Firang Invasion of India’s Social Enterprise Ecosystem

As you are reading this, an impassioned group of 500+ individuals from various walks of life would have descended upon Taj Land’s End, Mumbai for Sankalp Forum – India’s largest social enterprise conference. By ‘various walks’, I mean social entrepreneurs, impact investors, strategy consultants, investment advisors, and media.

A first-timer at the conference might be nonplussed by the sheer number of firangs. While some may be visitors, many are already working in India – as social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, or consultants. I noticed this trend at the last few social enterprise conferences I attended.

The trend was notably pronounced earlier this week in Bangalore. At the monthly Social Enterprise Happy Hour, at least half the folks who showed up were Americans or Europeans – I kid you not! Here are just some of the folks I met:

  • Mike MacHarg, co-founder of San Francisco/Bangalore-based Simpa Networks (pay-as-you-go solar home lighting solution for Bottom of Pyramid households). Mike has been in Bangalore for 3 years.
  • Mark, a Bain consultant from New York on a 2-month assignment to the Bangalore office of Embrace (maker of low-cost infant warmer for the developing world). Mark is seriously interested in a longer Bangalore stint.
  • Peter Steve Hardgrave (thanks for the correction, Peter@Driptech), a very tall American currently fundraising for an education-focused startup that targets private schools in rural and semi-urban areas seeking loans of 1-10 lakhs.
  • Jeff Schmidt, a California-native who moved to Bangalore last year with his wife and one year old son. Schmidt’s wife leads HR for Bloom Energy’s Bangalore facility. Schmidt is a ‘volunteer’ with Simpa Networks because he doesn’t have an Indian work permit.

Then there were the visitors…

  • Sam White, co-founder of Boston/Pune-based Promethean Power Systems (maker of rural refrigeration systems for off-grid and partially electrified environments).
  • Jon, an angel investor from Switzerland with two impact investments in India.
  • April Allderdice, CEO of Seattle-based MicroEnergy Credits, on a visit to their Bangalore regional office.
  • Troy Swanson, an American philanthropist who shuttles between Amsterdam and Madrid and opens new schools for Bangalore slum kids every 3 months through a unique fundraising model.

What is going on here?

Mark Kahn, EVP (Godrej Agrovet) & Partner (Omnivore Capital) – Pic courtesy Godrej.com

Mark Kahn (of Omnivore Capital and Godrej Agrovet fame) jokingly calls this the firang invasion – an American revenge for the millions of desis who immigrated to America in the last two decades. Kahn, who grew up in the Hillcroft (Little India) neighborhood of Houston, tasted pani puris for the first time when he was eleven. When he graduated from Harvard with an MBA in 2006, a career in India held more exciting prospects than staying in the motherland. His move to India turned out to be relatively painless because his wife is an Indian-American with Bengali roots. After four years in Mumbai, Kahn is arguably a bigger authority on the city’s restaurants and hotspots than most locals.

There are striking parallels between Kahn’s and Sean Blagsvedt’s journey. Blagsvedt moved to Bangalore in 2004 as part of Microsoft Research India’s founding team. In 2007, a Duke University study on rural poverty alleviation provided him the epiphany to start Babajob – a marketplace for urban Bottom of Pyramid jobs. Babajob recently crossed the milestone of 250,000 job seekers. There’s little danger of Blagsvedt decamping to America anytime soon because, in his own words, “I’m married to this beautiful woman who thinks Malleswaram is the center of the world!”

Sean Blagsvedt, CEO Babajob.com (Pic courtesy LinkedIn)

Alan Rosling, once a Special Advisor to British Premier John Major, has been in Mumbai since 1998 – first as Chairman of Jardine Matheson Group and later as Executive Director of Tata Sons. In 2007, he co-founded Kiran Energy, a rising player in the nascent Indian solar market with 75 MWs of solar contracts and a majority stake in Mahindra Solar One (joint venture with Mahindra Group).

DripTech is an international water technologies company based in Silicon Valley, with offices in Pune and Beijing. Their founder and CEO, Peter Frykman, moved to Pune last year.

So why are so many firangs making a beeline for India?

The development sector has always been of interest to Americans. President John F. Kennedy’s launch of the Peace Corps program was probably the earliest kindling of that interest. In the last decade, inspiration has come from the likes of MIT-headquartered Poverty Action Lab (notably Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo), University of Michigan’s CK Prahalad, and Cornell University’s Stuart Hart. More recently, Stanford Business School established the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SIIDE) with a $150 million alumni gift.

Whether you want to replicate a successful Randomized Control Trial or model a social enterprise on Stuart Hart’s Sustainable Value Framework, the market for social enterprises is the world’s poor. And guess what? India happens to have a disproportionate share of the world’s poor. Mystery solved.

 

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  • Shiv Mishra

    I agree with a few points here but disagree with many. 
    There are many more Indians who are doing amazing work at the BoP without “Ivy league” degrees and without need for getting recognized for their important work. But at the same time a majority of Indians do not care about social impact. 
    Being a social entrepreneur myself and having lived in the US for over a decade (before returning back to India), I have thought about this a lot – Why are American and European MBAs coming in hoards to work at the BoP, while most Indian MBAs do not know what BoP stands for?
    I found my answer recently in a book by – ” a firang author” – Daniel Pink. In the book “Whole New Mind”, Pink references three prevailing trends pointing towards the future of business and the economy:
    1. Abundance (consumers have too many choices, nothing is scarce), 
    2. Asia (everything that can be outsourced, is) and 
    3. Automation (computerization, robots, technology, processes) 
    I see it as Maslow’s Hierarchy at work – Firang’s are coming to work at the BoP because they have already had a lot of abundance for the last generation. Having lived their life in opulence, they are now looking for higher purpose, which they are now finding by working at the BoP – i.e. firangs are working at the BoP because they can !
    I do not see this as bad, but just want to point out that this invasion will be fruitful, both for the BoP and the firangs, only if firangs know “why” they are in India. Having misplaced notions about pity, heroism etc can be quite disastrous for the people at the BoP.

    • http://twitter.com/ulaar Vishy Kuruganti

      Shiv,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. My responses below:
      1. Point of this post was not to make any comparisons with Indian social entrepreneurs – not even remotely making the case that firang social entrepreneurs are better, rather it’s that there seems to be a significant influx, perhaps not unlike the inflow of Indians to Silicon Valley — who went on to found many many startups.
      2. Agree that most Indians don’t care about social impact — “live in their own bubble” — but were you inferring this from this particular post (if so, how?)
      3. Interesting point about Maslow’s hierarchy (will try and read Pink’s book) — agree in general but it’s not relevant to the firangs in this post because of  point #5. 
      4. Agree that firang invasion is good and fruitful — will bring that facet out in a subsequent post.
      5. Barring Troy Swanson, all other social entrepreneurs are doing social enterprises, not NGOs. The difference is relevant because many social enterprise types (especially the ones that didn’t start off with an NGO) are usually more pragmatic and are not necessarily looking for a higher purpose, etc. What I mean is that the higher purpose/helping the BoP may not be the high-order-bit for them — doesn’t mean that it doesn’t give them satisfaction when their #socent DOES succeed and it generates solid social impact.

      Thanks again — let’s keep the discussion going.

      Vishy

  • http://www.driptech.com/ Peter Frykman

    The tall American that you refer to as “Peter” sounds a bit like Steve Hardgrave.  Maybe there are multiple tall American social entrepreneurs in Bangalore focused small-scale private school finance.

    And don’t forget Jane Chen from Embrace!

    Peter Frykman
    http://www.driptech.com

    • http://twitter.com/ulaar Vishy Kuruganti

      hi Peter,
      Thanks for your comment. Quite possible my recall was flawed – agree that the chances of multiple tall American social entrepreneurs in Bangalore focused on small-scale private school finance are slim :)

      Didn’t know that Jane Chen spent a good chunk of her time in Bangalore too.

      I’ve been meaning to get in touch/interview you for TechSangam — and this post just accelerated that. Look fwd to chatting.

      Vishy

  • Prateeksha Singh

    Hi Vishy- I grew up living abroad and just returned to India (in April) for a few months to experience/see first hand the amazing amounts of social innovation/entrepreneurship taking place in India. As someone that spent very little time in India it has been a bit hard for me connect with organizations in this space, so I know I would like to meet and connect with others in the space. I am in Bangalore for a couple more weeks and wondered what social enterprise happy hour you were speaking about and when the next one would be because I would love to make it there! I just went to a great happy hour get together last night that was organized by InVenture and realized it was a separate event then the one spoken of in this blog. Look forward to hearing from you-  Thank you so much!

  • Sidhartha

    Great insight & superb writing!

  • Aparna

    Dear Mr. Vishy, I am regularly following your articles. I am a research scholar in the area of social entrepreneurship at Tumkur University. Can I get in touch with you?

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