Entrepreneurial leadership: Role models from India’s social entrepreneurs

I have recently returned from a learning journey in South India with a wonderful band of fellow travellers (from Ireland, Mexico, and UK) and the India- based Journeys for Change team. We met inspiring leaders of social enterprises in Bengelaru, Chennai and Pondicherry from a range of social businesses ( where profits were recycled into the business and used for social purpose) . We visited retail, environmental, health, arts and heritage projects and used insights from those we met to reflect on our own experiences and ambitions. I identified eight core qualities shared by the enterprising leaders that we met, they all:

1. Emanated a passion for their cause and a determination to make a difference: 

Demonstrated through very strong ownership of the challenges they witnessed in other people’s lives:

‘If someone is blind then it is our problem to solve’ Dr. Venkataswamy, Aravind

‘As people who possibly have some support networks in life’s journey, with a good education, how do we not help? If we do not address these problems who will?’ Paul Basil, Villgro Innovations

2. Displayed a very clear mission, from a strong ethical base:

Each had a very strong mission and goal:

‘ Eliminating needless blindness’ 

Was the goal of the charismatic Dr. Venkataswamy (Dr. V), founder of Aravind Eye Care. When he started to implement his vision back in 1976 he ran an 11- bed service from his Madurai home and now there are 4000 beds in 5 hospitals across South India and a huge network of rural clinics. We visited the Pondicherry hospital and the their ethos of efficient, high quality, high volume and compassionate care was evident from the moment we crossed the threshold. Taking over from Dr V has taken drive and commitment but the clarity of the mission also helped with the challenge of legacy and succession planning:

‘ It’s the mission not the person’ P.Poobalan, Accountant, Aravind

3. Reached out to those who most needed their help, designing products to appeal
to non–users: 

We met the founder of the Selco Foundation and heard that ‘500m people in India still have no electricity, after 50 years of independence’.

‘We need to: ‘ go deeper (into communities) not wider’ Dr. Harish Handi, Selco 

Similarly, the team at Aravind are constantly seeking to reach further towards non users and owning the problem of lack of take–up as a significant indicator that the delivery model needs to change, and not resting until it has.

4. Paid time and attention to growing talent and finding complementary skills:

A common feature of the larger enterprises we met was their investment in training, the ‘growing their own talent’, but always starting with attitudes and the value base:

‘We screen for passion and commitment’ Paul Basil, Villgro Innovations

‘We are looking for humility’ Medical Director, Aravind

5. Delegated well whilst constantly watching out for ‘mission drift’:

The senior team at Selco design their salespeople’s incentives really carefully so that they rewarded initiatives that reached out to those most in need, including through giving an award for the most innovative projects.

6. Incubated new ideas, through working with others:

The entrepreneurs we met shared a very clear emphasis on creating value as opposed to waiting for grants or government programmes. The Selco Foundation runs a loan scheme to enable the poorest households to afford solar lighting and reduce their costs. Industree is investing in design to add value to traditional products and sustains the market for core traditional crafts in a way that will put more cash in rural producers hands’ (the rural craftspeople who get 10% of all the profits).

Those engaged in facilitating entrepreneurs’ success work hard to help the innovators test their ideas from sitting in the customers’ shoes, and thinking through whether their models are sustainable rather than a solution in search of a problem.

‘We have to build business models that generate incomes (for the poor), rather than taking a share of their wallet’ Paul Basil, Villgro Innovations

7. Paid constant attention to quality and the ability to replicate and roll out success:

Nowhere was this more noticeable than Aravind Eye Care, where Dr V instilled a mindset geared towards constant process innovation which contributes to (its) record breaking efficiency’. This is well captured in the book about Aravind: ‘ Infinite vision’ by P.K. Mehta and S. Shenoy.

But this effficiency was in part achieved through an ‘army of paraprofessionals’. Aravind is recruiting and training 500 young women a year to undertake the bulk of tasks, leaving the doctors free to concentrate on the final diagnosis and surgical interventions, yet treating patients, junior staff and doctors as equals in the partnership of care.

8. Thought holistically- seeing the big picture and able to convey their message to others:

Vishnu Swaminathan from Ashoka India shared his developing thinking about the role of Ashoka in promoting ‘ framework change’. He highlighted 3 different approaches to change, retail change (micro interventions, possibly replicated in several different places, but with limits to their ability to go to scale), system or pattern change (where one can see a real or potential network of provision or responses to a problem) but where the eco system is still broken or disconnected.

He argued that we should be seeking framework change- finding the tipping point where social impact peaks and the ‘solution’ becomes part of the mainstream. To do this,
he argues, requires a staged approach:

  • Trust a small circle of thinkers and do-ers to debate the problem- start tight at this stage .
  • A growing number of people get it and can see how the different players in the eco system can work together.
  • We are a step away from the tipping point and framework change- that will have clear drivers to enable change to go to scale.

Finally, these founder entrepreneurs were all brilliant at story telling, conveying their mission with passion, but grounded in effective business practice. Inspiring indeed.


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