CEO Blog 10: Conversations with a Social Entrepreneur

24 May 2018

I have been deeply inspired by several social entrepreneurs and our fellows, with whom I have interacted in the recent past. And this has set me to have a conversation within myself, several times. Ruminating over the questions posed to me, remarks I heard them make, deep thoughts that they shared – all have led me to write this piece. This is truly a conversation with a Social Entrepreneur.

Shalabh Mittal, CEO of SSE India

Social Entrepreneur: I have heard you use the phrase ‘co-founder blues’. What does it mean? 

Shalabh Mittal: Many social entrepreneurs struggle with the decision to have a co-founder for their social enterprise. In fact, many search for one after they have founded and set up the company. For a social entrepreneur, it is important to understand his/her own reason to form the enterprise. If it is so strongly because s/he is associated deeply with the ‘CAUSE’ then a co-founder with technical/business skills to run the enterprise may be desirable. But, technical skills combined with empathy for the communities one works with. The critical thing here is the co-founder’s energy. What energy does he/she bring?

For a social entrepreneur, it is important to understand his/her own reason to form the enterprise.

SE: His (the investor’s) behavior is unacceptable. He must understand that we are just a start-up, two years old. Why does he expect me to show results overnight? How do I deal with it?

SM: One needs to know the difference between harvesting and planting. If for some time I am not getting results or making sales, am I doing enough on product development and business development during that time? If yes, I am productive – and I am in the planting season. I will make sales when the harvesting season comes. You need to understand this and explain it to your stakeholders. Business, also, has seasons – work accordingly. If someone does not want to understand, take it head-on. Face it. Because you cannot damage your own sanity.

SE: Am I an activist or an entrepreneur? It makes me angry when I see inequalities and my immediate response is to fight against the system. But then, what about the solution through my enterprise?

SM: ‘Activist Entrepreneur’ are not two words that are used often together, and sound ironic to describe an individual. But social entrepreneurs who are working on solutions to address the inequality and injustice that plague our growth definitely qualify as activist entrepreneurs. But, then, how much of each is essential in the pursuit of their purpose? I have often heard people in the development sector saying ‘change within the system or change the system’ as a choice. Social entrepreneurs often create new systems, new order, new markets, and new ways of solving problems. Activists discuss, debate, deliberate, examine, appeal, and reason about the problems they identify whereas entrepreneurs ‘DO’ solve the problems by taking solutions into their own hands. And that is all the difference. For social entrepreneurs, I advocate a strong bias towards ‘Action’ – Doing Things Differently.

SE: What makes an idea successful? I have been with my idea for 18 months now but have not moved ahead. Why?

SM: They say, “innovation is hard but execution is harder”. In today’s growing start-up culture, there are ‘ideas’ galore. The question is: does the idea-holder live it, breathe it, and believe in it to make it happen? And, more importantly, has s/he started to take massive action around it? ‘Action’ alone makes the idea successful. It is not that simple. If you don’t believe in your idea yourself, you are not being authentic—and you cannot fake it. It has to reflect what YOU believe. This would inspire massive action, on your and your team’s behalf.

The question is: does the idea-holder live it, breathe it, and believe in it to make it happen?

SE: Finding talent is a challenge for me in my enterprise. I have to run around and do almost everything. Either they don’t know how to, or by the time they get it – they send their resignation.

SM: Finding and retaining ‘good’ talent is always a challenge faced by social entrepreneurs, and in general, it is a board room conversation for many. Do we realize what makes a person we hire perform well? The challenging times in start-ups exposes its people to several risks and makes them more vulnerable. So, if someone makes a mistake, the team must come forward to find the solution together. Because, when you don’t blame a person for making a mistake you empower them to take some risks. And that’s how you create a culture, what I truly believe is a start-up culture. I believe people who come forward to join social enterprises have essentially an un-satiated hunger to connect to something that is bigger than themselves, and if we help them find it – we lead transformation. The journey will be fun, and it will not affect the organization when they decide to leave—because in the process, their engagement would have been of supreme quality and purpose.