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The art of giving, the start-up way

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October 07, 2015
Shrutika Verma | Mihir Dalal

As young entrepreneurs take centre stage, some of them are pushing their start-ups to contribute to society

In June, UrbanClap, a nine-month-old hyperlocal services provider, helped residents fill potholes in Mumbai’s tony Bandra suburb. This was not the first time co-founders Abhiraj Bhal, Varun Khaitan and Raghav Chandra were trying to do their bit for society.

Earlier that month, the company’s 50-odd employees and 10 dumper trucks had taken to the streets of east Delhi to help the local authorities clean up areas that were covered in garbage after municipal workers went on strike.

“The average age of people in our company is 23 years. Some of us have lived overseas and understand the need for basic infrastructure and we want to bring about some change,” says Bhal. “What is the point of providing services to clean homes when your streets remain dirty…so at our scale these are the little things we can do for society.”

Reaching out in different ways

The making of a gadget-free party UrbanClap is not alone when it comes to making its contribution in kind. Twice a month, hyperlocal grocery delivery company PepperTap donates orders returned by customers to people living on the street. “We have identified certain areas where we go and donate these returned vegetables and packaged foods,” says Navneet Singh, co-founder of PepperTap, which is run by Nuvo Logistics Pvt. Ltd.

Bite Club, an online aggregator of home-cooked food run by Ecstasy E-Ordering Pvt. Ltd, which operates out of Gurgaon, near Delhi, donates the surplus food in slums near its office.

For some, it is about donating, for others, it is about helping with their skill, time and effort.

Co-founder of online marketplaces ShopClues, run by Clues Network Pvt. Ltd, and Droom, run by Droom Technology Pvt. Ltd, Sandeep Aggarwal works closely with Project Indha, started by Literacy India, a non-profit working to empower underprivileged children and women by making them self-sufficient. The women are trained to create handcrafted products so that they can sustain a business that will continue to provide a livelihood.

The making of a gadget-free party Aggarwal pitched in with basic technology training for the Indha team and worked on improving their website to help sell their products. “I feel that one of the most dire situations for any human being is the feeling of being helpless—be it small kids or underprivileged women. When I met Indha, I knew that it was time to expand my horizons and help this organization, which is trying to make a difference in the lives of women who want to be economically stronger using their hard work, skills and effort,” says Aggarwal.

Corporate social responsibility vs being responsible

Online health products and services provider HealthKart, together with its drug search business 1MG, is working to generate awareness about a range of diseases, including cancer and dengue. In August, 1MG collaborated with Yoddhas, a non-profit that supports cancer patients, and launched an awareness drive in Delhi on “differential drug pricing”, and how patients can cut down on treatment costs by using “cheaper generic substitutes” for expensive medicines.

“All activities that support awareness and access to quality information on health are very relevant to us and worth investing in. We do not do it for any CSR (corporate social responsibility) credit, we do it because we feel it is our business to create awareness and support entities that create awareness,” says Prashant Tandon, co-founder, HealthKart.

According to the new rules of the Companies Act, 2013, companies with a net worth of Rs.500 crore or more, or revenue of Rs.1,000 crore or more, or net profit of Rs.5 crore or more, need to spend 2% of their average profit in the previous three financial years on social development.

Start-ups do not fall under this category and are not mandated by law to work towards social development, but some entrepreneurs are enthusiastic about social initiatives even though they may be struggling to keep their start-ups going.

“You can’t wake up one day and say now I am a big company and I will start doing CSR. You have to create that culture right from the start,” says Bhal.

Cab aggregator Ola is trying to develop sustainable initiatives, supporting education, environmental protection and community welfare. Present in over 100 cities, with about 350,000 drivers registered with it, has started a programme in Mumbai that offers an after-school programme, Gurukul, in association with Avanti Learning Centres, to teach children of drivers and help them perform better in board exams.

Avanti, a social enterprise established in March 2010 by Indian Institute of Technology alumni, offers education to students who aspire to study at India’s top engineering colleges. The organization uses technology, video content and detailed instructional design to enable teachers to deliver lessons even in the most remote corners.

Ola currently has over 15,000 cabs in Mumbai and over 5,000 “kaali-peeli” taxis in its fleet.

The first batch of Ola Gurukul, which began on 12 September, has 500 students from classes IX and X but is planning to get over 5,000 children registered by the end of the year from classes I-XII. It will bear their expenses for the first three months; Avanti will then take over. Ola also plans to provide free stationery, books and course material to top-performing children. The estimated cost of the three-month course: Rs.1,000-2,500 per child.

Using their expertise

Some start-ups are using their tech expertise to come up with ideas that may help solve some of India’s most pressing problems.

India’s largest advertising technology company InMobi tasked some 35 of its engineers to come up with ideas to spread education and devise tech solutions for women’s safety. The company worked with two non-profit organizations, XPRIZE and Magic Bus, on these issues. The idea is to encourage people to come up with big ideas on social issues.

“We came up with the idea that artificial intelligence and big data can be used in coming up with solutions for women’s safety. For instance, what if you have a communications system that will measure your BP and automatically draw conclusions based on other body reactions towards potential danger?” says Anson Ben, director, learning and development, InMobi, about their project with XPRIZE.

With Magic Bus, a non-profit which uses sports-based curriculum to engage underprivileged children, InMobi worked on the problem of reaching educational content to people in far-flung areas. Since many poor households in India have television sets, InMobi engineers suggested tech solutions based on transmitting content through satellites.

“The impact of this idea was great because you can use this even in other regions such as Latin America and Africa. Magic Bus is evaluating how to execute this,” says Ben.

Encouraging employees

A growing number of organizations too are encouraging employees to contribute.

Advitya Sharma, 25, co-founder of online real estate portal, does volunteer work every time he visits his hometown Jammu. Having grown up in a city that has witnessed unrest and natural calamities, Sharma feels strongly about helping people in his hometown. “Since childhood I have seen my parents, who are doctors, provide health aid and other services whenever there was turmoil in the city,” he says. Sharma now donates a part of his salary for the welfare of people in Jammu. During last year’s floods, he volunteered in the camps at Kathua and Udhampur.

“It takes time to structure a CSR initiative but we keep encouraging our employees to start with smaller things. For instance, we donated anywhere from one day to one week’s salary towards the Nepal earthquake relief fund. It depends on the evolution of the start-up how they shape up their social responsibility initiatives,” says Sharma.

India, however, is yet to see philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg, who donated about 18 million Facebook stocks worth $970 million (now around Rs.6,305 crore) to a Sillicon Valley non-profit in 2014.

An Indian entrepreneur who has spent over five years in the Silicon valley, makes donations to Sparsh Education, a non-profit in Mumbai, and to schools for the underprivileged in Gujarat and Maharashtra. He doesn’t want to be named but when he sold his company for several million dollars, he kept aside a sixth of the proceeds to give away to these charitable institutions. “The culture of giving back and volunteering is very big in the Silicon valley, which is grossly missing in India. As we grow up, we have turned blind towards things around us,” he says.