From a thought exercise to action: Reflections on teaching (and learning/doing) social entrepreneurship

This isn’t an update from the field, but it’s still part of the entire experience of building Essmart out here in India. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in an “International Faculty Seminar on Social Entrepreneurship” at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. The Dell Social Innovation Challenge out of UT Austin invited me to represent Essmart, which won this year’s grand prize.

As the title of the seminar indicates, most of the participants were faculty and administrators from Indian universities, nonprofit organizations, and social entrepreneurship networks. From what I gathered, the goal of the seminar was to spur social entrepreneurship on Indian campuses, ultimately encouraging students to involve themselves in the just-about-burgeoning-yet-still-somewhat-undefined field.

Essmart began when I was a graduate student at MIT, and our team consisted and still consists of students. Naturally, I compared Essmart’s experience to one that a team of Indian students dabbling in social entrepreneurship would have. I hadn’t realized how much I had taken Boston’s (and particularly, MIT’s) entrepreneurial environment for granted. My final year in graduate school was really a transformative process; I flirted with social entrepreneurship in September, but as I got more involved in the classes, networking events, opportunities, and process of developing Essmart with co-founder Jackie Stenson, I was naturally drawn into taking real, actionable steps by June.

The process doesn’t happen as naturally for Indian undergraduate and graduate students, as the academic environment isn’t as supportive of student-initiated social enterprises in terms of funding and mentorship. Additionally, the way that social entrepreneurship is taught is not particularly inspiring. During the seminar’s curriculum development sessions, I could see the huge disconnect between teachers who treat social entrepreneurship as a thought exercise and students who may want to take it up on the margins or as a career. For example, one newly-minted professor insisted that students sit through lectures covering every single theory of social, economic, and political change under the sun. I counter-insisted that such lectures are not necessary and rather make students less interested in actually doing something.

At the end of the seminar, I had an opportunity to pitch Essmart to these Indian faculty members. The long question and answer session reflected the doubts that many of them had about Essmart’s model and our “outsider’s” understanding of local conditions here in India. While I understand that academicians establish their careers on their abilities to think critically, the thought that ran through my mind was, “Well, you can’t know until you try. And at least we’re trying.”

And that thought was confirmed immediately after I returned to my seat. One of the computer technicians approached me with the help of a translator. He said that his peri-urban village faced similar problems that our Pollachi end users face. Then he asked where he could get his hands on the technologies in our catalogue.

After I put this computer technician in touch with someone who could help, I couldn’t help but reflect on the sequence of events that took place. Talk really is cheap, and the beauty about innovation is that its untested newness holds so much potential. While we were students, we at Essmart were given the space, encouragement, and support to gradually try out our ideas, which in turn, gradually transformed us. We began with an idea, which was supported by a pilot, which was used to demonstrate feasibility and generate a more formal business plan, which launched us into the position to acquire more funding. Now that we’ve begun operations, we hope that other student-initiated social enterprises can be fortunate to receive the support that we’ve benefited from.

About Us

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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