Youth, Venturing and Ashoka: baby steps in Social Entrepreneurship

Our initiative Student Think Tank for India was selected to be part of the first cohort in Ashoka India’s Youth Venture programme. It was the first time I formally pitched our venture (after crashing someone’s laptop moments before it had to project my slides), and an opportunity for thorough thinking-through of our vision, goals and strategies.


In early February, Ashoka hosted us at a three day induction programme in Delhi. The purpose of the induction was to orient all the finalists to thebig hairy questions and processes of social entrepreneurship.I’m skeptical of this trending privilege  – training in entrepreneurship before getting yourself out there, learning and testing on the ground. But my experience at the YV induction was different: the workshops were organised by people who are in the business of getting their hands dirty, and therefore it came with no sugar coating, or background tunes of ‘you are going to change the world, child’. It also came at a good stage in STTI’s journey, where we’ve piloted our model, tested basic assumptions, and are looking to scale up in the coming months.

The run up to the event was extremely well organised, and not just regarding the logistics. There was one mail from Silindile from the organising team: “What topics and ideas would you like to be addressed at the programme? Remember this induction is for you and we want to ensure that you will fully benefit from this experience.” That was an extremely reassuring signal from Ashoka for me: they might be big and established, but they don’t take the liberty of assuming that they know everything that we might want from the programme. Many of our suggestions were taken and given place in the three day agenda.The spirit of ownership that comes from this co-creation is the difference for me between being a recipient of a programme, and being a participant in it. 


Yashveer Singh

On Day 1, after being introduced to our fellow Venturers and our mind blowing international team (s/o to Rohit, Håkon and Lindy) we had Yashveer introducing Ashoka and the Youth Venture programme to us. He spoke with a very strong connect to the why of #socent, which comes from participation in the field long before it became a hashtag. Not surprising, then, to see him on Forbes’ 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs!  




We heard Mandar Tulankar, who unabashedly admitted how, after 5 years of B plan competitions, funding and fighting with parents, he’s still building his ambitious product. You feel like laughing at his audacity, but then you realise that it’s likely he’ll have the last laugh.

We had Piyush Tewari from SAVE Life Foundation whose story I had first read on Youth Ki Awaaz. He traced the origin of this foundation to one critical incident – the avoidable death of his nephew, who was injured in a road accident and died by the inability of witnesses to help him.Both, the driver who hit him, and the passersby who watched him drag himself to the side of the road, were convinced that they would get into trouble for helping this injured person. That they were better off NOT helping. An active discouragement to save life.

That spurred the setting up of SLF, and as of yesterday: 

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I learnt three things from Piyush’s session. The first was that the barrier to problem solving isn’t apathy. People don’t WANT to not help. I know this because every time we travel and see an ambulance or an accident, the first response is an expression of empathy. Some of us pray. Some of us wince. Sometimes we stop the car and go look at what’s happening, and contact people who can help. But that first impulse is often taken over by a practical assessment of “What might happen if I help?” SAVE Life worked for the Good Samaritan law so that we don’t have to ask ourselves that question.

The second thing was the systems-wide approach to solving this massive problem of dangerous roads. Responding to a question by a fellow participant, Piyush outlined the complexity of the problem by tracing its relevant authorities, actors, beneficiaries and victims. It’s pretty insane – seven Govt departments are required to address the problem of traffic accidents, legislation has to go through at both Centre and State levels, and implementation takes its own sweet time.

The third thing I am learnt was the multilayered structure of the organisation. From what I gather – there are full time employees, a network of partners, and various levels of volunteers for each of their programmes. The rationale for full-time employees in an NGO is obvious, but what he said was still enlightening – “when volunteers leave, they take the knowledge with them. You need to control the net outflow of knowledge in your organisation.” STTI is early in its organisation development, but there’s a visible loss when even one person leaves, and we need a system to check for that.

Piyush’s vision for SAVE Life Foundation is that it shuts down. “That we stop existing, because the problem of road safety has been solved.” I am inspired by that commitment.

We then had a session with Shalabh Mittal, who’s leading the setup of The School for Social Entrepreneurs, a UK based organisation, in India. 

He used only images – cartoons and graphics – to throw up questions about what it takes to be a social entrepreneur. Listing the traits out here would be trite, so I hope to later post those images with Shalabh’s permission. At this moment I was feeling the potency of an MBA education – spineless if you haven’t an experience or a context to apply it to, but super useful to reflect on and assess an existing initiative.

This was followed an intense series of sessions with Amit Tuteja from Connecting Dreams. Whatever his website tells you or doesn’t, I can tell you one thing about him. He is a stickler for process. He has a very well designed structure (that’s used at the Intel Innovation Centre), and he will grill you till you follow it. We went through eight hours of sessions, in developing a social venture from a case study.

Reading the case study
The case we were to work on could be the story of any village in India: predominantly agricultural, rife with insufficiency, and steeped in tradition. I had a minute of hesitation at that point, and to explain it I’m going to ask you to stop reading this post and read another one: The Reductive Seduction of other people’s problems.  

Reminding myself that it was just an exercise, we went ahead, and chose one of six areas/sectors to work on, and extrapolated the sub-problems faced in that sector.

• Selecting and Visualising the user
Amit asked us to select one user that was facing these sub-problems. This process should be obvious, but isn’t. We talk in terms of “I am working in this sector” or “I want to change the problems that this city faces” – without figuring out WHO we want at the centre of our problem solving. Energy diffused is energy wasted. By selecting a user and visualising them – what their needs, interests, desires and back-stories might be – we bring in focus. And Ghajini was a great example!

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We’ve since used this exercise at STTI, and coupled it with reflections on our high school experience. So there’s a solid answer to the question of whose problems we are trying to solve.

• Coming up with the problem statement
It’s hilarious how long it took us to come up with a statement whose syntax was provided loud and clear.

How can we help ______ user to solve ________ problem?

  • We used a statement instead of a question.
  • The user was not specific. (“You need to visualise a real person at the end of it.”)
  • The solution was too specific. (“You’ve already decided the way you’re going to problem?”)

• Solutions for the problem statement
We were just about ready to wrap up Day 1 when Amit assigned homework: “Imagine 300 solutions for your problem statement.”

I won’t say we slaved through all 300, but the first few were hard. I’m still reflecting on why that was difficult, (and to find a better explanation than “Our schools don’t teach it!” – because don’t we all love hating on schools, haha) but that’s for another post. Through the night we found about 150. We come back, Amit says, Giving you 15 minutes. Find 50 more solutions. Then 5 minutes, find another 50. One minute, do 10. This pressure was beautiful, and the rate at which ideas were coming out increased. At the ideation stage, just to get a grasp on the infinity of possible solutions, I thought this was a really good exercise.

We did a couple of iterations of this exercise:
– Think like a famous person – what solutions would you then come up with?
– If your job was to make sure that the problem would NOT be solved, EVER, what would you do? (Loved this one. Drawing on the villainous sides of ourselves.)
– de Bono’s six thinking hats.

I liked this suite of de Bono’s thinking techniques designed for school kidsHe makes an interesting point about how arguments, pervasive as they are, may not be the only, or the best tools for thinking.

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We then went on to choose one solution and developed a plan to launch the enterprise. This stage is understood as the B-plan we see in all these competitions, so I won’t elaborate here. I particularly found value in the time we spent connecting with the Why of a venture (by which I’m referring to the problem statement), and by the call for creativity and innovation in the process of coming with solutions. Definitely carrying that forward.

We had a short interaction with Rishab Gulati, who spoke about the Global Youth and the Indo Australia Youth Summit. He used a hard-hitting anecdote – a mentor once told him, “Be very scared of the day that the majority of the people realise that you have something they don’t”.  He’s also senior editor at NewsX, and of course his appearance made sense. 🙂

On Day 3, I missed the field trip to Goonj, and the opportunity of a guided tour by Anshu Gupta. Hearing him speak, just like reading Harsh Mander or Sainath, is a pressing reminder to keep moving, and never get complacent, because that’s how big the problems are. I got to hear him at the Ashoka Changemaker Week in Bangalore earlier this year, and just look at his humility!

After 60 years of Independence, I get a Magsaysay Award for a piece of cloth. I am ashamed.

The last part of our induction was a meeting with four Ashoka Fellows. The Youth Venture programme is the product of an insight from Ashoka’s Fellowship programme, that one of the most effective ways to improve the lives of youth is to empower them to realize their own ability to make positive social change.

We had Ashoka Fellows Tarique from Koshish, Ved Arya from SrijanSatyan Mishra from Drishtee and Ishita Chaudhry from The YP Foundation, along with the newest batch of elected Ashoka. Being elected an Ashoka Fellow is pretty big, and it’s always included in people’s email signatures and one line introductions. I was curious about what it all really meant (there had to be some catch, right?) And there was. The fellowship wasn’t an empty or a completely rosy experience for everyone: taxing selection processes, disagreements, waxing and waning of interest. I loved the honesty with which everyone spoke, especially Ishita (who I’m a fan of!). 

The Youth Venture programme from here on is going to include intensive mentoring and an invitation to leverage the Ashoka network with all of its Fellows and programmes. I look forward to it, and to making sure that Student Think Tank for India keeps up the high standard of work that this network is recognised for!