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Armed with grit, these non-profit entrepreneurs are changing lives one idea at a time

During a cross-country motorcycle expedition in 2018, Hyderabad-resident Jai Bharathi Addepalli saw a couple of middle-aged women crossing the Myanmar-Thailand border on scooters. They turned out to be bike taxi operators.

Looking at them confidently maneuvering their way through the difficult terrain, she asked herself why can’t women in India do the same? In a country where women are often mocked for their driving skills, Jai Bharathi decided to launch ‘MoWo’ in 2019 and offer training programmes to equip women with driving skills for two/ three/four-wheelers.

Image courtesy of MOWO

She was joined in the initiative by Srishti who left a cushy job in Hong Kong to return to India and spread word about the rampant gender inequality in the country.

Their carefully curated training sessions are conducted in a controlled environment by women instructors to build trainees’ confidence and train them in road safety. “MoWo has empowered more than 10,000 women and has trained around 1,200 women to drive two-wheelers till now,” says a proud Jai Bharathi.

MoWo is among the 16 non-profit organisations that are a part of The/Nudge Incubator’s seventh cohort, where it helped these enterprises drive social change with impactful solutions. During the six-month programme, the incubator helped the participating enterprises with innovation grants, connected them with illustrious mentors from diverse sectors and provided them with networking opportunities. The programme concluded in June 2021.

Another of the cohort’s incubatees, Khetee, is driving impact by promoting agro-ecological farming by leveraging agroforestry that balances farmers’ well-being with that of nature.

The inspiration behind the model can be traced back to Khetee co-founder Kumar Neeraj’s visit to his hometown in Bihar’s Durdih.

Image courtesy of Khetee

He noticed that many of the farmers in the district were struggling with problems like erratic agricultural output, poor irrigation, and infertile soil. As a result, these farmers were caught in a cycle of low farm produce and dwindling incomes.

“I wanted to do something to fix this. During my visit, I did some fieldwork, volunteered at farms, and learnt about different agricultural practices like agroforestry,” recounts Kumar.

Once he was convinced of the model’s feasibility and functionality, he launched Khetee as an NGO in 2017 with his co-founders Dharamjeet Kumar and Raju Mandal.

The/Nudge Incubator has been enabling entrepreneurs to fuel change across sectors, be it in rural or urban areas, as was the case with Gauri Malik. In 2019, Gauri launched ‘Sirohi’, a sustainable brand for handcrafted home and lifestyle products, that offers employment to rural artisans in north India under her non-profit initiative Skilled Samaritan Foundation (SSF).

Image courtesy of Skilled Samaritan Foundation.

“We use an innovative tech-based approach to communicate new designs to our artisans, who work from homes. They make well-designed functional products, each of which has a beautiful story to tell,” explains Gauri.

Talking about her experience, Gauri says that the programme enabled her to leverage the rising penetration of smartphones in the rural economy. “We were able to ensure knowledge transfer via existing apps like Facebook and Instagram and, regional marketplaces to empower more women with SSF.”

Passing the pandemic test

The/Nudge Incubator’s seventh cohort featured 16 nonprofit organisations that set out to tackle social challenges with solutions and drive impact on the ground, while serving as an example to social entrepreneurs looking to enter the field. What’s more is that these organisations aren’t strangers to soldiering on even when the odds are stacked against them as was the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the pandemic continuing to pose new challenges for the country, these non-profit organisations decided to stay put and use innovation to turn the crisis into an opportunity. The experience left them more resilient and with new lessons.

Take the example of Bengaluru-based non-profit Groundata, a blockchain-based end-to-end impact measurement platform for philanthropic funders and the non-profits in their portfolio. The startup’s co-founder Bethun Bhowmik says the pandemic made him more creative as an entrepreneur.

“We figured out alternative ways to get the work done. The virtual work culture also helped me improve my primary market research. Plus, we were able to interact with more foundations and non-profit leaders who were willing to give their time and share insights to help us achieve a product-market fit,” adds Bethun.

Groundata enables non-profits to intelligently collect data directly from beneficiaries via Whatsapp, IVRS or SMS and increase engagement. The inbuilt CRM automation platform facilitates automated monitoring and evaluation of projects. “Investors can track all portfolio projects in real time with customised dashboards. Lastly, blockchain ensures transparency and immutable record keeping of data.”

For SSF’s Gauri, there’s a lot to miss too. “I miss going out in the fields and having conversations on charpoys under star-lit skies in our artisans’ villages and gossiping about the world,” she quips, while lauding the incubator’s support in helping Sirohi form industry connections, refine its business model and implement the Theory of Change.

Why mentorship matters

Speaking from experience, MoWo’s Jai Bharathi says that being a rookie social entrepreneur, it was very challenging to strategise for a long term vision like enabling one million women to be mobile by 2030. “Our mentor took out the time to understand MoWo’s vision and helped me in figuring out the financial aspects required to scale.”

She said what stood out about the mentors is that they gave her enough space to open up and discuss her vulnerabilities

Another cohort member, BIVES Foundation’s founder Sreelaj John says that The/Nudge Incubator’s mentors help the incubatees think out of the box and focus on scale. “Our mentor helped us understand the bigger picture. He motivated us to focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it really well,” says Sreelaj.

A volunteer-driven non-profit organisation, BIVES Foundation builds scalable digital solutions for other non-profits. The non-profit ropes in software professionals and designers who donate their time and expertise to build solutions for large scale social impact.

Enabling non-profit organisations to scale

The/Nudge Incubator is building an ecosystem for not-for-profit organisations that usually don’t enjoy the kind of support that is extended to the for-profit sector. Agreeing, Jai Bharathi says that while the pandemic has shown that individuals and organisations are genuinely empathetic about resolving social problems, a programme like The/Nudge Incubator will be beneficial to many who want to make a career in social entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, the Khetee team believes that the kind of support that’s extended by The/Nudge Incubator can be crucial for early-age entrepreneurs as it provides them the right tools and connects them to the right people in the field.

“During the initial years, every organisation faces different kinds of problems due to a lack of resources and entrepreneurs often have to manage everything on their own. Supporting entrepreneurs by providing them with the required knowledge and assistance not only enables them to establish the work on the ground, but also helps them in learning new skills,” says Kumar.

These non-profit organisations have their cut out for them and with The/Nudge Incubator’s support they are all set to achieve new milestones of social impact and enable people to lead better lives. The/Nudge Incubator’s seventh cohort was supported by Mphasis F1 Foundation, CGI Inc., Facebook Pragati and the Omidyar Network India.

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