Social entrepreneurs can turn problems into opportunities. With innovation and a business model, some ventures can aspire for success.

Entrepreneurship was once the road less taken or the rickety drive very few dared to venture on, giving up dream offers or going against the wishes of the family. Today, however, even for the average Indian, entrepreneurship is emerging as a viable career option. Whether it is a business or a social enterprise, to make big money or as a not-for-profit entity, for a fancy designation or as humble catalyst of change, more and more graduating youngsters are ready to take the entrepreneurial plunge quite early in life.

Social entrepreneurship -- a business model built to solve a problem in society -- has come of age, with the kind of issues being dealt with, and the number of people from varied backgrounds coming out to find solutions to the many problems around them.

There’s also a change in the air. Entrepreneurship has increasingly been perceived as glamorous; now even the profile of social entrepreneurship is rising.

“The number of young people in campus entrepreneurship activities has skyrocketed, from a few hundred only five years ago, to over 70,000 across India today,” says Laura Parkin, Executive Director, Wadhwani Foundation, and co-founder and head of National Entrepreneurship Network.

The Wadhwani Foundation funds not-for-profit efforts that inspire and educate new entrepreneurs.

She says that there has also been a shift in the business ideas, too, with young people today “tackling the tough stuff” such as clean energy, waste management, education and health care. “Two-three years ago we didn’t see this so much,” says Ms. Parkin.

But, there seems to be a blurry line between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. “Original social entrepreneurs were those who built NGO’s to solve social problems,” says Ms. Parkin.

“Today more entrepreneurs are using for-profit models to effect social change. And many so-called traditional businesses also solve social problems. Social venture? Business venture? Who can tell? In many cases, the distinction comes down to a question of business model, rather than the cause.”

While not all ideas may be viable, Ms. Parkin is encouraged. “It’s wonderful to see the change; it augurs well for the future.”

Characteristics

Tolerance to risk-taking is a key factor an entrepreneur needs to have.

While most of skills come at work, these days you have even social entrepreneurship being taught in the classrooms. But, can one master these skills through a programme?

“The role of institutions is to provide exposure. Even if one does not graduate to become an entrepreneur, it’s the institution which can plant the seed and wait for it to grow,” says Ashwin Mahalingam, assistant professor, Civil Engineering, IIT-Madras.

IIT-Madras, for instance, from this academic session introduced a minor stream in Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, where the aim is to put students through the cycle of ideating, working on B-plan and other programmes to mould him/her.

“Also, in one semester the student has to identify a social need and at least for one semester, work for the cause,” says Dr. Mahalingam, who is one of the advisory members of C-Tides, entrepreneurship cell of IIT-Madras.

Funding ventures

Working in rural India is another choice. Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI), a venture of IIT-M, mould rural start-ups, providing mentorship, offering support, infrastructure and preliminary funding.

“We look at companies right from the idea stage. While we do love to meet entrepreneurs who have already done the ground work, market research and the first draft of the business plan put together, most of the folks who walk-in have a strong passion and domain knowledge towards a rural-focused business, but usually do not understand the means to go about it,” explains Vijay Anand, who heads incubation activity at RTBI.

Some sectors which RTBI is looking at tapping include Energy: Distributed Power Generation, Agriculture, Supply Chain Management and Healthcare.

Helping business plans go forward with funding are the many social sector investors. There are corporate setups such as Google and ICICI Bank’s IFMR Trust, individual and family business like Skoll Foundation and social ventures funds like Acumen and Aavishkar.

But, what is a good idea that ensures a social venture gets funded? Anu Valli, analyst with IFMR ventures, says, “There are many who want to do everything by themselves and not look at increasing the value of the supply chain, which according to us is not a good idea.”

She says that in the last couple of years around 12 projects got investments and one winning point is it should be a profit-making entity which is scalable.