Entrepreneurship: beyond mere awards

Tags: Op-ed
Entrepreneurship: beyond mere awards
Schwab Foundation
AN Oscar of sorts: Finalists of the Indian Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award with Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit after the ceremony in New Delhi
Earlier in November, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation, announced India’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 (ISEY) at a glittering ceremony in the ballroom of The Oberoi, New Delhi. The growing importance attached to social innovation and social entrepreneurship as an effective arena wherein effective solutions to some of the most vexing development challenges are being incubated, was further underscored by the presence of the chief guest and Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dixit.

In previous years, chief guests who gave away this high profile award have included some of India’s most powerful people, including, prime minister Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and several union ministers and chief ministers like Ambika Soni, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, and Prithviraj Chavan.

The ISEY award is an Oscar of sorts. Besides the transient limelight that it shines on the winner every year, it catapults the social entrepreneur (SE) into a powerful, foundationally corporate network of the World Economic Forum (WEF) but not without a prominent though smaller representation from civil society, the media and ministerial echelons of government. The ISEYA award brings with it a package of network access goodies like free entry to all annual WEF events around the world in India, China and Africa, and a select few entries into Davos. Physical access is further complemented with virtual networking opportunities with WEF participants.

Anshu Gupta of Goonj was the winner this year, the eleventh in a series of ISEYs selected after a rigorous process of shortlisting by an independent agency and final rounds of interviews by an eminent jury. Like in most years since the award was instituted in 2005, one winner prevailed over two other finalists. This time it was Gupta who bagged the honours over Vanita Viswanath of Udyogini, New Delhi and the team of Sameer Sawarkar and Rajeev Kumar of Neurosynaptic Communications, Bangalore. All three initiatives are worthy of a separate column.

From the vantage point of having been on both sides of the finalist interview process and having undergone, both, an unsuccessful bid followed by a successful one, it is obvious to me that the winner is a bit of Russian roulette. A slightly altered jury composition, with a different predilection for a for-profit, non-profit, or hybrid model could well throw up another outcome. The point, therefore, is that over the years the ISEY process, from its inception integrated into WEF on India, has brought to the attention of corporations, the government, civil society institutions and the media, already around 30 top-notch Indian SEs and their innovations. How have these sectors responded to this stellar collection of social innovations and entrepreneurs?

The nature of awards is that they artificially lift the winner into the stratosphere, even when, arguably, we are comparing apples to oranges and we acknowledge the futility of staking a claim that one finalist’s social contribution is somehow ‘more’ or ‘better’ than the others. The first folly we commit is not that we give undue attention to the winner, but that we give undue lack of attention to the runners-up.

The next misconception is that a congratulatory pat on the back is insufficient. Most important battles that an SE fights are not won by the individual but by a number of people and organisations that join the cause. They see intrinsic value in the SE’s efforts and then extend their support, not necessarily at much time and effort, but in strategic ways. A mention here, a mention there, a whisper about someone’s work is sometimes enough to powerfully galvanise key decision-makers, precisely because it comes from a respectable and neutral source.

Key decision-makers can hear all they can from an SE and not move in the desired direction. But even a casual nudge by someone else in that direction, someone who enjoys the irresistible combination of esteem and impartiality, can get the job done. The strategic challenge for the ‘back-patter’ is to engage long enough with the SE to uncover, both, the key decision-makers on the path to progress and decipher their circles of influence. How can one then intersect positively with that circle? Not everyone can or should try to contribute meaningfully to every SE’s cause. But anyone with social capital may be able to find an SE whose cause he/she can advance effectively.

SEs too, are not free from the responsibility of tactically contributing to another SE’s cause. No SE would disagree with that, and likely, all SEs would claim that indeed, this is something they do. That is not in question. What is being flagged here is the extent to which an SE actively engages in supporting the mission of some other SEs, beyond, what we may sometimes accuse people in other sectors of giving, lip service. When a critical mass of SEs promotes each other’s work in strategic ways, they help the individual, the sector and ultimately, themselves. In a small way, it is being the change we wish to see in the world.

(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)

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