Last month, I had a chance to attend India’s largest and leading impact investing and social enterprise conference, the Sankalp Unconvention Summit, in Mumbai on April 17th and 18th. The conference, which attracted 1,000 attendees, plays host to several social impact awards, serves as a venue for entrepreneurs to meet investors, is a massive networking opportunity, and offers a quasi-think tank environment through panel sessions that bring together thought leaders from all ends of the world.
One of the buzzed about panels that I attended addressed the topic of “Incubating the Incubators” – a title aimed to stir up debate about the value proposition of social enterprise incubators in India and the efforts needed to scale them up. India’s leading social enterprise incubators include Dasra, UnLtd India, Villgro, IIT-Madras’ Rural Technology Business Incubator and the relatively new Khosla Labs.
Speaking on the panel were Dave Richards, Founder and Managing Partner of Unitus Seed Fund (USF), Ross Baird, Executive Director of Village Capital, Manfred Haebig, Head of Private Sector Development for Germany’s international development arm GIZ, and Umesh Sachdev, Co-Founder of Uniphore. The panel was moderated by Villgro Innovations Foundation COO “Guns” Ganapathy Pr.
The general feeling was that a successful incubator will take you on a journey of growth, exploration, and un-learning. A valuable incubator will help you fill in specific business gaps and expand your professional network into a strong peer-to-peer support system.
Here are some of the highlights from each panelist:
- Representing the voice of the entrepreneur and a former incubator participant, Uniphore’s Sachdev provided the advice that incubators can guide, help and mentor, but at the end of the day the success or failure is the responsibility of the entrepreneur.
- According to USF’s Richards, India is on the cusp of an incubator bubble. Many incubators will be launching and expanding in India in the coming years, which is both a blessing and a curse. Over time, incubators will differentiate and leaders will emerge, but in the near term, entrepreneurs need to enter incubators with defined goals in order to maximize the value of their experience.
- Manfred Haebig from GIZ emphasized that the key to successful incubators are good filters. Realistically, he said, not all aspiring entrepreneurs are destined to succeed, and not all of them should be incubated. The weakness of new incubators is that they are still incubating themselves. As a result, many struggle to get enough applicants to be selective and don’t restrict their programs to the strongest and most promising entrepreneurs.
- Through the experience of running 18 Village Capital incubator programs across six continents, Ross Baird and his team found that residential incubators focused on a “sage on stage” were often too inspiration-heavy, leaving participants moved, but not changed. Instead Village Capital aims to be a “guide on the side” providing constant feedback to constructively improve the business plans of the participants at all times.
Overall the feeling was that incubators are neither one size fits all, nor a passport to success. Entrepreneurs need to be smart in selecting which incubators to participate in, and cannot just assume that having a badge of “being incubated” will guarantee either investment or revenues.
A quick summary of this year’s conference highlights:
(This guest post is written by Eleanor Horowitz, who is currently a Frontier Market Scout with Unitus Seed Fund. Previously, she built a clean water business in Ghana and worked in the corporate sustainability office of a Chinese supply chain manager. Eleanor received a degree in Chemistry and Environmental Studies with a minor in Global Health from Middlebury College. She also holds a graduate certificate in Enterprise Development and Impact Investing from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
Follow her on Twitter @eleanorhorowitz)