Social Enterprise Growing Pains

In April I took a trip to Kolkata to visit my good friend and fellow Clinton Fellow Julia LeFleur, who was working at a solar energy social enterprise called ONergy. Apart from wanting to spend time with this kindred spirit of mine, I wanted to see if Julia’s placement organization had similar characteristics and challenges to the waste management social enterprise I was placed at in Bangalore. Both of our organizations offered “disruptive” products and services that addressed a human and environmental need, however our target customers were much different. Daily Dump designed and marketed composting units to urban middle classes, while ONergy offered solar-powered electronics in rural areas where electrification is low. Both models seek to generate employment as well. ONergy’s model entails hiring and training technicians in rural areas to maintain the products they were distributing, while Daily Dump involves traditional potter communities in the production of its decorative terracotta composters.

From my initial conversations with Julia and my own observations in ONergy’s office, it was clear that both Daily Dump and ONergy share a common management challenge. As is the case with many start-ups and social enterprises in India, the organization is driven more by the founder than the mission itself. The effects of this are that employees perceive the founders as the only conduits through which decisions can be made, which is then reflected in the (micro-) management style of the founder. Employees were interrupting the founders for even the most trivial matters, either because the leadership demanded it or because the employees didn’t have the confidence to make the decision themselves. This hinders both the productivity of the organization and stifles initiative from staff at the lower rungs.

This phenomenon is endemic in start-ups that are in a place in their growth where they are trying to institutionalize their operations – when founders have to relinquish some control over all aspects of the business and entrust these tasks to tier-two managers. This process seems to be uncomfortable for many founders who have fostered their ventures from an abstract idea into a scalable enterprise. Putting myself in their shoes, I can’t say I would be comfortable with this process of decentralizing decision-making either, but it is a challenge that both Daily Dump and ONergy seem to be confronting at the moment.

To be honest, Julia and I didn’t dwell on this topic too much. Instead, we spent most of our time eating kati rolls and being silly in the City of Joy.

#selfie at Victoria Memorial in Kolkata
#selfie at Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

Michael spent his undergraduate years studying the dynamics and implications of

international development, focusing on the context of South Asia. He first traveled to India to intern with a logistics company in Mumbai, where he worked on setting operating procedures for a newly established free-trade and warehousing zone. Eager to engage with the country's development issues, Michael returned to India the following summer to pursue a research project on the politics of land acquisition and displacement in rural India. He utilized the three months of interviews that he collected from farmers, lawyers, activists and government officials to write his senior thesis, titled "Democracy & Displacement: Contesting Land Acquisition in India's National Capital Region". Outside of the classroom, Michael was a member of Brown's varsity swimming team. Michael is interested in exploring the role and impact of social enterprise in India's development space through his work as an AIF Fellow.

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