Building “scalable” social enterprises!

By definition, a social enterprise is a means to achieve sustainability through earned income. However, it is important to note the financial objectives differ among organisation. Social enterprises do not need to be profitable to be worthwhile. They can improve efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation by :

– reducing the need for donated funds
– providing a more reliable diversified funding base; or
– enhancing the quality of programmes by increasing market discipline

So the definition of “scale” needs to be redefined. Scalability is crucial. But scalability doesn’t mean BIG. It means its recurrent, replicable and sustainable. Let’s hope with the Startup India schemes, the definition of scale especially for social enterprises is better understood!

In a study that niiti consulting did in 2012, we tried to understand the barriers to social innovation and scale and how social entrepreneurs have overcome them. I am sure these “Voices of Experience” will help a number of practitioners through their challenges.

An early example of "glocalisation"

I have been singing since the age of 4, and have trained in Carnatic classical vocal music for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until this evening in Chennai when I begun to think about the how the violin, an instrument of European descent, has transformed itself into being a mainstay in orthodox Carnatic classical music over the years!! Come to think of it, it is not the first and has not been the last musical instrument that is not of Indian origin to have adapted to the Indian classical scene, be it Hindustani or Carnatic styles, but is by far the only one that has not only withstood the test of times and resistance, but has in fact become the mainstay of a traditional classical performance.

Subsequent research led to me to understand that the violin was first introduced in the court of Travancore during the regime of Maharajah Swati Tirunal. The violin in its advent to India was a direct import from the European make by way of its shape but differed in execution and presentation, adapting itself to the style of presentation in Indian music. There were a few adventurous and gifted musicians of the 18th and 19th Centuries who are credited with the introduction of the violin in India. Of them, Vadivelu and Baluswami Dikshitar were perhaps the pioneers. Introduced by Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar (an interpreter to the British Governor) to Western music at a performance of the European orchestra (or band as it was called), attached to the East India Company, Balaswami trained for three years on the violin.

I also learnt that around the time that the violin made its humble trysts with Indian classical music, there were also attempts made by some well known musicians of that time to introduce the piano with its seven octaves to this genre. But many of that brigade settled down to learn the violin, which they felt could be best adapted to Carnatic music traditions. You could not play gamaka on a piano.

The person who really popularised the violin to the extent that it became a totally accepted instrument in the rendition of Carnatic music was Vadivelu (1810-1845), of the Tanjore Quartet (all of whom were students of Muthuswami Dikshitar). Vadivelu had the good fortune of being appointed as the royal bard in the court of the composer-king Swati Tirunal. His encouragement and patronage saw the violin being performed not only as an accompaniment to the voice, but also as an instrument that even played solo passages during a dance performance.

Significantly, in spite of being a Western instrument with technique developed to suit playing Western classical music, the instrument could be adapted to the needs of Carnatic music. Many Western techniques redundant in Carnatic music were simply overlooked and later discarded.

The first of these was the basic way the violin was tuned, held and played. Carnatic music required the violinist to sit cross-legged on a platform. The violin was, therefore, balanced between the chest and the scroll held by the anklebone of the right foot. The posture felicitated the free flow of the left hand along the fingerboard. This necessitated appropriate changes in the bowing technique, which were duly innovated. Western techniques like colegnio (using the wooden side of the bow instead of the horse hair), marcellato (hammering), and even pizzicato (plucking) were not of much use to the Indian violinist.

We could perhaps say that the story of the adaptation of the violin from being a stylish European instrument to one that has become an essential part of a traditional Indian culture is one of the early examples of “glocalisation” in the truest sense!!!!


Innocence in music- revisited…

I was in Chennai a few days back. After a rather hectic day at work (and some very stressful meetings), it seemed divine to be at a nice carnatic music concert in a temple close to where I was staying. It was a 2-hr concert by Soumya, a pretty famous “star performer” in carnatic music circles. While I had heard her before, what I wasn’t prepared for was the ambience created by the powerful voice, the echoing columns of the Rathnagireeswara temple, the small but very appreciative audience and some outstanding music. A rare opportunity to listen to pure music sans any commercialism or sensationalism. No fancy standees welcoming or barricades dividing the music lovers basis their monetary status, nor a blaring 2000 watt sound system blaring. It was a musical experience that I had thought had become rather extinct! At the end of the two hours, I hardly remembered that I hadn’t eaten much all day and was almost starving, not to mention the stress at work. All I remember is the innocence of the performance and the soulfulness with which the musicians (the vocalist, and her accompaniments, a violinist and a percussionist on the mridangam) performed, not mindful of the fact that the audience comprised of hardly 40-50 people, mostly in their 60s. I felt like the purity of music and the purpose with which it existed among us was truly experienced at that time. For a long time, after the concert was over, I enjoyed the humility the evening had instilled in me!!!!

A honk could mean anything

Over the past few days, I have been having major arguments with a friend (based in the US) on the telephone. Invariably, I am in my car when he calls, and irrespective of what the conversation is at that point in time, it veers to the topic of the Great Indian Honk!! Now, anyone who has driven on Indian roads would vouch for the fact that there is this pleasant background noise caused by constant honking when one is on the road. Its one of those things that one takes for granted when in India, that people, alien to the rules of being on the road in this country, can be completely at sea.
Honking on the roads in India is not to be mistaken with the way it is viewed by the quieter west. It is, by no stretch of imagination, a rude intrusion of someone’s privacy. It is, well, our way of communication and feedback, even while being on the move!
For example, the intensity of the honk varies depending on what one driver is trying to communicate with other drivers or pedestrians on the road, as the case may be.
A gentle honk means: I’m about to overtake you, watch out.
Continuous honking means: Move out of my way, you are wasting my time.
A sharp honk means: The light is green- why am I not moving? After all, it’s only understandable that the patient Indian roadster who has three cars and ahead of him, and two motorcycles that are perpendicular to him, can’t seem to figure out why, with the light green, he is not zipping at 60kmph.
By the way, not all Indians honk. Some of the well-travelled lot, who appreciate the ways of the west when it comes to maintaining decorum and rules while driving, make do with a gentle flash of light every now and then- which means: Watch out, I’m behind and want to overtake! Of course, this breed is a scarce lot, mainly because it’s not a trait with which one can survive for long on Indian roads.
I am sure we all appreciate the importance of open communication and continuous feedback at all times. Why should being on the road be any different?? It is only a reflection of the adaptability of Indians that we as a race tend to be not so rigid about rules, including and especially when we are behind a steering wheel. When people overtake from left and right, or when they jump lights- it’s to be viewed with a healthy respect for being opportunistic and enterprising. It has nothing to do with being unruly or having scant respect for the law. Talking of law, we prove we are a peaceful nation by the absence of cops at every major traffic junction with Speed guns or with cars with flashing lights. If that isn’t a sign of civility, I don’t know what is!!
We also believe in the rule of Live and Let Live. It’s only natural for cows and dogs have the right of way. After all, we want to be inclusive in every sense of the word. And our animals, with their bindaas attitude can put PETA out of business! And the presence of multiple modes of transport and people on foot at any given point in time can only be considered as the best way to test people’s eye-brain coordination, as well as their reflexes. I can guarantee that Indian drivers have the best reflexes on the face of this planet. Where else would you see folks maneuver their way, jam the brakes, and move on- all in a span of a few minutes without batting an eyelid?
My friend needs to learn a thing or two- patience and adaptability- Indian driver style, are things that come to my mind immediately! Perhaps it will help us have a decent conversation without the Honk intruding our private space!!!!!

billions of entrepreneurs…

When I first heard my friend Tarun Khanna talk about his new book “Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are Reshaping Their Futures and Yours” my first reaction was- Oh! No…not another one on this subject that has been done to death by anyone who considers himself (or herself) even marginally qualified. But since curiosity got better of me, I read the book- and I am glad I did. For the book was refreshingly different and almost a personal account by Tarun, relying on his experience and extensive travels to bring out the difference in approach to business in India and China despite that fact that they are broad-brushed as “Asia” by most multinationals (oh well- some are now demystifying this and have India and China as individual regions, but the generalization still exists).


I found the book interesting on a number of accounts.


Firstly, the brilliant explanation of the difference in the nature of entrepreneurship in both the countries in the context of their historical and social fabric. It provokes the reader to find answers to several baffling questions in the process- especially someone like me who goes into deep depression every time I travel to China and return- of how Beijing is able to implement reforms in a fast forward mode, when India presses Pause even before it begins to play; of how Chinese infrastructure juggernaut is sweeping through its Tier 3 and 4 cities, when India is struggling with managing traffic snarls in just its metros. How Indian companies seemingly manage their businesses more efficiently than China despite these handicaps- is the availability of better managerial capability the answer? In that case, what is creating these world-class managers, when even getting admission to a decent school is nothing short of a nightmare in India…


Secondly, the author’s personal research on how closely the Chinese state is involved in favouring investors bringing high technology. And how effectively they are using these resources to manage local issues. It reminded me of an experience not so long ago, when I learnt that every investor in China is expected to shell out a percentage of investment (in return for the State’s support) in promoting education or developing the local community. I thought at that time that it was a brilliant ploy, but of course a dangerous one, for those with deep pockets clearly have a better chance at success. But it also resonated with what Ratan Tata said in a recent interview that if India’s government machinery doesn’t support the long-staying businesses, they it would become a convenient destination for opportunists, which is equally if not more dangerous.


Tarun chooses to be politically correct when articulating the system he prefers- perhaps rightly so, as there are not very many common areas in my mind. China and India have unique advantages which cannot be compared, and clearly both seem to be working, in one way or the other, for both.


The third reason which drew me to the book immensely was the strong point made by the book that both India and China are succeeding in spite, or because, of their quirks and rather quixotic nature, and companies that wish to do business and succeed in these countries cannot afford anymore to not adapt themselves. Not very different to what was thought as the key to succeed in Europe.


One of the topics that has engaged me the most in recent times is the development of entrepreneurs (perhaps triggered when I joined the company that I believe is the nurturing bed for most entrepreneurs), and was most intrigued to read on this subject in the book and found Tarun’s comments insightful. I think it’s rather idealistic to expect the two countries to have the kind of cooperation that Tarun suggests, even if it will result in the kind of success that he prophesizes, given the chequered history that the countries have had- both politically and otherwise. Especially in recent times, several issues that make either side nervous are conveniently brushed under the carpet as opposed to inviting an open discussion. There has been an increasing flow of ideas and people between India and China today than there ever has been but is still at an abysmally low level when compared to say, what either India and China have with the US or even UK.


In his intro, Tarun says, “…Levin’s comment made me remember my freshman year at Princeton, when I realized that that none of my roommates—talented, ambitious individuals who went on to achieve no small measure of success in the world—could locate India on a world map. One boy helpfully suggested it was “right by Arabia,” a

remark that made me retire to my bunk bed in tears.” One thing is clear- Tarun wouldn’t need to retire to his bunk bed in tears anymore………and his recent treatise is an illuminating reason why!!!!!!!

surviving the facile life…

This weekend raised a lot of questions in my head and made me extremely conscious of something we take for granted- that life is really an uncompromising journey, where the human mind seeks out and revels in adversity. The reason for this soul searching was the two hours (or a little more!) I spent watching “Into the Wild”- a movie where there is plenty of sorrow, and unbelievable joy- all at the same time. It was disturbing, provocative and mind numbingly fresh, to say the least. Suggested to me while taking walk in the snow two weeks ago by someone I look upto, I enjoyed experiencing the exuberance and innocence of Christopher Johnson McCandless, the young adventurer whose footloose life and a senseless death raised a lot of questions in my mind but also reinforced my love for open spaces, fresh air and bright sunshine. The film is Sean Penn’s adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller by Jon Krakauer, that goes by the same title. The protagonist in the film is troubled and impulsive but also brave and industrious, and brutally honest. I loved the way the films juxtaposes the notes he writes to his friends, parts of which are scrawled across the screen in bright yellow capital letters, with the narrative by his younger sister. If I didn’t like travelling enough, my wanderlust was ignited again by the gorgeous capturing of the North American landscape – the ancient woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, the canyons and deserts farther south, the wheat fields of the northern prairies. And I seem to share the same mystical reverence that Mr. McCandless has for Alaska after seeing the drop dead beauty, which I learnt was captured on camera to a large extent by Sean Penn himself. The movie, sometimes in extreme, makes a case for the average Joe to not lose sight of the idealism in the course of materialistic pursuits in today’s world. On a different level, it also appealed deeply to my maternal instincts, on how children react to seemingly innocuous domestic strife and unsettling environments. It also asks the question that I think is becoming so relevant- “What is he really running away from??” Is having things too easy in life making people seek out opportunities that will test their survival?? Is Chris craving for risk to shake off the urban numbness he has been exposed to?? This question hasn’t ever been so relevant as it is today…. While Chris expresses “If you want something in life, reach out and grab it,” the movie’s theme, thankfully, is not so simple. The movie makes no attempt to defend the protagonist for his weaknesses, or strengths for that matter. Even while he is idealistic and fiercely seeking soltitude (he seems to almost feel lost without the company of books, even when he is in a cabaret bar!), he is also extremely social with an incredible gift of befriending all those he comes across during his travels. This seems paradoxical to what he says to one of his friends against seeking happiness in human relationships. “Into the Wild” is a movie about the desire for freedom that in a lot of ways is freedom itself, and shows how solitary we all really are! What is special about this movie is that it glorifies the experience and not the end. Which brings us back to the point- if pushing oneself to the survival limit is what the essence of being human is all about, then we need to consciously choose our boundaries wisely- and enjoy the experience!!!

two hours in zurich

One equates Switzerland with precision, efficiency and beauty. When I landed in Zurich, that was what I was welcomed with. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the juxtaposed medieval past right in the heart of the financial capital. It was drizzling mildly when I came out of the airport, and was told by my Swiss friend who received me, that it has been pouring the night before with winds at speeds that could blow people away, literally!
I had a few hours before I took the train to Davos, so decided to experience the city quickly and the bustling streets leading to the lake, despite the rain was reassuring to the soul. The paths interspersed by trams moving about in noiseless precision were lined by some big brands and bigger banks and financial institutions. Not surprising….but what took my breath away was this old cathedral, right in the centre of the financial town centre called the Fraumünster Cathedral, with unique glass paintings that were quite unlike anything I had seen. They were contemporary with modern brushstrokes, so I was quite thrown to learn that the glass paintings were made in early part of the 20th century, by a Jewish painter called Marc Chagall of Russian origin.
Chagall (or Shagal, as he is referred to in Zurich) was deeply influenced by Jewish traditions and religious culture he grew up in and those are evident in his works. Once I saw the paintings, I also connected them with some outstanding murals I had seen earlier at the Lincoln Center in New York City and also the huge stained glass painting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. I was not surprised to find that the creator of all these masterpieces was the same artist!
I took a detour into the bylanes of Zurich and discovered elegant houses lining the narrow cobblestone paths, clearly made for pedestrians as I couldn’t fathom a cart or even a bike passing through it without either brushing the houses or ramming someone down!
 Food is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Switzerland. Unless of course it involves cheese or chocolate. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn about some traditional Swiss food, and more importantly Swiss food customs. Hearty dishes come from the country agricultural background, not surprisingly, mostly made from cheese. Fondue, which is perhaps the best known, is basically melted cheese in a boiling casserole in which you dip pieces of bread with a long fork. Everybody shares the same pot in this solid dish. “Raclette”, typically a shepherd’s dish is prepared by melting the side of a cut cheese on an oven. Each guest eats a cut of melted cheese in turn with potatoes and pickles until he has eaten his fill. Adding salt or mustard is a no-no and experienced raclette eaters always taste the cheese before adding pepper. Something I learnt the hard way!!!
The paragon dish of Swiss German-speaking Switzerland is the rösti which is roasted potatoes with cheese or bacon on top. I had a vegetarian variation of the dish, which I must admit was yum, though a trifle too rich for my tastes!!!!
The highlight of my two hour walk (in addition to the mesmerizing Chagall paintings) was the visit to this café called Sprungli. I was told that they do not have any branches in Switzerland outside of Zurich, because they do not use preservatives in their chocolates and the transportation kills the quality (!!). The Spruengli cafe, serves the best pastries I have ever had, and the elegant Edwardian-style decor café/tea room on the first floor, is the best place in Zurich to have a nice lunch, though a bit pricey! The distinctive blue-and-white Sprüngli wrapping has “sovenier from Zurich” written all over it!!!!!
My two-hour walk in Zurich made me realize that there is more to the Swiss than clockwork precision!!!!!!!

of skiing and Klosters…

One of the learnings I had during my recent visit to Davos is that if people have plans to visit Davos during the World Economic Forum, they need to be of one of these two kinds- be on the Forum’s special invitee list, or be a master organizer, of the kind who plans months in advance- in order to ensure that they get a decent place to stay which is within commuting distance from the main convention area in Davos. Of course, you could also be of a third kind- i.e., with great friends and a killer optimism!! Needless to say, I belong to the third kind and despite some accommodation hiccups, I found myself in a really nice, quaint place in Klosters, a small ski resort about 30 min from Davos. I learnt that Klosters originated in around 1220 A.D. with the founding of the St. Jacob and St. Christopher monastery, hence the name “Klosters” (monastery). Around 200 years later, the German-speaking Walser Prättigau and Davos (people from the canton of Valais) settled there, and their mark on the typical Prättigau dialect is still evident today. In around 1870, the first hotels were built, and the Rhaetian Railway line from Landquart to Klosters was opened. This was the start of Klosters as an international tourist resort. And tourist resort it sure is. In the hotel I was staying, majority of the other inhabitants were skiers, mostly from UK. One really has to have a terrific love for the sport, considering the ski equipment that one has to lug around weighs upto 20 kgs, not to mention the unwieldy boots. But I was told by one of the ski champions who I met over one breakfast that the feeling one gets when you are on top of a peak and sliding down is worth every pain that one has to bear to get to the point. Ah well…..


I am told Klosters is the preferred ski resort of Prince Charles. The same ski champion (my breakfast buddy) also told me an interesting piece of info- that the main ski lodge has two section, one named after the Prince. However, they are yet to change the other section that is named after Princess Di. Hmmm………




Climate change in Davos- literally and figuratively!

I spent a good part of the week of 21st in the cool climes of Switzerland. Chilled-to-the-bone might be a more appropriate phrase, but the overheated interiors prevent me from using it!! I was attending the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos. One of the first things that people (read the richest, most powerful, most learned and best placed human beings on the planet!) ask you when they meet you in Davos is “is this your first?”- meaning if “this is the first time you have got the good fortune of being in stratosphere, with us stars?!!” I must admit that despite feeling a bit lost, I think I did fairly well, not just in navigating my way from Zurich to Davos (and finding a place to stay in Klosters) but also spending that week usefully.

One thing that is extraordinary about this meet is that all these celebs and stratospheric human beings become ordinary mortals! So in a way it was a great leveler! The other fantastic thing about the Forum is that for people who are genuinely interested in learning, the eclectic mix of people and the quality of discussions you could have with them is electrifying. For me personally, it was the kind of experience like no other. The ambience, the people and the knowledge flow were all something I just took in, imbibing as much as I could.

I also learnt that Davos has been a popular destination for the rich for a long time, especially those who are rich…and ailing, mainly because the microclimate in the high valley was deemed excellent by doctors and recommended for patients with respiratory problems. I was told Robert Louis Stevenson, who suffered from TB, wintered in Davos in 1880 at the recommendation of his Edinburgh doctor!!! I didn’t have too much time to loaf around the little town, but in the two hours that I took out to climb a not-so-steep snow clad hill, I felt I had scaled Heaven. The place is ethereal, and the snow clad mountains and trees with the sun shining down made it surreal, almost!
At the Forum, the topic was “Collaborative Innovation”, a topic that I personally believe is somewhat impossible. After all innovation is something very personal to the individual who initiates it. Sure, there can be collaboration to breathe life into it and participation of different stakeholders would make it relevant to a broader audience, but it seems almost impossible to collaborate and innovate! I would vote for innovate, collaborate and transform!!!

The various interactions I had at Davos reaffirm one thing- that traditional hierarchy of companies is being replaced by networks- of technology and of flesh and blood. And since networks have no boundaries, I have to admit at the risk of sounding clichéd that it is clearly becoming a boundary-less world. The other thing I noticed was there was no talk of India and or v/s China. A testimony to the fact that these two nations are beginning to be recognized as powers who need to be a part  of every debate, and not forcibly included! A point also noticed by some of the other Indian ministers during one of the receptions. The global power balance may be shifting slowly toward Asia, but more Asians, Europeans, Arabs and Africans want to know who will be governing next year in Washington, with the duel between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama commanding almost as much attention at Davos as it perhaps does in America, and every living home in 125 countries!


However, it was a treat to have the best people from countries across the world discuss topics of relevance, especially around leadership, climate change and social entrepreneurship. The discussions I had with many around these issues will stay with me for long and steered me in directions that I didn’t think were possible! This requires a separate post………….

Dialogue in the Dark

It was about 4:30 am when I woke up this morning. It was pitch dark I groped around for the lamp switch to see the time and not finding it in the hotel room in the first 30 seconds was enough to frustrate me. It is not that I am uncomfortable in the dark. But those few moments were enough to make me realise how helpless one feels when one has a sense of loss of the most powerful sense- the sense of sight. 

I remember not so long ago, when during a powercut in Delhi, I was trying to search fro my little boy in the dark. Even though I knew his whereabouts, it was rather bizzare to realise how the mind turns fictitious when its familiar footholds are taken away. It wasnt until I heard his voice, that I was able to relax and was so thankful when I held his little hand in my hand and even more so when the lights came back on.  

So when I got the opportunity to participate in a workshop called Dialogue in the Dark a few months back, I was more intrigued by the idea and decided I had to participate in it. The workshop, a brainchild of a German psychoanalyst called Andreas Heinecke, was conducted in complete darkness, where blind guides lead sighted people through a maze; through an array of spaces, objects, voices and smells. 

We were a group of 8, from different nationalities as this was happening on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, and never have I so completely (and blindly, may I add) trust someone as our blind guide, Daniella, who led us through the maze. The group activity that we did in the darkness forced us to learn to trust each other, for without the other’s support, you were simply not going to be able to do the simple task that was assigned to us- that of pouring a hot cup of coffee! It was unusual to have such close contact with a person whose face I had not seen. More importantly, I had begun to make mental images of the other workshop participants, who I had seen, but in the dark, basis their voice and touch, I started to conjure up an image, that was shocked to realise when we came out in the open as to how different it was from reality. I realised in that moment how devoid my imagery was of stereotypes, that we so easily jump to in the world of sight.

Every branch of a tree that I touched, every fruit I smelt and every other human hand I felt in those two hours- tickled my imagination. Sounds become sharper, and I realised I was judging the presence of other people and things through a strange sensation in my body, almost as if there were waves of vibrations.

“Most people who are defined as blind can see something – an abstract picture or remnants of light and shadow. Totally blind people do not see black, like you experienced” said Andreas, who i got talking when came out of the darkness.”They see nothing.”

It was an experience I wont forget in a hurry. The workshop also made me realise another important thing, that I also wont forget in a hurry- to be alive to the fact that there is an other in this world of beautiful things, who are as beautiful- and they need to be appreciated for the special extra they bring, the touch and the ability to see things that less mortals who are sighted cannot. 80 percent of the information we receive comes through the eyes. The remaining 20 percent are divided among smell, taste, hearing and touch. That is why blind people are known for having senses that are extraordinarily sharper than those of sighted people. In certain respects, they experience an alternative reality that is no less correct or exact than the one we sense.

I returned back to my hotel room a converted soul. I reached out to switch on the light. But then thought, maybe not. I decided I was going to try and imagine a world where things vibrate, colors have energy, taste occupies volume and shapes have a life.