Initiative Careers

Ready to take on the world

Small, family-based businesses can be scaled to micro-enterprises.

Small, family-based businesses can be scaled to micro-enterprises.   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

IIT Madras joins the Hand-in-Hand Academy for Social Entrepreneurship to set up skill development programmes for women entrepreneurs from rural areas.

On a cool morning, recently, three professors and a research scholar from IIT Madras (IIT-M) travelled to Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu to conduct a workshop. That is routine, except that their audience was made of 60 women running small businesses in semi-rural areas around the temple town. In the five-day programme organised by the Hand-in-Hand Academy for Social Entrepreneurship (H-in-H), the IIT-M team from its Center for Social Innovation and and Entrepreneurship walked the micro-and-marginal women entrepreneurs through strategies for business growth and profitability.

Scaling up

“The women are from SHGs,” said Dr. Jayaseelan, Group CEO, H-in-H. “Some run their enterprises themselves, others are supported by us. These are small, family-based enterprises, with loans going up to Rs. 50,000. We want them to scale up into micro-enterprises,” he continued. The workshop would teach them to apply business principles — how to understand markets and position themselves, what innovation they could bring to their business. He also said, “They have 50 trade-skills among them.”

The participants had to be woman entrepreneurs (age between 35 and 45 years) managing independent enterprises, had to belong to an SHG and had to have completed one cycle of loan from H-in-H. Post-training, they would get mentor support for six months, for preparing a business plan, would be instructed on when to submit the plan to the banks. “We will help them present sales volumes and matrix to the regulators,” said Dr. Jayaseelan.

Missing middle

Meanwhile H-in-H would put together a Missing Middle Investment Fund, the first of its kind in India. The fund aims at offering loans to women who are neither too poor to expand nor too established to need help.

The corpus raised from State banks and development-finance institutions and managed by H-in-H would advance the first tranche of capital for the scale-up, thereby empowering the women to raise 4-5 times the amount. They would get hybrid capital/debt and technical support.

That’s where IIT-M steps in. Prof. Thillairajan said, “Under Management Studies, we get grants for developing socially-relevant projects. We wanted to do a skill-building project for women entrepreneurs from different backgrounds.” Prof. Arun Kumar added, “Faculty members are encouraged to do such work apart from teaching and research. We train women in micro-enterprises to finance/market, learn statutory/regulatory rules. More faculty members will join us to handle different aspects of the programme.” I gulped. How would these women cut through management jargon, apply textbook principles to business?

Reaching them would be a challenge at a level, the group agreed. But this was no regular MBA class. The first move was to hold the seminar at Kancheepuram, a place familiar to them. The faculty had gathered inputs from a focus-group workshop for 10 women.

They brushed up on Tamil. Professor Saji Mathew spoke no Tamil — for him, it would be chalk-and-talk and PPT. The questionnaires would be in English, but would get translated when distributed. Smiled Prof. Thillairajan,“I have been spending time with an English-Tamil dictionary. Passion unifies us, that is the language that connects all of us.”

Conceptualising

The business concept of each would be finalised in the current workshop. In the next six months, one-day workshops would see discussions between mentor and trainees. He continued, “We want them to see competition/costing/pricing in a different way. IT will help them migrate to e-commerce. H-in-H-picked women entrepreneurs have been successful, why not add a formal structure to the project?”

In his pep-talk, the professor told his audience: “This is not for traders out to make opportunistic profits, not for self-businesses satisfied with just selling. You will be entrepreneurs, creating opportunities for society, be a part of the country's growth.”

Said Kalpana Shankar, chairman/managing-trustee, H-in-H India, “It's not easy to run a business in India. You are first-gen entrepreneurs, women fighting gender issues, ignorance, competition. Who gives training to the poor, heading small shops? If you fail, the first question you face is, ‘Who asked you to take a risk?’” Citing the success of Jain Irrigation that brought green revolution to Rajasthan through drip irrigation in small farms, she said, “Bring new ideas like him. Ask questions, make the best use of the opportunity.”

Donating Rs. 2 lakh to the seed-fund, Suresh Kumar, chairman, Pallavan Grama Bank, said this was perhaps the best time for the project as banks were now looking for entrepreneurs. “You need capital and mindset change — both will be filled by the Missing-Middle programme. The general feeing is IIT-ians are geeks. Now you see their other face, their social outlook.” We will help, he said, “We doubled our business with small entrepreneurs like you.”

At the workshop that want-to-improve spirit was palpable. Women selling appalam, running hardware/grocery stores, bakeries and tailoring-units enthusiastically filled questionnaires, asked/answered questions, took part in activities. “We learnt about permanent/non-permanent expenditure, importance of keeping accounts, marketing,” said Dhanalakshmi (beauty-parlour owner). Kalpana, who does lap-top/cellphone servicing was happy she learnt of the three sectors — manufacture, service, trading. “Now I know about quality control, about want and need, how to approach customers.”

I need not have worried. They said “We loved listening to the stories professors told us. We came away with many business tips. We are ready to take on the world.”

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:51:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/careers/ready-to-take-on-the-world/article8202630.ece

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