Solomon Prakash knows a thing or two about social entrepreneurship. After all, he’s devoted the last 20 years in pioneering work in education, poverty alleviation, employment and labor related social enterprises. MAYA, Maya Organic, and LabourNet are initiatives started and run by him until he took up a full-time role (in 2010) with Ashoka as Country Director for India.

He was the guest speaker on day#1 of the Acara Summer Institute 2011 and kept the students enthralled for 90-odd minutes as he shared some great stories from the field and answered questions.

Experiments in rural child care

Solomon talked about the early days when the team entered the village with a great deal of enthusiasm, setting up their first child care center. It was a free service yet they found parents weren’t sending their kids. So they went one step ahead and started going to the village residents’ houses to ‘pick up’ the kids. Talk about door-to-door service! Then things got worse. The volunteers started noticing that the only meal the children were getting were the ones at the child care center – the parents had stopped feeding them at home! The younger kids’ hygiene deteriorated because the parents had rationalized that they didn’t need any cleaning because they were getting cleaned and diapered at the center.

After observing this series of completely unexpected negative outcomes, Solomon and team temporarily stopped the program and took stock. They realized that major changes were needed for the program to succeed. They changed their model from “doing it for the communities” to facilitative. Notably, they scrapped the free model. Besides charging for the service, they got the community actively involved in the running of the center, essentially turning it into a “community owned” effort. Parents got involved in making toys for the kids (using local materials) and the resulting pride built upon the virtuous cycle that had set in. Today this program touches 4.5 million kids.

Mahindra and tractor rentals

Mahindra’s tractor division was struggling to penetrate one of the southern markets. They decided to experiment with a rental service and enlisted a team of local entrepreneurs to evangelize the service. Tractor rentals started to pick up and before long, many of the renters wanted to buy the tractors. Mahindra’s experiment of leveraging local entrepreneurs as partners had worked.

Commitment for the CAUSE, not the idea

One of the students sought Solomon’s advice on how to approach and convince government officials. Solomon’s answer? You (the social entrepreneur) first need to be fully committed to the cause. If you are committed, have all the facts, and the unbridled passion and commitment to see it through, the government official would eventually relent. Solomon made an important distinction between cause and idea. Stay committed to the cause – yes! But don’t have an unhealthy attachment to the idea (aka implementation). If the current idea is not working out, work out the next best solution to address the cause.

Village town hall meetings in temples? Hmm…

Solomon talked about the dynamics of engaging with rural communities (many of which are probably also relevant for urban communities). The domineering men tend to talk a lot during the town hall meetings and the tricky balance is to silence them without directly confronting them. The women are the ones with ideas and the ones who would eventually take up leadership/ownership roles but they tend to be quiet for the first few meetings, partly because of the domineering males and, partly because they want to be sure that the external change agents were really committed.