A Day of New Beginnings

Today is a big day at the Bangalore office – we had seven entrepreneurs coming in to sign their contracts and receive their first cheques.

The first to arrive is Raziya, a young entrepreneur who provides nutritious low-cost food to industrial workers in a remote area in Mysore, Karnataka.  She is accompanied by her husband and four year old daughter. She sits down with her husband and reads through the contract in detail while the little girl explores the office. Matilda then sits down with Raziya to discuss the contract with her and hands over her cheque on signing the contract. Raziya has a shy smile but when she’s talking about her business, the smile becomes bigger and more confident.

Raziya lists down steps to maintain a hygienic work environment while preparing food

The next to come in is Nishaat, an entrepreneur from Anekal, Karnataka, who, with an investment from Be! Fund, plans to scale up her organic dyeing business and create many more jobs for women in her community. Nishaat has a smile that lights up the entire room when she walks in. Matilda gives her the contract to go through, then sits down with her to discuss it and address her doubts, and gives her the cheque on signing the contract. Nishaat gives chocolates to everyone in the office, telling us ‘mooh mitha kijiye’ (sweeten your mouth) – wishing for a sweet and auspicious beginning for her business.

Lakshmi is a young entrepreneur who rents out silk mounts to the silk farmers in her region. She comes from Yerendappahalli in Kanakapura, Ramanagar District, Karnataka. Lakshmi walks in with a confident stride, and gives me a professional handshake. She is calm and composed. Her husband walks behind her with an excited grin. He patiently waits in another room while Lakshmi goes through the contract with Matilda, puts her signature, and collects her cheque. She then sits down with Raziya and Nishaat and the three women get into an animated discussion about their businesses.

While the women have loud and animated discussions, Shripal sits quietly and goes through his contract. Shripal is an entrepreneur from Bidare Village in Tumkur District, Karnataka. His business help sthe farmers in his village by providing them with pump-set lifting and repair service. He brought two of his friends with him who want to know more about Be! Fund. After Matilda discusses the contract with him and hands him over his cheque, she talks to his friends about Be! Fund, with Shripal pitching in about his own experience.

Sripal makes a list of farmers and the number of bore wells they have

Next up is Bhanuprakash, a young entrepreneur from Gujjenahalli Village in Tumkur District, Karnataka. Bhanuprakash plans to use the Be! Fund investment to start a vegetable nursery for the farmers in his village. Bhanuprakash has a gentle manner and a quiet smile. He studies the contract in great detail, signs it and collects his cheque. Sitting with him is Rama, the “Spice Lady” from Bangalore. Rama makes unadulterated home-made spices which she supplies to households and small businesses. She has a confident attitude, asks a lot of questions, and engages in a long and detailed discussion before signing the contract and taking her cheque.

Bhanuprakash illustrates his preference for his business card design

Bhanuprakash get a map of his village from the panchayat

The last entrepreneur for the day is Arif. Arif lives in Hussain Saab Palya, a low-income village with limited employment opportunities. He plans to start an embroidery business ito provide employment to the village young people who are skilled in embroidery, but unemployed. Arif is a soft-spoken man, but as he starts talking about his plans for the business, you cannot miss the excitement in his voice.

It was a busy and interesting day, I am going to go home with a smile on my face. It’s great fun to meet the entrepreneurs face to face (I have just been reading their business plans so far), talk to them about their business ideas, and experience their commitment and passion for their business. These are our heroes in the making.

The Be! team wishes these entrepreneurs all the very best. You can be sure that you will be hearing more about them in the upcoming months in this space!

Vote for Impact

Dear Be! Fund Friends, Family & Supporters,

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We’re excited to share with you that Be! Fund has been selected as one of three finalists in the Incubator Category of the Villgro Awards 2013 for the Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem!

In order to win this award, we need your vote between March 19  April 14. To vote, click here. To vote you will need to quickly create a profile using just your name and email address. After you receive your confirmation email, click the link and you will be able to vote for as many of the Villgro Award candidates as you want (unfortunately you can only vote for Be! once!).

The public voting will play a major role in deciding the winner of the Villgro Awards announced at the Sankalp Unconvention on April 17th in Mumbai. The winner of the Incubator category will receive a Rs. 50,000 prize—enough to purchase a big machine for a new Be! entrepreneur or potentially finance their entire investment! But apart from the money, what really matters is that this award will help us tell the story of our growing number of hero entrepreneurs. From farmer transportation, to urban biogas to rural medical services, our hero entrepreneurs are solving all kinds of problems for low-income communities. These are the stories we want to tell—of young people, successful entrepreneurs, inspiring role models.

So go ahead, vote now & share the link with all your friends too!

Thanks a lot!

 

Celebrating Women’s Day at Deutsche Bank

Candles from recycled church wax, bitter gourd pickles, ginger chutney, Areca nut plates, jowar roti, peanut chutney powder, solar lamps, and a variety of Karnataka’s favorite salty snacks are all products made by Be! Women Entrepreneurs.

This past Thursday and Friday Be! Team members staffed rows of tables in two cafeterias at Deutsche Bank in Electronics City in Bengaluru to showcase and sell products of Be! Women Entrepreneurs. 20-year-old Yellawa even journeyed 500 kilometers alone from her village in Badami to come and tell people about her popular bitter gourd pickles and ginger chutney. One loyal customer from last year’s exhibition came by to tell Yellawa himself just how tasty her pickles really are. He purchased a few more bottles and also recommended them to others checking out her poster and brightly colored packaging, praising her pickles for their unique flavor and downright deliciousness.

Yellawa’s famous Ginger Chutney, Sweet Lime Pickle, & Bitter Gourd Pickle

Sales were very good for Be! women with many Deutsche Bank employees purchasing gifts for their mothers, sisters, and other special women in their life. We were especially happy though to reconnect with our great Deutsche Bank volunteers and friends. Through our partnership with the Deutsche Bank Corporate Social Responsibility Department we have been able to invest in eight women in Karnataka and had over 25 volunteers help us review business plans and conduct interviews for our candidates. (We even had one of our volunteers come by and purchase some products from one of the women she interviewed a year ago!)

So thanks Deutsche Bank & keep it up women entrepreneurs!

The * Innovation

“Innovation” is a word used for almost everything these days, we’ve been told it’s no longer wise to use the word in a grant proposal, when promoting something new, because ‘everything is innovative’. English has such limitations but I’ll persist, since we can’t use the word, this is how we see it (word) at Be! Fund

For us, it’s about providing risk capital, not debt, to the poorest young people in India. When we make an investment in a business, we also make in investment in that young person. We trust them to really be an entrepreneur and to do what’s best to create a successful business with their own ideas.

For us, it’s about trust, our trust in young people to be real problem solvers and job creators in their communities, whether it is a slum in the heart of India or the smallest village not even on the map.

It’s also about having a phone number where people can call and tell us their business idea. There’s no paper application; there’s no box to tick whether your idea is to start a water business, a restaurant, or a handicraft cooperative. It’s up to you. And we’re here to listen to whatever crazy or not-so-crazy idea you may have. For us it’s about erasing obstacles and boundaries for participation, inviting all young people across India to call us with their ideas (you don’t have to speak English, have internet, or have it all written down, know someone to introduce us). The revolution is that any young person anywhere in India can call us. Yep, for us the “it”, is a phone call.

We want to break down barriers—no forms, no debt, no precedent—we want to create a a wide open field for possibility. Because honestly, if something is really that thing we’re talking about, then we should not even be able to recognize it; we will need time to understand the idea being presented to us, stretch our minds, begin to understand something new, that has no precedent, that is unproven, but yes, it may just solve the problem in that community, at that time. This is where the trust factor comes in. We must accept that a 19-year-old young woman with a high school degree, who is explaining an idea that we might not fully understand yet, is more of an expert on her business idea and market than we are. We believe that the ‘it’ can be surprising, confusing, humbling and inspiring all at the same time. And truly underscoring the word fun, you won’t even know what it is!

Then on the other hand, we also believe IT doesn’t have to be a brilliant idea that no one has ever heard of. We’ve all heard of solar lanterns, but Mageshwari has pushed the boundaries in her old mining village, not only creating solar lanterns for children to study in evening tuition centers but also retro-fitting children’s desk lamps for home use too. She’s created small lanterns that run on a solar charge for nearly six hours and cost Rs. 400 (less than $8.00), including the solar panel.  She’s even put together one panel that attaches to three household light bulbs, bright light to over 100 houses in her village. She is creating new products, new technologies for people who need them the most. We call that the IT factor. Yes, that’s IT.

The thing we’re talking about could be the product or service, but it can also be the market it is reaching, or the way in which it is reaching those people. 20-year-old Yellawa sells bitter gourd pickles., but no one was buying them with as much relish as they did her sweet ginger chutney. Her customers thought that the pickles were actually bitter. What did she do? She created Rs. 5 ($0.10) sample packets so they could taste how delicious they were – a small change with big impact – suddenly her bitter gourd pickles were a huge hit. That would be IT. It’s also about creating innovative solutions to problems that large companies overlook. They solve problems through identifying market gaps and filling them with their own small businesses.

Gowramma experienced firsthand the high-cost of basic nutrition supplements. Her husband lives with HIV as do many others in her community but they cannot afford branded nutrition powders, which boost their immune systems and keep them healthy. She decided to work with a sector expert to create her own brand Nutrition+, improving the health not only of HIV/AIDs families but also of those suffering from malnutrition. Gowramma’s idea was so brilliant it sparked a competing business nearby but her beautiful label with nutrition facts and a number to call makes her different, makes her more successful. 

We also consider IT, the new idea, to be relative to the community where our entrepreneurs are from. For me, a roti is a piece of dried bread. For Kavita, a member of a low caste community in Northern Karnataka, her roti business is a way of breaking down caste barriers as she sells her tasty goods to high caste hotel owners.

‘It’ for us is risk capital, a phone call, trust, & the young person who trusts us enough to come forward and tell us their plans.

Trust, just might be he biggest ‘innovation’ out there, trusting that you don’t know and someone else does, trusting the unknown because it just might be the youngest poorest young person on the planet who has the key to changing the world.

Go on, trust someone today with their idea.

Interlocking bricks, a check-list for becoming an entrepreneur

  • Young and bright:Vilas Gade came to collect me from Aurangabad city on a chilly winter morning, in the back of the car he explained our plan for the day: we’d go to his village, his friend’s manufacturing site, a potential site he has selected for his own business and yes, he’d tell me more about why he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

    Vilas shows us a home that was under the process of construction. They decided to use interlocking bricks midway once they heard of it’s benefits!

  • Skills: Our first stop was at the manufacturing site KRS Enterprises, about 10-15 kms from the city. Vilas has a friend whose interlocking bricks business has been his inspiration.  Excitedly Vilas introduced me to the site and talked me through every step. The amount of fly ash used, the proportion of cement and the quantity of stone dust that is required to manufacture the bricks. He showed me the mixer, the dye (mould) that is used to give shape to the bricks and then which the bricks should be lifted to ensure that they do not break in the process.
  • Good advisors:We asked Mr. Shinde, the supervisor, if he’d mentor Vilas as he sets up his business, so he can help him trouble-shoot. Mr. Shinde said YES.

    Vilas explains how the bricks actually Inter “lock”

  • Supportive family:Next, we went to Vilas’ home in a village. At tea with Vilas’ parents I asked them “Why are you supporting your son to take a risk to become an entrepreneur?” Vilas’ parents are farmers, the had to cut corners to have him educated and they are proud to see their son so motivated and driven: they support him in his choice to be an entrepreneur. This is not common, usually parents want their sons and daughters to get jobs. I made a point to ask them more about it – their belief in Vilas’ idea and their support for Vilas to take a risk is the source of one of our stories for children in our schools program. We needed to know why some parents are supportive, and how to inspire more to be.

    Vilas in his home with his brother and niece :)

  • Community support, need: Next we went on a village walk. Vilas’ village has 400 people and most of them are very poor., from lower castes and it’s cut off from the highway, high up in the hills.  There is no gram panchayat in the village since the population is below 500 and its administration is being handled by another village. Consequently, development here has been slow. The village has only 1 government school, run by the state government, up to class 5. Vilas himself has studied in this school as a child. The school for class VI-VIII is located in a village 5 km away. Also, the school for classes XI-X is located in another village, which is also about 5 km from Vilas’ village.  Vilas proudly shared the story of his struggle as a student when he walked to each of these schools each day to continue his education. He also claimed that in class XI and XII, there were about 17 children who made it to the school but only 2 boys managed to pass the exams, one of them was Vilas.  Overall education of the villagers remains low. The main source of income in the village is agriculture. The area is rain dependent and water is scarce through the year.  The only well in the village has dried up and people walk long distances to fetch water. Most people cannot afford tankers.
    1. Researched demand, has first customers: I was convinced Vilas’ village was poor and that they needed young entrepreneurs and new enterprises, so next we went to visits builders and contractors who are potential buyers for Vilas’ bricks. One of them even has an upcoming housing project and said he would like to experiment with interlocking bricks if Vilas sets up his business. Regular bricks are labour intensive and require clay which is fast becoming a scarce resource. On the way, Vilas even showed us a house which was in the process of being built with regular bricks. Once they heard about the benefits of interlocking bricks, they opted to complete their construction using interlocking bricks! It was reassuring to find a growing demand for Vilas’ product. 
  • Aggressive Marketing:After my visit, I realised Vilas would have to work a great deal on his marketing plan and we’d have to explore the size of the market in his village and beyond, the number of jobs he’d create as well as the number of people who would benefit from interlocking bricks. However, Vilas has realized early on that he would certainly need to market his product strongly to create a demand for a new product like his own. He has sought help from Be! Fund and asked to be introduced to an architect. He believes a good architect can assist him to convince potential buyers who are builders and contractors. He will not only tell them about the benefits to the environment in the use of interlocking bricks, but a buyer will be persuaded by being informed of its probable benefits for the construction process. Most importantly, he will let them know that the cost of construction is likely to go down by 30-50%.

    Vilas’ School

  • Vilas has been on the lookout for any information regarding business management and interlocking bricks ever since he decided to be an entrepreneur. He has now found a new company to supply to him the machinery at a lower rate. They even provide training on how the machinery is used! After the site visit, we’re particularly excited about his project and we can’t wait to see him get started.

Next week: Cows! Cows! Cows! Site Visit for Ujwal’s Dairy Business

Reviving a Family Business: Challenges for Young People in India Today

Perhaps the most crucial round of interview for us—the site visit—tells us the most about a potential candidate for investment. While on a site visit we learn things we never would have learned otherwise. The entrepreneur is on their home turf—often more confident, open and honest than when we first meet them in our office.

Obliraj telling us about his idea to revive his family weaving business

Obliraj is 21 years old and came to us with the idea of reviving his family weaving business. Obliraj’s family has been weavers for generations. When we asked just how many generations his family had been weaving, Obliraj’s mother laughed and said, “As far back as anyone can remember—not just his father’s family but my family too.”

Unfortunately, families that continue traditional handicrafts and arts like these are changing occupations in India because of new aspirational values for their children to become doctors and engineers. Also as traditional crafts families are not able to compete with machine made priced bulk items, nor do they directly go to market or find ways to innovate with design – families leave their traditional crafts and migrate to cities with the goal of becoming part of India’s economically prosperous. With so much pressure to follow defined paths to success, traditional family occupations are being left behind – especially by the younger generation who just can’t see the value in the craft and poverty of their parents. Many weaving, dyeing and embroidery businesses are shutting shop after countless generations of business because no one is left to carry the legacy on and those who do want to continue, lack the capital to upgrade and compete with bigger players, design innovation or access to markets, either restricted by language, or lack of internet access/communication skills.

Obliraj is different. He’s young and he wants to be an entrepreneur in the line of his family business, but he wants to begin again, differently.

Obliraj with his weaving family–mother, father, and two younger brothers

Carrying on a family business is hard work. The looms and other machines in Obliraj’s home were purchased second-hand eight years ago. Now they are in need of an upgrade to a hydraulic system that will double their production capacity. Sometimes determination is not enough for young people who want to carry on the traditional businesses of their families. They also need investment and support. Maybe they don’t need new metal machines—actually the traditional wooden ones work better—but they need better lighting to see, or they need better ventilation to stay healthy – they need visitors with design inspiration, they need new access to markets offline and online.

Obliraj showing his expertise at the eight year old second-hand loom

In our cities we have a massive youth unemployment rate, and it’s only increasing. Without the right skills, young people will never become doctors or engineers. But a lot of these young people have skills they’ve learned at home in their traditional craft businesses. They just don’t realise they are skills. Nor are they sure what to do with them.

Perhaps what we all need to understand, as that it’s best for India and the world we live in as a whole if the poorest young people are able to innovate, and take their traditional craft businesses to new levels of scale.

Their businesses will protect our traditions as we enter into new economies, create jobs for  other young people and support villages, stopping the great urban migration.

Invest in a young craft entrepreneur today.

We’ll let you know what happens at the Investment Committee meeting for Obliraj.

 

Making a point of celebrating birthdays: all entrepreneurs & enterprises (and their investors) celebrate the day it all began

It’s hard to believe that’s January 2013 is already nearly coming to a close. Be! Fund-Karnataka is about one and a half years old and Be! Fund- Maharashtra has just celebrated its six-month birthday. So having rolled up our sleeves and put in a lot of hard work to find and invest in young entrepreneurs across India, where are we now?

In 2011, we invested in four entrepreneurs to start businesses in plastic recycling, rooftop farming, farmer transportation and garment manufacturing employing people who are differently-abled. These men were the first of many hero entrepreneurs to come. In 2012, we invested in 12 more entrepreneurs, including 9 women, to solve problems with local enterprise solutions such as solar products, urban biogas, rural diagnostic laboratory, compostable Areca nut leaf plates, and many more.

So we’re celebrating birthdays for new businesses, entrepreneurs and many ‘success days’ for every challenge met.

Yellawa has now taken her specialty pickle business to scale and has created three jobs for young women from her Dalit community. She is a role model for local women proving that even the youngest can run their own successful and innovative businesses. Mageshwari created 60 solar lanterns to enable over 750 children to study in tuition centers in KGF villages and brought light to over 100 nearby homes. And Mallaiah helped save lives by diagnosing dengue fever at its earliest stages at his rural diagnostic lab, making the best medical diagnostic services available to those living in rural areas far away from city hospitals.

But as we’ve also learned this year, as an early stage entrepreneur there will certainly be challenges along the path to building a sustainable business. Jayanthi, who creates beautiful candles from recycled church wax, lives in a slum with contaminated water often making her daughters and mother fall sick. Radhakrishna, who takes farmers to market in his truck, recently got in a small car accident on the road, causing minor damage to his vehicle (he was fine!) and putting him off of the road, and therefore deliveries, for one month.

Whether 2012 was mostly filled with successes or challenges to overcome, each of these entrepreneurs came to us with a solid business idea that would solve a problem in his or her community and the daring to board the entrepreneurial roller coaster to success.

2012’s entrepreneurs span the age group from 20 to 35 years old; they received investments ranging from Rs. 28,000 – Rs. 430,750 ($560 – $8,615); they live in urban slums and rural villages. Be! Businesses are unique to the entrepreneurs running them and the communities and people they serve. But all of our entrepreneurs have one thing in common—the commitment to establishing and managing innovative businesses to solve problems in the communities in which they live.

They are our heroes.

From Determined Young Person to Be! Fund Entrepreneur: The Be! Fund Interview Process

Raziya came all the way from Mysore to tell us about
her idea to start a restaurant for construction workers and other industrial
labourers in her community.

As calls stream into both the Mumbai and Bengaluru offices, young people have already taken the first step toward entering the pipeline for a Be! Fund investment. When a young person calls us up, their ideas range from “I want to start a business and make a difference! What should I do?” all the way to a well-formulated business plan for taking farmers to market. For all of these cases, our Be! Fund team gives them our business-building guide and speaks with them to make sure they fulfill our three basic criteria:

1. Young (Between 18-29)

2. From a low-income background

3. Sufficient market research to prove their for-profit business idea can create a positive social impact and solve a problem in their community.

For young people who fit these criteria but don’t yet know what they want to do, our team asks them to give it some more thought and asks them to call back when they know what they’d like to do. For those young people who do have a developed business idea, team members ask them to come to our office and tell us about their idea. And for us, the candidate’s willingness to travel to our office matters—that’s how someone proves their passion for their business. Over the last year and a half, we’ve learned that people, who aren’t serious about their business idea, just won’t come, so calling people to our office is an important part of the selection process.

After this in-person interview, we continue to gather information from the entrepreneur over the coming weeks or months, supporting him or her along the way about how to do market research and determine whether farmers really will pay 100 rupees for that bag of compost or actually just 75 rupees.

Here is an example of Bhanuprakash’s excellent market research explaining
the materials needed and cost of each for his nursery business.

Once all this market research has been collected and a draft business plan created, Be! Fund team members go on a site visit to the candidate’s proposed site to verify the potential profitability and social impact the businesses. This is the stage where we interview family members, community members and potential customers to make sure they are all on board in support of the entrepreneur so that when times get rough, the entrepreneur will be surrounded by a network of support. All of this information is used to finalize a business plan and is presented to the Be! Fund investors. From the initial phone call to Be! investment takes an average of 3-4 months. This gives us time to build an honest, trusting working relationship with the candidate and to make sure the candidate is deeply committed to moving from idea to implementation.

At the end of this process, we are always pleased to announce the new round of hero entrepreneurs that we will invest in and help grow into sustainable for-profit businesses, which will have big positive social impact for their communities.

We’re so excited: we won the Citi Micro Enterprise award for the most Innovative Livelihood Promoter of the Year (2012)

Athar and Matilda take a bow

Citi Foundation is the global philanthropic arm of Citigroup and supports economic empowerment and financial inclusion of low-to moderate-income people in communities where the bank operates. The Be! Fund teams from Bengaluru and Mumbai were in Delhi to receive the award on January 12, 2013.

Thank you India for believing in possibility and knowing that the poorest young entrepreneurs can change the world for everyone!

 

Missed calls + text messages: calling women entrepreneurs everywhere

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Our Mumbai numbers are ringing all day long: young entrepreneurs are calling us to talk about their ideas.

Hema discussing business ideas!

Just as Ashwin returned from the movie screenings in Sangli, the radio commercials pierced into every nook and corner of Maharashtra to announce the call from Be! Fund Mumbai. We are so excited when entrepreneurs from the most remote, underdeveloped areas of Maharashtra such as Jat taluka call in with a business proposition. Indeed, we have all been busy discussing ideas all day long on the telephone! Some of the young people amaze us with their clarity and their experience while others want to share their ideas and understand how they can build better plans.

An excited mother called us saying all she wanted was to come see us. At first, her excitement was confusing – she’s not our target audience – but we invited her for an interview anyway. She came in with her daughter (who was the entrepreneur!). Her daughter said she wanted to start an organic farm and later expand to setting up solar lights in the village. We were fascinated with her motivation and her sensitivity for her community and we like her plan, organic farming + renewable energy, now that’s cool. Another young man called with his plan to produce jams and pickles using a fruit that grows in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, locally known as “Ambadi”. Wikipedia came to rescue; we found that Ambadi is popularly known as “Roselle”, it is grown in various parts of India and is also popular in countries like Myanmar, Australia and Nigeria for making jams and pickles. Who knew. We’re excited to try his jams :)

 

Razia responds to the missed calls

While it’s exciting we’re also seeing another trend, for every 20 young men that call us, one young woman calls us. Young women are more hesitant, they have to win family support, they are not sure if they can travel to our office, they want to be in a group, make sure we’re real. We’re committed to investing in as many women as we invest in men, and so as soon as young woman calls us, we’re on it. Asking if she can come tomorrow, if she needs directions, help, us to come pick her up from the train station, the Be! Fund women take over, trying as much as possible to make Be! Fund equally accessible to women as to men. We draw the line at giving ideas – we won’t give ideas – but if a young woman comes to us with an idea, we celebrate, fast track, support her and try to talk to her family to gauge their support. Young women who call us have the desire to “be” different and do things differently; and we are certain that they will. Yet others drop out due to lack of support from friends, family and their community. We hope that the women who find a way to negotiate rigid societal norms, will be role models for other young women. There can be no greater impact than changing the way our world sees women, and in turn, creating space for young women to change the world.