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This duo incubates early-stage non-profits. Their goal: Bring 1 crore Indians out of poverty by 2025

It takes a village to create a successful, scalable non-profit startup, and Sudha Srinivasan and team at The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation have set out to build an infrastructure that promotes disruptive, differentiated thinking to solve critical social issues

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Oct 29, 2021 11:43:56 AM IST
Updated: Oct 29, 2021 12:47:37 PM IST

This duo incubates early-stage non-profits. Their goal: Bring 1 crore Indians out of poverty by 2025Sudha Srinivasan, CEO, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation, wants to make the development sector aspirational for young non-profit entrepreneurs to start up
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

After a 17-year career in the IT sector, out of which she had worked at Intel for 12 years, Sudha Srinivasan decided it was time technology was made accessible and affordable enough to be used for the benefit of people at the bottom of the pyramid in India.

It was 2016, and the thriving startup culture in Bengaluru showed her how many people were choosing purpose over money and conventional career trajectories far earlier in life. Through a common acquaintance she met Atul Satija, who after working with organisations like Google, Adobe, Samsung, Infosys and finally, being the chief business officer at InMobi, had decided to start The/Nudge Foundation to work on poverty alleviation.

The United Nations (UN), in a 2019 report, estimated that 364 million [36.4 crore] people in India are poor, which is about 28 percent of the population. India also ranked a low 131 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI) put together by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2020, which highlighted deep systemic issues like income inequalities, malnutrition, livelihood and poverty. Satija had set an ambitious goal to get 10 million [1 crore] people out of poverty by 2025.

“If you wanted large-scale poverty alleviation, the development sector had to be aspirational for large numbers of people with professional, problem-solving and intellectual capabilities, and not just a place to do charitable work,” says Srinivasan. According to her, it was a struggle to find people who had innovative and disruptive thinking in the development sector, and there was a need to build an infrastructure to enable people to startup with a non-profit model.
With this as the central objective, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) was launched as a six-month incubator programme called N/Core for early-stage non-profits in September 2017, with Srinivasan as CEO. What started as a non-grant programme with 10 non-profits has now evolved into a nine-month programme with close to 15 non-profits in a single cohort, with a grant of up to ₹15 lakh for every founder, apart from access to mentors from corporates and government who contribute pro bono, and building networks with peers.

With the eighth cohort in progress, the CSI has, in all, incubated over 75 entrepreneurs that use technology in ingenious ways to solve problems. Their accelerator programme, to ensure the non-profit startups have a continuum in funding and guidance, has had over 12 organisations. There is a ₹55 crore fund that is set up to accelerate more organisations over a five-year period. The total budget of the CSI for FY22 is ₹22 crore. Srinivasan wanted to “spark innovation in underserved areas”, which is why the CSI decided to diversify and pick a range of projects across issues like agrarian crisis, land rights, gender inequalities, skill development and governance.

“We believe that The/Nudge can pioneer a new model of development that focuses on technology, innovation, entrepreneurial energy and collaboration,” says Shilpa Kumar, partner, Omidyar Network India (ONI). The organisation has funded The/Nudge Foundation since 2017, and their recent core grant of $2 million (approximately ₹15 crore) is spread over two years.

Their previous funding was for the CSI to set up an incubator for non-profits working in the area of land and property rights. According to Kumar, what makes them stand out is the “ability to apply a new-age, entrepreneurial approach to the field of development, by building evidence-based solutions focussed on economic empowerment and social protection, while also addressing ecosystem barriers and supporting implementation at scale”.

This duo incubates early-stage non-profits. Their goal: Bring 1 crore Indians out of poverty by 2025NavGurukul, an incubatee with the CSI in 2017 and part of their current accelerator programme, runs a one-year residential course in software programming. It currently has 500 girls and 60 boys in its campus. The non-profit is also teaching 3,000 students online
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

Stories of Impact

Srinivasan believes that India’s abysmal human development indices could script a turnaround in the next five years with the coming together of multiple forces like philanthropists and corporates willing to take risks and sticking with development sector partners for longer durations of time, and governments being more open to collaborate with non-profits. “More than 20 of our base of 80 incubatees is actively working with governments, which is funding the scale-up of their ideas,” she says, giving the example of Khushi Baby, one of the incubatee startups.

The Udaipur-based healthtech non-profit started with meeting the nutrition and immunisation needs of remote communities in Rajasthan through wearables, and is now working with the state department of medical, health and family welfare as a partner for comprehensive community health tracking as part of the Nirogi Rajasthan Abhiyan.

The 30-member team of Khushi Baby, which was founded by Ruchit Nagar in 2014 and had a particular focus on maternal and child health, developed wearable devices for beneficiaries, a tablet application and dashboard for community health workers—which later went on to include automated voice call reminders, WhatsApp groups for follow-ups and algorithms to send alerts about high-risk cases. The non-profit is working with over 60,000 health workers in more than 35,000 villages in Rajasthan, and also helps the government with Covid relief and vaccination efforts. Their work has reached more than 13 million [1.3 crore] underserved people in Rajasthan.

Bhagwan Kesbhat is another example. He had worked with various NGOs, including actor Aamir Khan’s Paani Foundation and Greenpeace India, for 15 years before he decided to launch Waatavaran in December 2018, a non-profit working on tribal rights and forest conservation in Maharashtra. Kesbhat says that the state, as of 2020, had rejected 64 percent of the total Individual Forest Rights (IFR) claims, which was higher than the 46 percent rejection rate pan-India. This, according to him, was also because of lack of evidence, knowledge and communication gap.

He started working in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, adopting an offline route to awareness for marginalised tribal and forest-dwelling communities, and working with local officials to secure land rights for the former. Then, in 2019, he recalls having a conversation with Srinivasan that lasted for over an hour. Being part of the CSI’s incubation process, he says, helped him think big.

“I never thought I could make technology the centre of my approach, forget leveraging it,” he says. With strategic advice from CSI, Kesbhat then entered into a partnership with US-based Cadasta, an organisation that develops digital tools to help partners document, analyse, store and share land rights information. Kesbhat started working to secure land rights claims through GIS-based land-mapping and satellite imagery.

As of October 12, Waatavaran had reached 32 villages in Maharashtra, with 39 filed and verified IFR claims, and was in the process of filing 254 claims. When approved by the government, these claims will give 1,500 vulnerable tribal people and other forest dwelling communities legal rights on forest lands. In the next five years, Kesbhat wants to expand to at least five states, reaching 20,000 villages and filing over 10 lakh IFR claims.

This duo incubates early-stage non-profits. Their goal: Bring 1 crore Indians out of poverty by 2025Khushi Baby, a healthtech non-profit with a focus on maternal and child care, incubated by the CSI, is now working closely with the Rajasthan state government for comprehensive community health tracking

Surendra Kumar Jain, co-founder, WestBridge Capital, who is one of the mentors to incubatees at the CSI, says while doing something in the non-profit space out of the goodness of one’s heart is a great starting point, organisations need to have the pulse on scaling. “Who is your customer, what is your value proposition, how can you collaborate with others in the ecosystem? These questions apply as much to the development space as they apply to a commercial enterprise,” he says.

Kamakshi Rao, senior investment director at Ankur Capital, who has mentored six non-profit startups in the incubation stage and one in the accelerator stage since 2019, says, “I come from a for-profit world that is efficiently run with high expectations. The fact that someone like me is paired with a non-profit to bring those same high expectations into their world, is the window that I have on the work that The/Nudge CSI is doing.”

Rao looks for either clarity or ingenuity in the idea of a non-profit, or the commitment of the founder. The startups she has mentored as part of the CSI include MoWo (Moving Women) in Hyderabad, which trains women in two-three-wheeler driving skills in order to empower them to access public spaces, and also help them secure employment in the mobility sector; Shikshart, which works to educate children in the Sukma district of Jharkhand, a Naxalite region; and Samagra in Pune that used technology to ensure cleanliness of public toilets and linked it to the local government’s e-governance platform to ensure accountability. Sometimes, it so happens that an idea or a venture does not take off, like in the case of Samagra. Betting on promising ideas that might not eventually work out is also important, Rao says.
“Part of taking a risk is you do not know whether it is going to work or not. And if you do not have organisations that have shut down, maybe it means you are not taking adequate risk.”

The/Nudge CSI has a network of about 12 mentors, including KR Lakshminarayana, chief endowment officer, Azim Premji Foundation; Madhav Chavan, co-founder, Pratham; Samit Ghosh, founder, Ujjivan Small Finance Bank; Maneesh Dhir, former MD-India, Apple; and Suseela Venkataraman, chair, Arogya World India Trust.

Jain says non-profits must plan for sustainability and longevity. “The nature of the sector is that impact is not easy to measure and it takes a long time. But it is important for organisations to work with an exit plan,” he says, adding that it is vital to not just depend on a few large CSR or philanthropic donors.

Abhishek Gupta, co-founder of NavGurukul that was part of CSI’s first incubation cohort in 2017, agrees. His non-profit runs a one-year residential course in software programming for students from underserved communities, following which they are provided a job placement. In 2017, Gupta started with a pilot project with 10 students in Delhi. Today, NavGurukul is providing residential training to 500 girls and 60 boys, apart from teaching 3,000 students online. Gupta is working with the Tripura and Delhi governments, and striking partnerships with two more state governments. According to him, Srinivasan is a patient listener and what gives CSI’s approach an edge is that “they are actively running a foundation side by side and not just giving gyaan”, he says.

Gupta, who is part of the CSI’s current accelerator programme, says by working with Srinivasan and team, he has learnt how to build his startup’s brand value and social network. He has also learnt innovative ways to secure funding. While NavGurukul has CSR partnerships with companies like Accenture, Microsoft and Amazon, Gupta is also looking to tap into retail investors.

Way Forward

Apart from the incubator and accelerator, Srinivasan is working on a research innovation grant for land and property rights, an initiative with informal waste pickers, and an 18-month prize challenge where non-profits have to provide potential solutions for at least one crore small and marginal farmers by 2025. Called Cisco Agri Challenge, the latter involves a cash award of ₹1 crore for the winning solution, ₹25 lakh for the runner-up, and five semi-finalists being awarded a milestone grant of ₹15 lakh each. “Through this project, we are not only incubating agritech startups, but also bringing together a powerful ecosystem of investors, domain experts, and government stakeholders to galvanise action and bring to market scalable solutions that can help boost farmers’ incomes and harness the full potential of digitisation,” says Harish Krishnan, MD, public affairs and strategic engagements, Cisco India & SAARC.

This duo incubates early-stage non-profits. Their goal: Bring 1 crore Indians out of poverty by 2025

Facebook has recently announced the second year of its partnership with CSI for their Pragati Project for women-led non-profits in India, which helps founders with grant and fundraising support, mentoring, capacity building, and access to technology. “The first year of Pragati received close to 1,300 applications from non-profits across India. Through a rigorous five-round selection process, we identified and selected four organisations,” says Ajit Mohan, VP and MD, Facebook India. “These organisations received grant, mentorship and network support from Facebook and The/Nudge, and were able to raise 3.3 times the grants we had provided them.”

The CSI is also working on the ambitious Indian Administrative Fellowship (IAF) that brings corporate professionals together with senior bureaucrats and policymakers to collaborate on government projects. KP Krishnan, an IAS officer who retired last year as secretary, ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, has been helping with conceptualising the programme, designing the curriculum and helping the CSI with making initial connects with government officials. “The reason I am doing this is because unlike others, the CSI actually follows through and executes. Sudha has been running the IAF in an extremely competent manner,” he says. “While Sudha is completely motivated for a public-spirited goal, she comes from a background of corporate efficiency.”

According to Krishnan, who is currently the IEPF chair professor at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), non-profits have to balance between replicating a corporate model of functioning with public-spirited objectives. “I have been associated with many such organisations, but what hugely appeals to me is that The/Nudge CSI comes closest to achieving the marriage of the two.”

Srinivasan says even when different stakeholders come together, it takes purity of intent and clarity of vision to help non-profit startups to “think in a way that leads to radically different solutions with very little capital costs and results that one would have otherwise thought impossible”, she says. “It really does take a village.”

(This story appears in the 05 November, 2021 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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