Day 9: Hubli–Development Dialogue Day 2

Day 2 of Development Dialogue included a nifty keynote speech from Desh and a very forward breakout session discussion from Neelam Chhiber, co-founder of Industree and its related retail outlet, Mother Earth.

What stood out in Desh’s keynote, which ran extra long because the the panel immediately following his speech was missing a person (and, my, how Indians can talk like words are water), are 1) the concept of “compassionate capitalism,” 2) the necessity, again, of a good ecosystem for social entrepreneurs, and 3) innovation in India that is scalable and affordable. The Deshpande Foundation Sandbox is supposed to be a place where social entrepreneurs can “play” and “innovate.” Failures matter not; if something doesn’t work, you’re not supposed to become defensive. Rather, you continue playing. And social entrepreneurs must make a bottom line on inexpensive products that are designed to be scalable. These products, like a mobile phone, should be good at doing one thing really well. The NGO world lacks discipline, with organizations attempting to do too much.

I really enjoyed hearing from Neelam Chhiber, who spoke both in the panel discussion and in the breakout session that I attended. Neelam stressed a few things from her experience in the creative industry and supply chain management (her company essentially sources handicrafts from rural artisans and sells them as niche goods at tremendous margins). First was the necessity but difficulty of running a hybrid model. Industree is actually composed of two separate organizations. One is a for-profit private limited. The other is a nonprofit. The for-profit buys, sells, and makes a profit. The non-profit helps organize and train self help groups of artisan producers. Essmart is also considering a hybrid model to take advantage of different relationships and funding sources that just one legal entity cannot access. Neelam’s second point was the importance of having working capital for R&D, particularly in the design of new technology. She related new production technologies to the debate around “pure” handicrafts. She claimed that she was not in the handicrafts sector, but in the livelihood sector, so it did not matter what processes were used in making the products. The only thing that mattered was the producers’ livelihood. Lastly, Neelam stressed the importance of branding. Mother Earth substantially marks up the prices of its goods, and the goods are marketed to urban dwellers and international folks alike who care about doing some good through their purchases.

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Neelam Chhiber with the mic

I spent the last few daylight hours standing in front of the Essmart poster that I carried all the way from MIT. It came with me to Los Angeles, Chennai, Jaipur, Bangalore, and to Hubli. Thus, its unveiling was less than spectacular because of the dents! But, oh well, at least it came through. I met a handful of people who were interested in what we’re attempting to do. For example, a few NGOs were also interested in distribution. As a team, Essmart needs to discuss the best way to enter into relationships with NGOs. I also talked with a few legal people, as well as an investor or two.

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Essmart’s mission statement is to bring essential, life-improving products to all people, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

Essmart is registered as a US Corporation and an India Private Limited company.

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