Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Of the new school

Meet VR Prasanna, CEO of Sikshana Foundation. A young and enthusiastic social entrepreneur, he gave up a cushiony IT job in the US to make a difference in the education sector in India. Today, under his stewardship, Sikshana Foundation has reached out to over 600 government schools in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. The schools adopted by Sikshana have shown remarkable academic improvement. Students and teachers alike are serious about education as opposed to the typical substandard government schools. All this was made possible with timely professional support via sustainable models adopted by Siskshana. The participatory approach involving the local community has paid off rich dividends in these schools. Prasanna shares his views on social entrepreneurship with Poornima Kandi.

How did Sikshana happen?
In 2005, I co-founded Pragathi with a few like-minded individuals in Austin, Texas, USA, with a goal of funding deserving NGOs in India. Sikshana came on my radar as part of Pragathi when we were looking for a project in education that could be scaled up for a larger impact. Sikshana started by Ramamurthy and a few of his friends right from the outset was designed to scale, replicate and exit eventually, which was attractive to me. The more I got to know about the intervention the greater I saw an opportunity to get in and make a difference on a large scale very quickly. It is amazing that within a short span of 4years we are able to impact over 75,000 children.

What made you interested in education sector? Tell us about your foray into development sector?
In my opinion education is a great leveller and is a sure way to move up the social ladder. Primary and secondary education are the most critical sectors, which need urgent intervention as various reports every year reveal dismal state of learning levels in children. My area of focus in education has been particularly on public school system, where over 80% of the children in this country are enrolled in such schools for quality education. After 17 years in USA, I decided to relocate to India, to work in a different area. Development sector was not new to me since I was involved with it in various forms, from the outside though. I had decided to take a very business-like approach and wanted to run the organisation more like a commercial enterprise. I gradually realized that you need to be more than just that. The customers or beneficiaries of our work will suffer if we fail to deliver because their aspirations would have raised and they are with us because they don't have a choice. So failure is simply not an option here.

What motivated you take up social entrepreneurship?
My grandfather lived a socially conscious life and watching him over the years made me sensitive of the environment I lived in. I have worked as an entrepreneur while I was in the US and was the Founder CEO of Softrends, Inc. As an entrepreneur in the for-profit sector I was doing my bit via non-profits. During this time I noticed that many non-profits put charity as the main purpose of the organization and this positioned planning, efficiency and professionalism in the backseat. I felt that instead of wishing a change in this sector why not attempt a change.
What according to you is a good model for development, which can work in the Indian context?
India is a unique in many ways but two things stand out for me, one is lack of standards in almost everything and the other being the diversity. Most of the major programs which have failed have one thing in common, a top-down approach. The need is to create a model, which allows decentralized system. This will take care of local needs and aspirations besides enabling outer structure which ensures meeting the overall goal of the program.

Do you think there is a need for government to bring out a policy for incentivising entrepreneurs for such ventures that have larger impact in terms of economic/social empowerment?
In my opinion the government has done an amazing amount of good work especially in the primary and secondary education. They have limitations when it comes to areas of innovation or experimentation. However, there has been some attempt to involve private entities in this area but it is not well defined. I see a need for a clear transparent policy, which will enable the social enterprise to run pilot programs and once proven the government should fund the enterprise to scale up. The initiative can then be made a part of the government programs. We see successful Private Public Partnership models in mega projects and I would like them to look at partnering with micro social enterprises which thrives on decentralization. The best approach would be to empower the local government to execute the partnership.

What do you think of the recent developments where lot of young Indians are taking up social entrepreneurship as a career? Your advice for budding social entrepreneurs.
I am glad to note that there is a talk of career in development sector which was unheard of a few years ago. What was typically looked as an end of career choice started to attract mid career deflectors like me and I now see many of them taking it up as first choice. This industry needs new ideas to deliver social impact and infusion of youth bodes well. One must have a lot of passion and a bit of compassion to be in this sector. One must not ignore the sacrifice made to enter this sector. Make sure that you compensate by accounting for personal growth and the larger impact one makes through this.

Are there dos and don'ts for such ventures unlike commercial activities where profits, dividends for shareholders are the only way to go?
In fact I do not see it any different from commercial activity except that profit / dividend mean a quantified social impact in addition to a sustainable or zero monetary gain.
Commercial ventures will die out when it is inefficient or when the customer rejects it purely from the standpoint of not meeting their needs. Here the customer is more forgiving since the intent is good, which means we internally have to push ourselves in measuring the impact and get better in what we do.

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