Mentoring Social Innovators towards sustainability

Pune International Centre

Pune International Centre (PIC) is a leading think-tank established in 2011.  Its mission is to promote dialogue, conduct research and develop policy on societal matters.  To that end, PIC conducts a number of programs each month which include eminent speakers from the Government, Industry, Academics and Industry in various public domains such as Public Policy, Economics, and Social Development.  PIC also facilitates key initiatives such as Pune Dialogue on National Security (PDNS) and the National Conference on Social Innovation (NCSI).

Social Innovation at PIC

PIC actively promotes the spirit of social innovation.  NCSI is the flagship event held each year on 17th November. The Anjani Mashelkar award is presented to an eminent Social Innovator on the same day.  The conference also provides a platform to showcase 18 Social Innovators — six finalists each in the Tribal, Rural, and Urban category, selected from over 100 applicants from across India.

The Social Innovation Lab (SIL) was set up in 2017 to develop this key PIC initiative with activities related to mentoring, support, and policy studies.

The mentorship program, started in 2017 now has six mentors with cumulative experience of over 125 years in the Private Sector.  Some mentors are serial entrepreneurs and investors; others have domestic and international experience in MNCs in investment banking, NBFCs, energy, and IT. They mentor on a pro bono basis. A total of 33 social innovators have benefited from this program.  Healthcare (5), Sanitation (4) and Agri Tech (4) are the top three sectors represented by these innovators. Others mentee are from sectors such as Education and Med. Tech.

The 18 finalists are offered the opportunity to join this program immediately after the NCSI. Each mentor is assigned three/four innovators. Mentors have weekly calls with their respective mentees, facilitated by SIL staff for the first six months in the active phase of mentoring. In several instances, mentors have visited remote places to see the mentees’ operations, such as tribal areas in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Nagaland.

(Photo Caption: Innovator Mr. Imna Meren Imsong from Nagaland, India.)

In the second phase, mentees are encouraged to continue seeking guidance depending on their particular needs.  While the mentorship cycle starts again with the subsequent NCSI, the SIL and mentors stay in active touch with prior mentees for up to another year.

Mentees cite several program benefits. Examples include repositioning their innovation to appropriate customer segments, developing pricing plans, marketing initiatives, and accessing needed resources in the mentor/SIL network of professionals such as product designers, manufacturing partners, and domain experts.

On-boarding Success Factors

Over the past three years, some mentees have benefited more than others from the program. Key success factors exist in the end-to-end process from on-boarding to post-mentoring. While each phase deserves its own analysis, this article focusses on the success factors identified in the initial on-boarding phase.

These factors can be broadly categorised into three areas.

The Founder(s) and company formation

Innovators focused full-time on the success of their company benefit the most from the mentorship program. Those who spend only a part of their time on their company, due to reasons such as full-time jobs elsewhere, other initiatives in parallel, or even work on their PhD as their primary mission are simply not able to commit the time and attention to build a successful enterprise and generally benefit the least from the program.

Innovators with registered entities with an initial organisational structure and being in existence for 2-3 years derive the most benefit. Social innovators who have not formally registered their organisations are just not able to derive value from the structured approach to scale their impact. Interestingly, social innovators who had already been in existence for over five years and not had much success are also not able to benefit from the mentoring program due to fundamental issues, such as the team being set in their ways, their approach to the market, and/or product/service positioning.

(Photo Caption: Emvolio Vaccine Carrier by BlackFrog Technologies Pvt. Ltd.)

Product Readiness and Market Understanding

Innovators who have a working product/service with some initial success, who understand customer needs and the value their offering brings, and clearly target the buyer, benefit the most from the 360-degree inputs of the mentoring program to rapidly scale up their social impact. Those with a product/service still in early development expending are found to be better served by an incubator with the proper technology infrastructure and support.

Level of Existing Ecosystem Support

Interestingly, innovators with support from two incubators/organizations make the most progress under the mentorship program, especially when one of these organisations focuses on technology, and the other on business and operational issues. Innovators with technology-intensive products/services in development stage and lacking an anchor at one of the 100+ incubators in India generally tend to take longer or struggle with their product development cycles. On the flip side, those with support from four or more incubators/organisations are overwhelmed by the latter’s inputs – a clear case of too much of a good thing.

By closely analysing these factors and making changes to the overall process, the mentoring program has been able to continually improve the value it brings to the mentees, in large measure due to the mentors’ own learning curve.

India is on a journey to improve the level of ecosystem support provided to social innovators and bring it on par with the dynamic for the country’s profit start-up environment. We hope sharing these insights with similar mentoring programs across the country will help accelerate this journey. Subsequent articles will look at the success factors in the mentoring and post-mentoring phases, showcase case-studies, share best-practice tools and techniques, and look at policy issues relevant to social innovation.

Mr. Pramod Athalye is a member of PIC and a mentor at PIC’s Social Enterprise Mentorship Program. He is the co-founder of Bourton Consulting India, an international boutique management consultancy, helping organizations achieve operational excellence through continuous improvements. Pramod loves to travel and experience diverse cultures and is a lifelong learner.

Mr. Sanjay Kanvinde is a member of PIC and a mentor at PIC’s Social Enterprise Mentorship Program. He has 23 years’ experience in the Energy Industry and is the co-founder of Lavni Ventures. He is actively involved in several charities and social organizations.