Monthly Webinars

Social Innovation: Perspectives and Pathways

2. Socially impactful technology ventures: An entrepreneur's perspective

Date: 3rd April, 2021 Time: 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Speaker: Arvind Saraf, Engineer & Entrepreneur. Trained at IIT, MIT & Google

The webinar brought out an entrepreneur's views on socially impactful technology ventures. The talk focused mainly on how this space evolved for the last two decades and the speaker's learnings. The kind of problems that tech ventures have attempted to solve is not necessarily social impact-oriented, though they may have a trickle-down effect on social impact. When we talk of any venture or company, essentially, four checkboxes need to be ticked for it to work. A successful venture should create sufficient value for its users, which makes them pay. Secondly, users should have the ability and willingness to pay for whatever the outcome of the product is being offered. Also, the product should have a sufficiently large number of potential paying users. The technology/product costs should be low enough so that there is optimum revenue. A lot of not-for-profit ventures are doing fantastic work with social impact. Nevertheless, bringing tech entrepreneurship to impact has much more potential to scale if viable. Technology is a potential enabler towards broader reach to the people, higher value, and lower cost for enabling users to do lot more things that they could not do before introducing technology.

Socially impactful technology ventures evolved mainly in the last two decades. Discussions around technology for impact began by 2000. Bringing down the cost of computing was the primary focus of that time. The evolution of the spaces, right from the time to make cheaper computers, making computing accessible and then using mobile SMS and internet to reach more people to use the internet for transactions allowed to reach many people and reach the scale. Creating value through information distribution was the main focus by 2005. Increasing reach to the internet commerce platforms was on focus by 2010, as was the emergence of software platforms for small businesses by 2016. By 2020, artificial intelligence usage was the central discourse.

Working in the space of trying to create technology for impact has been very humbling for the speaker, and one of the first learnings for him was to work closely with users/clients. User feedback and spending time with users are essential. Such discussions can bring better efficiency and realize the problem is a lot more in detail while closely working with the clients. One of the significant learnings is that even though technology is a significant enabler, it is only a part of the problem and not the only solution. Most of us believe that overly intellectual capabilities or approaches are necessary, but more complex is not always better. It is not always mandatory to have the perfect solution for a problem, and complex solutions are more likely to break.

While entrepreneurship is exciting and impactful, much hardship is along the way, and many times, entrepreneurs tend to question themselves on having chosen entrepreneurship. Having company co-founders, team members, advisors, and mentors could help them face these challenges. The present-day period is interesting as we are at a point where people have computing at their hands, technology payment is available and artificial intelligence has evolved. Social impactful tech entrepreneurship is scalable now and is already attracting lots of investment.

1. Can social enterprises lead an inclusive recovery from the livelihood crisis triggered by COVID 19 pandemic?

Date: 6th March, 2021 Time: 6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
Speaker: Gayatri Rao, India Program Lead at IMAGO Global Grassroots and IIMK Alumina

The webinar deliberated the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the formal and informal sector and social enterprises’ relevance and their activities in addressing the situation. Globally, the pandemic's impact has been extreme on informal workers causing around 80% decrease in their incomes. All sectors of agriculture like poultry, dairy, fisheries were affected by labor non-availability, market closure, and movement restrictions to transport their produce to the market. Covid-19 has a disproportionate impact on the women in the MSME sector. About 17 million women lost their jobs in April 2020, and by November 2020, the labor force itself for women had shrunk by 13%.

Social enterprises address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem and are highly relevant in the current situations. They are well-positioned to address gaps in the market and reach areas or people that the government cannot. They deliver supplies and services and assist their members in accessing credit services, government social security benefits, ration, etc., often using innovative solutions. In terms of social enterprise investment, India has seen over 10 billion dollars invested in social enterprises in the past decade. A survey of India impact investment shows that nearly 600 social Enterprises provide a social benefit to almost 200 million low-income people. In a pandemic situation where the market and government system fails, social enterprises can be a bridge to connect the majority of low-income populations with resources.

Social enterprises generated employment during the covid-19 period, where the market demand was low for their regular products by quickly shifting to essential products like masks, Sanitizers, and PPE kits. They ensured that their members had a source of income during the difficult period. Many social enterprises like the SEWA ecosystem, a milk producer company in Bundelkhand, UP, Okhai in Tamil Nadu, micro-enterprises under Kudumbashree in Kerala are some of the examples of social enterprises. They have employed a large section of lower-income groups in the society through innovative measures and thus helped recover from the livelihood crisis. These all prove that social enterprises have led an inclusive recovery from the livelihood crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social enterprises can innovate and maximize impact in low-resource environments, and it is beneficial in post-pandemic recovery efforts. They can also go beyond immediate relief to strengthen their capacity to cope with future uncertainty, reducing the shocks to the poor or the informal sector. They also give individual members a voice, encourage collective action to access resources, bring about change and holistic development of the vulnerable and low-income groups. But they need a lot of support. A lot of social enterprises fail because of a lack of support. They cannot meet the scale or financial sustainability required to maintain a steady source of income. They need holistic support to reach scale and sustainability, such as a sensitive, supportive, responsive ecosystem, accessible capital and skilling support, support to women entrepreneurs, and women-owned enterprises. Support is sought to make sure that they have an ecosystem of social security, education, health, care services for their children so that they can engage in these productive activities. The government is supporting social enterprises and the MSME sector in many ways. But more constructive, supportive, and gender-sensitive efforts towards them can make the social enterprises more responsive and beneficial to society, especially in crises.