Sudha Srinivasan, CEO of The/Nudge Centre For Social Innovation, on social entrepreneurship in India and how it can solve India’s most critical problems.
In this interview, Sudha Srinivasan, CEO of The/Nudge Centre For Social Innovation, discusses the challenges of social entrepreneurship in India and her mission to nudge and nurture top talent to solve India’s most critical problems at scale.
As CEO of one of the top social enterprises in Bangalore (Bengaluru), she has helped incubate about 80 social-impact startups in four years, impacting over nine million lives.
Prior to this, Sudha worked at Intel, where she spent nearly 13 years in various leadership roles defining and executing large-scale global programs.
She has a great passion for enabling organizations to ramp in scale and competence and achieve audacious goals. Sudha is an engineer by training and holds an MBA from IIM Lucknow.
We caught up with her to learn about her inspiration, her journey of leading one of the top social enterprises in India and her learnings in the field of social entrepreneurship in India.
What inspired you to become a social leader? Where do your goals and inspiration come from?
I do not believe one gets inspired to “become a leader”. Truth is – in some areas you lead, in some you follow.
The/Nudge as an organization has enabled Nudgesters to bring their purpose together and leverage the platform of organizational structure to work together on the common goal of poverty alleviation.
Leadership is an essential trait at every level, and at every role. The sense of ownership Nudgesters bring to their jobs, and the purity of intent in everything we do is inspiration itself.
Please tell us about The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation (CSI). What does it offer and how is it unique?
The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation, was born out of the need to make India’s development sector aspirational for top talent. India’s economic growth is among the most unequal worldwide, as reflected in our poor human development index.
To extend the fruits of our economic top-line growth to the bottom 250 million is a challenging problem at all levels, and requires very capable problem solvers to innovate for scalable, sustainable models of change.
Sadly, the development sector, particularly the non-profit sector has not been competitive in the marketplace for talent. It is still seen as a space to volunteer or give to charity – but very few would jump in to make it their life’s work.
Far fewer choose to start up a non-profit that will create disruptive solutions for the country’s most critical problems and solve them at scale. In 2017, we saw the absence of venture philanthropy and a start-up ecosystem as a critical barrier for non-profit entrepreneurship.
So we launched an incubator to support high potential founders of the best social enterprises in India with an innovation grant, mentoring by some of India’s most admired leaders, and connect to a downstream ecosystem of supporters.
Since then, we have kickstarted 75 non-profit startups. Their success (9x average multiplier on seed capital and improving over 10 million lives) has given us the conviction to set up a 5.2 million USD accelerator fund and an inducement prize platform.
Our goal is to improve 100 million lives by accelerating the pace of solutions for India’s underprivileged and galvanise the sector to effectively reduce inequality.
Tell us about your fund for women social-impact entrepreneurs, ‘Pragati’, in association with Facebook.
Facebook, as part of its CSR agenda, has made a strong commitment to bridging the digital and financial divide in gender. The startup sector in India is flourishing. Yet, the gender gap in entrepreneurship is widening – and Facebook wants to change that.
At The/Nudge – we have been deeply bothered by the gender divide in poverty. Economic data shows that women-led households are likely to be far poor than peers in the same communities.
The alignment of purpose in enabling livelihood for women through entrepreneurship led to the creation of Pragati – an exclusive program for Women Entrepreneurs, working to close the digital divide, improve access to capital etc for women-led businesses in underprivileged communities.
What is Cisco Agri-Challenge (startup contest) and what do you hope to achieve with it?
The Cisco Agri Challenge is a 2 Crore prize challenge for social impact start-ups in the Agri-tech sector. We’re looking for farmer-centric innovations that can increase the income of 10 million farmers by 2025.
The incubation will run for a period of 9 months, with exposure to the country’s greatest minds as mentors, jury, technology partners, knowledge partners, policy circle enablers, philanthropy and funding circles.
The challenge is powered by Cisco and is being organized by The/Nudge CSI in partnership with Principal Scientific Advisor to Govt. of India.
The rural and agrarian economy has suffered the most during COVID-19 and is in need of disruptive help, which social entrepreneurs can provide with the right public-private partnerships. This is what we are enabling.
Tell us about your mission of using ‘tech for good’ or ‘technology in the social-impact space’
Technology has disrupted every sector and industry. From how we plan our vacations to how we order our meals – tech startups have offered efficient solutions at scale, and radically changed consumer behaviours and the industry itself.
However when it comes to the most important problems faced by humanity – food, shelter, health, access to clean water and sanitation etc – the pace at which we are leveraging technology is underwhelming.
Our journey started with an incubation program that offers hands-on support to early-stage non-profit founders developing technology for the bottom 250 million – and we were blown away by the potential.
From a Smartphone-based test for contaminants in water to a wearable that tracks immunisation records of a tribal child – these solutions were created through a deep understanding of the problems and designed for scale.
These social entrepreneurship examples in India inspired us to subsequently expand our support through an accelerator program that offers larger grants and long-term support.
We have entered into a joint venture with Atal Innovation Mission of NITI Aayog to promote technology in solving development problems of national importance and have worked with over 25 tech non-profit startups.
Tell us about the Indian Administrative Fellowship and what you hope to achieve with it.
The/Nudge CSI announced a fellowship for C-Suite execs and leaders from diverse domains to work with Principal Secretaries in state governments, on catalytic initiatives and programs of strategic importance.
This initiative enables transference of capabilities from corporate and technology leadership into Civil Services, for an official 18-month period.
The aim is to augment the capacity of senior civil servants in light of COVID-19 with a dedicated Fellow who brings strategic acumen, entrepreneurial drive as well as capability to execute solutions for critical civil and developmental problems.
Public-private partnerships are the need of the hour. Individuals can have a disproportionate impact by contributing their skills and knowledge to the design and implementation of government programs.
Governments too have opened doors to welcome motivated and socially conscious citizens to work on initiatives for the public good.
We have drawn from the experience of role models like Phanindra Sama, founder of Red Bus and of course, Nandan Nilekani’s success as the founding chairperson of UIDAI, to create this fellowship.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges facing social entrepreneurs – particularly non-profit entrepreneurs is the headwind of low risk-taking in the sector.
The sector traditionally has measured the “goodness” of nonprofits by the % of their budgets that go directly to intended beneficiaries of their grant. That has limited the activities of NGOs to charitable work and service delivery.
But as you will agree – if we are to step beyond charity, and sustainably solve problems, we need to make bigger bets on sustainable, scalable solutions – including many that need upfront innovation and risk capital. Each of the 80+ non-profit startups we have incubated is innovating on new models to solve age-old problems.
At The/Nudge CSI – several of our products – the incubator, the accelerator fund, research grants for land inclusivity, Forum, IAF, and now the Inducement Prize platform are first-of-their-kind bets to catalyse large scale change.
Finding mission-aligned partners for each of these has at times tested our grit — but the magic happens when such partners become true allies in the larger pursuit, often going beyond grant-making to work alongside us for the success of the initiative.
What are all the things that a social entrepreneur needs to keep in mind? Apart from your great idea, what do you need to be armed with?
A great team. Every entrepreneur should pay close attention to the early team members they bring on board. A great startup team sets the shape of the growth curve in future.
What you learn, how quickly you evolve, and therefore how far you will go is decided by the DNA that starts to build with the first few members of the organisation, and you should hire for that DNA and protect that DNA carefully.
Also, find teammates that care about your mission as deeply as yourself. This is critical for resilience against the ups and downs, and to protect the organisation from mission drift.
Ditto for your board and advisors. A carefully curated board can help you to get strategic clarity, build momentum and gain credibility rapidly. A strong board can set into motion, a virtuous cycle of finding good partners, great talent, and achieving desired results.
Did you have a mentor to guide you through your journey? In your opinion, what does a mentor bring to the table?
Every entrepreneur should have two, perhaps three close mentors who will invest in their development, out of keen personal interest.
As female social entrepreneurs in India, if you have been audacious in your pursuit, you will need to take more than your share of disappointments and failures in your stride. You will need to stay strong for your teams and act with equanimity and conviction even through periods of self-doubt.
Having mentors (and I believe it has to be more than one mentor) with whom you can have open and direct conversations, seek a diverse point of view, or use as a sounding board for important decisions – helps you navigate through tough times – but also helps you grow as a person.
I have been fortunate to be mentored by some of the wisest, most generous leaders in the industry who joined us as Partners for the incubator and helped to build it ground up, from an idea stage.
I seek specific individuals out for guidance based on their knowledge and insights, from time to time. I think overall, it has been very liberating and empowering to know that a network of trusted advisors has our back. It has freed us to be bold and take on audacious goals.
Please share 3 key lessons that you have learned in your entrepreneurial journey?
My journey is technically not ‘entrepreneurial’ – I had the luxury of aligning my purpose with Atul Satija (Founder, The/Nudge Foundation) and leveraging the strong foundation he had already laid for The/Nudge by the time I joined the core team.
As I said, The/Nudge has given all of us the space to be intrapreneurial – every program lead is an intrapreneur CEO who carries a deep sense of ownership for the success of their program.
Hence that is lesson #1 – hire people who will carry the mission of the organisation with a deep sense of purpose – and you will be successful together.
The second key lesson is to never compromise on the core. Holding on to purity of intent and honesty to purpose is very critical in the life journey of a non-profit. Never deviate or give in to more powerful voices for short term gains. Hold your sense of purpose above all else.
Finally – breathe. A lot of non-profit founders carry more than their fair share of the burden to fix all that is wrong with the world. Often this leads to an almost self-righteous contempt for everyone else and compromises their ability to find allies from other disciplines.
I have learnt to not take anything, not even ourselves too seriously. You do the best you can, with all you have, but if things don’t go your way, you take deep breaths and wait for the idea’s time to arrive.
What advice would you give social entrepreneurs starting a business today?
There’s no better time to start your social enterprise than now. Like all new ventures, this can be daunting, more so considering we’re outside the traditional framework of support and funding that other entrepreneurs have.
But the scenario is slowly changing. Impact Investments and social entrepreneurship ideas in India are gaining recognition and momentum.
Globally, COVID has left individuals, corporates, governments, civic organizations and entrepreneurs – more aware than ever before about the gaps in social welfare, policies, reactive solutions and funds.
People are aligning more consciously to social impact needs. As social entrepreneurs, we now have more support to grow our organizations along with the lives of other startups.
Like other ventures, we can systematically grow with the 4 key steps:
- Clearly identify the problem they wish to work on
- Come up with an innovative or differentiated solution
- Establish a product-market fit, and
- Raise capital to effect the change at a meaningful scale
The world needs social entrepreneurs now more than ever and there is more need for social entrepreneurship in India. Every effort towards changing the word counts.
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