The Leadership Review Team

The Benefactor of Social Entrepreneurship

The Leadership Review Team

Pooja Warier

Pooja Warier

In June 1963, addressing the Irish Parliament, John F Kennedy said “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” He was relishing his Irish heritage and emphasising the need for individuals who thrive amidst gigantic challenges enterprisingly with a remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination. Over the course of human history, time and again, individuals have risen up to greatness by answering that need. Prophets, philosophers, explorers, and inventors of the past are joined by social entrepreneurs today to take forward this tradition of solving complex human problems with creativity.

With a plethora of problems of its own, India today is a hotbed of social entrepreneurs who are leading the charge of bringing about an equitable and inclusive growth.

– Through their social enterprise ‘Greenway Grameen’ Ankit Mathur and Neha Juneja are bringing fuel efficient, smoke-reducing and affordable home energy appliances to rural consumers who could not afford modern appliances and have to bear with dangerous and uncomfortable smoke emitted by traditional fuel sources like dry wood and cow-dung.

– Siddharth of ‘Earth Yantra Energy (EYE)’ is passionately working for providing Solar Rooftop Photovoltaic Power Plants to industrial and commercial consumers on rent as an alternative to the traditional sources of electricity characterised by high pollution and tariff.

– Will Muir and Rujuta Teredesai, through their social enterprise ‘Equal Community Foundation’, work with teenagers in the ages 14-17 years from low income communities to empower them to end violence against women in India.

Other than their zeal to make a positive change in the world around them, there is another factor that binds these young social entrepreneurs. They are all investees of UnLtd (pronounced Unlimited) India – a launch pad co-founded by Pooja Warier – for early stage social entrepreneurs.

The UnLtd India Impact

One of the immediate results of UnLtd India’s work has been putting a spotlight on the power of supporting individuals at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys. Since 2007, they have supported more than 180 entrepreneurs who have gone onto impact 800,000 lives and create 4,000 jobs. Their work has proven that the combination of small amounts of funding, support focused on personal and organisational development, and an unwavering belief in the potential of budding entrepreneurs is extremely powerful. It can transform individuals into incredible leaders and their ideas into ventures that improve lives.

Describing UnLtd India’s impact, Pooja tells us, “The result that I am most proud of is the sheer increase in the number of role models in India. All our entrepreneurs show so much courage by following their passion and dedicating a significant portion of their lives to a cause. By supporting these entrepreneurs and recognising their work, we have been able to encourage so many more individuals to take that first step towards realising their own entrepreneurial potential.”

A simple example of this is one of UnLtd India’s investees Ashok Rathod. He comes from a migrant community in India and has seen the positive effect of sports in his own life. Through his venture OSCAR, he uses football as a means to incentivise children in his community to continue with school. He also uses football to inculcate various life skills in the children and make them aware of their rights and responsibilities. UnLtd India started supporting Ashok in 2009.  Within a year, as a testimony to his inspirational leadership, five other young people from his community applied to become investees of UnLtd India. Today, Ashok is one of FIFA’s community partners. He trains other organisations in India and abroad to run similar programs and continues to inspire other young people in his community to dream bigger and bolder.

The UnLtd India Model

 Pooja and her colleagues are on a mission to find, fund, and support individuals with the ideas, passion and entrepreneurial skills to address pressing problems in India. This is made operational in three steps – Scouting, Selection, and Support. Over the years, the process has evolved and has developed more rigour to enhance the experience of all it touches.

Scouting begins with a very clear target on the type of profiles that need to be increased in each scouting cycle and what would be the approach. It involves reaching out to communities, institutions, and individuals to engage bright, young social entrepreneurs through one-on-one discussions, open sessions, and workshops. The idea is to increase the quality of applications by engaging in more ways than just sending out emails. Once the applications are received, the selection process commences. The selection process takes place twice a year for Level 1 and Level 2 applicants. For applicants to UnLtd India’s Growth Challenge program it is organized once a year. Before the applicants meet the actual interview panel, they go through a mock interview conducted by UnLtd India representatives and external experts. Through these interactions, aspiring entrepreneurs get developmental feedback on their product, pricing, and model.

After the final interviews, successful applicants are selected for one of the three levels of support – Level 1, Level 2, and Growth Challenge – depending on how far they have reached with their enterprise already. At all these levels, investees receive varied degrees of coaching and training, high-value connections, and seed funding. The Level 1 and Level 2 investees go through workshops and crash courses on financial planning, fundraising, legal structures, governance, marketing and HR management. Moreover, each investee is assigned an associate from UnLtd India who meets the investee every month, coaches him or her, sets milestones, and helps reflect on decisions to be made. Every six weeks, investees come together with their peers to share their experiences and challenges. This, along with the Leadership Retreat helps create forums for peer learning. By the end of the year, investees are expected to have met at least 50 per cent of their milestones. For Growth Challenge investees, since the stakes are higher, the associates conduct due diligence on site.

UnLtd India Levels of Support

UnLtd India Journey                                      

It all started in 2006 when Pooja was volunteering with UnLtd in the UK. During this stint, Pooja was completely blown away by the energy, passion, and resourcefulness of the social entrepreneurs they supported. It was her first glimpse into the world of entrepreneurship and she was amazed by the way awardees were able to leverage UnLtd UK’s support to grow themselves and their ventures exponentially.  This experience with UnLtd in UK led to the founding of UnLtd India. Pooja recalls, “After four months at UnLtd, I was sold on the model and personally was very clear that I wanted to work with and for entrepreneurs. At the same time, I also met my co-founder Richard Alderson and Michael Norton, a Founding Trustee at UnLtd, both of whom had very strong ties with India. Together, we started dreaming about creating an UnLtd in India.”

Co-incidentally, Pooja had designed an exposure trip for the UK awardees to India in 2006. During the trip, they met several social entrepreneurs and asked just one question — “Is there a need for something like UnLtd in India? The answer was a resounding yes! Immediately after, Pooja moved back to India to understand the landscape while Richard stayed back in the UK to raise funds. Recalling those early days, Pooja reminisces, “The most pivotal point was when I met our first potential investees – Shweta Chari of Toy Bank, Nikita Ketkar of Masoom and Pooja Taparia of Arpan. I spent hours listening to them and offering support wherever I could. Witnessing their every day struggles to get their idea off the ground provided the fuel that Richard and I needed to finally launch UnLtd India in Dec 2007.”

Over the years, Pooja has faced multiple challenges including people’s aversion to investing in individuals at an early stage, legal structures that often act as impediments, affordability of great talent, and sustainability of UnLtd India as an incubator. She told us, “Pretty soon, it was clear that a lot of people believed that it was too risky to invest time or money in start-ups, especially in the social sector. Also, they believed that it would be impossible for us to find individuals who would quit their jobs and abandon stable lives to start a venture in the social sector. After endless meetings with cynics and naysayers, I felt myself going into meetings ready to defend and fight. As you can imagine, this just made the meetings even more difficult. When I shared this with my mentor, she gently said ‘They are all on your side. They might not see it today but it is just because you haven’t found a way of getting them on your side’. This made a profound difference in the way I approached every conversation after that, and to date; it has remained one of my key mantras in any conversation – be it pitching to a funder, coaching a headstrong entrepreneur, recruiting a team member or negotiating a partnership.”

Not that her challenges have now ceased to exist. However, being raised by a single mother in North India, Pooja has inherited the determination to keep going against all odds. With a strong organisational culture that reflects her own personal value system and promotes openness, valuing of individuals, trust and egalitarian practices, she rallies her colleagues together to rise against all the challenges and continues to succeed.

Way Forward

Pooja is looking at expanding the UnLtd model by training or working with local partners like universities in states that have a less-developed ecosystem for social entrepreneurship.  Moreover, she is also exploring different avenues of generating revenue (till now UnLtd India has depended primarily on philanthropy).However, she acknowledges the fact that these new revenue sources will need to be aligned with UnLtd India’s mission and build on its strengths and experience.

In the long run, Pooja’s vision is to create an ecosystem that nurtures out hundreds of entrepreneurs from different parts of the country every year, who use their ideas, passion and skills to address challenges in their own communities. Through her work, she also hopes to influence the notion of entrepreneurship as a means to job creation as well as social inclusion. Explaining her idea of scaling, she adds “Our current model of scale is to work with exceptional individuals in different states to replicate our model i.e. launch independent UnLtds in different states. All of these entities are going to be tightly-knit into a unified UnLtd India Network with a single mission of supporting early stage social entrepreneurs. We have taken the first step towards this goal – the Network was launched in 2013 and already has two members – UnLtd Tamil Nadu and UnLtd Hyderabad.”

The dream of any leader worth his salt is to create more leaders who in turn create even more leaders to carry on the tradition of leadership. Pooja has been doing it and doing it in style.

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