidance from technical professionals to help emerging social entrepreneurs.

Can you define social entrepreneurship?

When Prof Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace prize, he instantly increased the profile of social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship. With this increasing visibility, the definition of Social Entrepreneurship has become fuzzy as many activities are now trying to fit under this umbrella term. 

Social entrepreneurship has grown to cover a spectrum of activities, from traditional non-profits to that of citizens groups. It even sometimes encompasses the work of many within corporations and the government who are addressing issues in the social sector. More recently this definition has widened further to include efforts to address environmental and sustainability initiatives in established companies. 

We chose to stick to a narrower definition of Social Entrepreneurship, one that focuses primarily on entrepreneurs – both from the non-profit and for-profit world – who are working to address a social issue in a sustainable and scalable manner.

How does it differ from CSR efforts?

CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility describes efforts generally undertaken by a company where it applies resources – both monetary as well as their employee resources – to help address a social issue. While this is a growing and commendable trend, it is different from Social Entrepreneurship as it is generally ensconced within and benefits from an existing company structure as opposed to the activities of an entrepreneurial startup. 

How would you differentiate it from non-profit work?

Social Entrepreneurship encompasses both non-profit as well as for-profit models. It is important to note that both the terms ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneur’ are relevant. There are many established non-profits and NGOs that are doing great work in the social sector. However, established non-profit organizations, like the Red Cross for example, are further up the maturity curve and not intrinsically entrepreneurial organizations. 

On the other hand, setting up a micro-finance organization to serve the underprivileged would be considered a social entrepreneur though in this case the organization would be a for-profit.

As you can see, Social Entrepreneurs include those non-profits and for-profits that are genuinely trying to solve a tough social issue by applying innovative ideas and sustainable and scalable solutions. 

What are some examples of high impact social entrepreneurial work?

There are hundreds of social entrepreneurs that you can see at work all around the world every day. Ashoka, an international foundation based in Washington DC, was one of the earliest organizations to recognize social entrepreneurs with their Ashoka Fellow program. There is comprehensive list of over 2000 fellows at their site (http://www.ashoka.org/fellows ). Prof. Yunus and the Grameen Bank are the most visible example, where he toiled for years to bring affordable credit to the underprivileged in Bangladesh. 

More recently we had an Ashoka Fellow, Pradip Sarmah, visit Boston. Pradip has setup a Rickshaw Bank in India where he works with the 8 million plus migrant workers who are generally the rickshaw pullers. He has a comprehensive program that provides affordable loans to help the pullers to buy their vehicles instead of renting them. He also has redesigned the vehicles to make them lighter and more efficient. In addition his organization provides insurance and other health services to this community. He has not taken any grants for his work and has developed a sustainable, self funding model that is supported by advertising on the vehicles and the interest payments from the loans. By tackling this issue that no one else was willing to address, he has provided this segment of the community with financial security and enhanced their livelihood.

What have been some of the highlights of the Social Entrepreneurs SIG?

It has been over three years since we started the Social Entrepreneurs SIG (Special Interest Group), or SE Group for short. In that period we have held over 20 panels, presentations, and discussions on a variety of social entrepreneurial topics. We have launched an annual conference on social entrepreneurship, ForSE: Forum for Social Entrepreneurship that we held at Boston University (http://www.bu.edu/forse) with the generous support of the Deshpande Foundation. 

The true impact of the SE Group has been in helping guide growing social entrepreneurs as they chart their course. Over the past three years the group has reviewed and mentored over two dozen organizations that have presented at their steering committee meeting. Some of the innovative startups include:

    * SaafWater: a for-profit SE whose mission is to provide affordable clean water to the urban poor in developing countries http://www.saafwater.com
    * Assured Labor: a mobile startup that creates a digital marketplace for jobs using mobile phones and the internet http://www.assuredlabor.com
    * India School Fund: founded with the goal of ensuring effective delivery of high-quality education to poor villages in India to break the vicious cycle of poverty and to empower the local population. http://www.indiaschoolfund.org
    * YEA: Young Entrepreneurs Alliance an organization to empower at-risk teens through business ownership.  http://www.yeaworks.org

 

Is Social Enterprise an idea whose time has come?

I have spent the past several years working with many of the local colleges and there is an increasing desire in the younger generation to get engaged and give back to society. All the great schools in Boston offer some kind of focus on Social Entrepreneurship that has been attracting top talent from around the world. I think we have a great opportunity to retain this talent, to channel their energies into building innovative social enterprises and to build a new center of excellence in Social Entrepreneurship in the Greater Boston area just like we built the Technology and Biotech clusters.  I think the passage of the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act this week marks the coming of age of Social Entrepreneurship and is a great step in the direction of harnessing this energy.

Any special advice for budding Social Entrepreneurs?

There are a lot of issues that are common to both social and typical business entrepreneurs. You need to have a good understanding of your customer - real on the ground first hand experience, you need to have a well thought out plan about how you are going to sustain yourself and you need to be adaptable. However social entrepreneurs, even more than typical business entrepreneurs, need to be dedicated and committed. While there are many avenues for funding and support for technical entrepreneurs, there is less of a support structure for startup social entrepreneurs. Unless you have a clear vision of where you are going and a dedicated focus on getting there, it can get tough when you are making the rounds to raise that early money. 
 



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