Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Atul Satija wants to make building social enterprises and NGOs "cool"

The/Nudge Institute, which has enabled hundreds of social enterprises and non-profits scale up their impact, was formed by Satija after he quit his high-paying corporate career to build solutions for poverty alleviation and livelihoods

Divya J Shekhar
Published: May 17, 2024 01:13:19 PM IST
Updated: May 24, 2024 03:58:23 PM IST

Atul Satija wants to make building social enterprises and NGOs "cool"Atul Satija, founder & CEO of The/Nudge Institute, at a farm near Bengaluru, where one of the non-profits from their accelerator programme, Gramhal, is helping farmers leverage technology for sustainable agriculture. Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India

Atul Satija says that starting social enterprises will become the next big aspiration for youngsters.

Over the decades, he has seen people’s aspirations shift from government jobs to private company jobs, to careers in multinationals, to launching their own startups. Satija hopes, and also believes, that next in line will be building social enterprises. “In a country like India where talent is coming primarily from smaller towns, Tier-II cities and beyond, the proximity of the people there to social problems is far higher than the rest of the country,” he says.

Satija admits to his bias even as he says this. After all, he funds and helps scale non-profits and social enterprises for a living. He is the founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based The/Nudge Institute (previously called The/Nudge Foundation), which has supported over 120 non-profits and social enterprises—over 70 of them led by women—through their incubator and accelerator programme.

An additional 10-odd social impact startups have been recipients of the The Nudge/Prize ranging between Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore. The founders win this grant by participating in a Grand Challenges format, in which they present population-scale solutions and implementation roadmaps for various issues.

Around Rs 50 crore worth of funds have been disbursed to NGOs and social enterprises so far as part of the incubator, accelerator and the Prize. The average grant multiplier is 8.6x for the incubator and accelerator. These organisations collectively serve around 100 million people in India, Satija says.

In India, the bulk of the social sector funding is still undertaken by the government, highlighting the urgent need for the private sector to pick up pace in backing social impact organisations. According to the India Philanthropy Report 2024 by Bain & Company and Dasra, overall social sector spending in India stood at Rs 23 lakh crore in FY23, or 8.3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). This falls 4.7 percent short of Niti Aayog’s annual social sector funding target. About 95 percent of social sector funding is from the public sector, and given the surge in the Indian economy and capital markets, there is scope for private sources of funding to step up.

Also read: Tech money for social good: From Kris Gopalakrishnan to K Dinesh, Azim Premji, Nandan Nilekani, and more

“Their incubator and accelerator is like business school for NGOs and social startups,” says Utsav Kheria, co-founder of Rocket Learning, an edtech non-profit that works on early childhood education for kids from low-income families. When Kheria, a graduate of IIM-Ahmedabad, and his co-founders wanted to launch their organisation, The/Nudge was the first incubator in which he and his co-founders participated. They subsequently got selected for the accelerator programme as well. Kheria compares the experience with business school because they managed to teach him how doing something humane can co-exist with growth and scale. As of today, four years after the incubation with The/Nudge, Rocket Learning is working in nine states with close to 2.5 million children.

When Satija launched The/Nudge in 2015, he started with the goal of wanting to lift 10 million people out of poverty in India. He decided to switch to the social sector when he was the chief business officer at tech company InMobi, which was the first startup to attain unicorn status (a valuation of at least $1 billion) in India. Before that, Satija had worked in organisations like Google, Adobe, Samsung and Infosys.

The motivation came from his childhood. Satija grew up in Chandigarh, where his father was a government employee and his mother was a schoolteacher. His family, as per a profile in the Hindustan Times, stepped in to take care of his two uncles, one an auto driver and the other a tea stall owner, and their children. “It was my family’s financial situation that inspired me to make money, and my father’s approach to life that influenced me to help people,” Satija said.

How it works

The/Nudge Institute functions through three core sections. The organisation’s direct on-ground projects and collaborations are executed through the Centre for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to improve the employability of youngsters, and the Centre for Rural Skill Development, which helps poor people in rural areas build stable livelihoods. The incubator, accelerator and The/Nudge Prize, where they support other non-profits and social startups, falls under the Centre for Social Innovation. The average annual budget of The/Nudge Institute is around Rs 100 crore.

Also read: Can India's social stock exchange flourish where others have failed?

Funding is through individual philanthropists, foundations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The/Nudge Institute has over 40 corporate partners, including LTIMindtree, Cisco, Zee, RBL Bank, Meta, Aditya Birla Capital, Bajaj Finserv, Godrej Properties, and DCM Shriram; around 15 Foundation partners, including Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Tata Trusts, DRK Foundation, and Rippleworks. Philanthropic donors include MacKenzie Scott, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, MakeMyTrip founder Deep Kalra, BigBasket founder Hari Menon, and Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla. The funding mix is 60 percent CSR, 30 percent Foundations and 10 percent private philanthropy.

Over the last two-odd years, Satija has decided to focus more deeply on livelihoods and skill development as a means to achieve poverty alleviation. According to him, India is not creating jobs at the scale at which the youngsters need them. As per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment in India rose to 8.1 percent in April from 7.4 percent in March 2024. While the rate of rural employment increased from 7.1 percent to 7.8 percent during the same period, urban unemployment rose from 8.1 percent to 8.7 percent.

Satija understood that creating more livelihoods, either through jobs or entrepreneurship, is key to social development, and ensuring that India saves her demographic dividend. “Most of our direct work was already livelihoods, while our ecosystem work (through the Centre for Social Innovation) supported anything in poverty. Around two years ago, we realised we can take our understanding and expertise in skilling and rural livelihoods to our ecosystem to have more meaningful conversations with non-profits and social enterprises we support,” he says.

Also read: How to create enduring social impact

Subhashree Dutta, managing partner, Centre for Social Innovation, says that even with the specific pivot to livelihoods, the effort is that “the mouth of the funnel becomes broader”. This means finding and supporting organisations that focus on livelihoods at the intersection of various sectors, including education, health, agriculture, and technology. She adds that they receive around 500 applications of organisations, out of which they select 10-12 organisations. “About 30-40 percent of the cohort has tech-first thinking. Tech is a strong lever for scale,” she says.

For instance, one of the non-profits they have supported is Gramhal, which is building a data cooperative to help small land-owners, women farmers etc. access data that will help them build sustainable farms.

Another example is Karya, a non-profit focused on artificial intelligence whose model provides people from marginalised communities access to data labelling and annotation work, and also gives them complete ownership of the data. This means that apart from their hourly wage (which is around $5, as per a cover profile by Time magazine), the people also receive proceeds whenever the data they have generated is resold.

Also read: How family philanthropy can shape a new social contract in India

Vivek Seshadri, co-founder of Karya, says that the organisation has enabled close to $800,000 in wages to 40,000 people. Their clients include big tech companies like Microsoft and Google, and institutes like Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), IIT Bombay and IIT Madras.

Seshadri says that the training provided by The/Nudge at the incubation and acceleration stage helps young founders iron out processes that can make or break the organisation going forward. It also helped them hire talent to scale up and bring more clarity in people management and operations. He adds that for first-time founders like them, the access to funding, mentorship and peer learning provided by the programmes was also beneficial.

While accelerators like The/Nudge teach you the brass stacks of how to run a business and build partnerships with the government and other stakeholders, the financial support they provide is crucial, says Neha Verma, co-founder and CEO of Intelehealth, a telemedicine technology non-profit that works to improve access to medical care in remote, underserved areas, with a strong focus on women’s health. They received Rs 10 lakh as part of incubator and Rs 1 crore from The/Nudge accelerator.

Verma says that unlike CSR funding that usually goes to programmes and implementation, funds received through The/Nudge was unrestricted, patient capital, meaning they could be used to build core capacity and make key hires, enabling the organisation to scale. Today, her non-profit that was founded in 2016 is present in Odisha, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra. It has enabled over four million teleconsultations, supporting 8,000-odd and 4,000+ health workers and doctors respectively.

Also read: Now-Gen givers are steering philanthropy into a new era marked by innovation: Neera Nundy

Dutta says that while the profile of entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders that apply for and join the incubator or accelerator is largely Tier-I, almost all cater to Tier-II regions and beyond.

"We are increasingly seeing founders from different backgrounds and lived experiences." She claims that only 10 percent of all the organisations they have supported have shut down, with the rest “creating impact at some level of scale”.

Satija says he is bullish on the tech-led ecosystem, which will bolster last-mile connectivity and access to the most vulnerable and underserved people. While India has been working on building the required infrastructure, talent and capital have been barriers. He wants The/Nudge to be a “field orchestrator” that gets talent, capital, tech and policy together. “We want these four big drivers of the ecosystem to be better for everyone, and for us,” he says.