Monday, 10 December 2012

Barefoot Entrepreneurs

This term “barefoot entrepreneurs” was coined for my presentation in Beijing and Ahmedabad. I was due to go to both places over a one week period to talk about this concept. Like a song that gets stuck in your head the idea of barefoot doctors from the 1930s has not left me since my dad told me about them in the early 1960s. These doctors were people from rural communities – travelling barefoot – who were given basic training in primary health care. They were paid for by collections in their villages and the idea was that they would be able to administer basic treatments and act as conduits for other forms of medical know how and knowledge. The term barefoot doctor – has become a metaphor for me to address another big set of problems: Ever growing numbers of underemployed and unemployed graduates of regional universities and institutions of further education. The young people who graduate form here are better equipped than those who drop out of secondary education, but are not sufficiently equipped to make it in the big city jobs – where – most probably – they need a good command of English. So we have an inventory of capable young people with nowhere to go. And by the way – we may well be stoking up “the angry young man” by developing a sub-optimal educated class of person – in their millions. We also have another problem – how to address the socio-economic needs of the people at the so-called “bottom of the economic pyramid”? Where are the solutions and and products and services that the very poor can buy/use to generate incomes and get some relief from drudgery of labour? How do we get better health, opportunities and improvements to their lifestyle to them? The last big experiment in this sector was micro-credit and while that has had enormous success – it has also lead to some critical questions about creating a very large pool of indebtedness. In summary – show me a solution and eventually we will find a problem! Actualy in some parts of India – micro-credit has been a hugely negative experience due to people borrowing for “non-productive’ uses. Sub-prime lending at its worst. Within this complex context then – what do we do? Anil Gupta in Ahmedabad and Liyang Zhang in Beijing have both started to champion rural innovations – grass roots innovations. My part in the discussion is about – “so Who will take the innovations to market?” Rural innovations that are embedded in a deep understanding of context are very powerful sources of new opportunities. They might be incremental improvements to day-to-day life or they may be radical changes (such as a mud based cooler). But once they have been invented the scaling up of the product so that it can provide economic benefits is where the challenge lies. Is this the role then for the barefoot entrepreneur? The young people with higher levels of education than can be the ligament between formal institutions and the informal communities from which they come. They know the markets – more importantly they know the customers – why they will buy, how much they can pay, what the issues might be for implementation and use of new solutions. They also have enough education to understand funding, marketing, business building and meeting regulatory requirements (they can fill in the endless forms!). There is only one way to find out if there is a future for barefoot entrepreneurs. Get a cohort of recent graduates from regional universities, mix them with rural grass roots innovations and get them to do a commercialization project. Wrap this up with funding, entrepreneurship training, business education and mentoring. Follow up in some detail and review after about two years. My instinct – having been in entrepreneurship education for 25 years+ is that there is likely to be a good deal of success with such a model and the outcomes will be at least threefold: 1. A new class of entrepreneurs who can connect rural with city 2. Innovations that not only see the light of day but can become transformational 3. Social and economic benefits from the day to day use of the innovations My sincere apologies to Liyang and Anil for not going to the conferences – my back gave up with a big bang and I could not travel. I hope you accept this blog and slide deck as my intent to work with you both! Shai

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

If your motive is only to make money are more than likely to make very different choices than if you want to change the world Enterprise Tuesday has had its next inspirational speaker – Dr Darrin Disley – parallel biotech entrepreneur and founding CEO of Horizon Discovery. His talk was focused on motivation and mindsets. Darrin talked about two basic mindsets – one that says I have what it takes and now I shall go forth and leverage that (fixed) and the other which is growth oriented that says I shall keep on learning and adapting. Of course Darrin is British – and I am kind of with him on this – there is a third way – the transitional mindset – whereby if we accept we are who we are then we begin to realize what we need to do to change – but if we are delusional about our mindset being completely open – then we may well actually be stuck!! There is an irony – and only your own strong sense of self-awareness and a reality check from people who care and are honest will affirm this. Why is it important? Entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial behaviours require us to have an appreciative mindset; where we always see opportunities for new things, see possibilities in events, people and actions. A strong analytical mind that looks for pitfalls and problems will too quickly focus on narrowing down options when in reality we need to be open and adapt to changes. We need to be agile, alert to opportunities and be able to listen to customers and general feedback. Of course this does not mean you park your common sense or critical ability. This kind of mindset turns problems into opportunities and perhaps reduces a fear of failure too – which is so important in entrepreneurship. I think it is only when the desire for success out weighs the fear of failure that we can act. On the topic of motivations – Darrin set out the literature on the topic of the hot buttons that exist to get people moving towards a purpose. In his case – a strong sense of independence, desire to help, need for recognition were among the drivers. Until we know what ticks our boxes and those of our team members we will not have a united team that functions towards a common purpose. Darrin told us his story via the “good, bad and ugly” companies he had started and worked on. In the end – it is very clear that in the case of this entrepreneur – vision and values are the bigger drivers than economic gain – although economic gain is also finally important – after all how do you measure the eventual ability to give back unless you make something in the first place. His current success is Horizon Discovery and several investments in startups. Thank you Darrin.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Recognising Entrepreneurial Opportunities – Solar energy on a pay as you go basis!

This note is based on three talks given by Prof Sir Richard Friend, Dr Simon-Bransfield Garth and Dr Seena Rejal. They talked about research into long chain molecules lead to spotting florescent properties of plastics which in turn lead to semi-conducting inks! A first patent and followed by publication in Nature in 1990. This lead to a startup called Cambridge Display Technologies (eventually sold to Sumitomo and we now see products such as screens on mobile phones). Then followed Plastic Logic moving thin film transistors from experiments in the lab into a potentially big market opportunity. And most recently Organic Photovoltaic Cells giving us the hope for ultra cost effective solar cells to maybe finally harness the energy of the sun at affordable costs. That was the easy bit – taking only 20 years of world-class research!! This is clearly a technology push opportunity in line with two scholarly observations. The first by Schumpeter who talks about entrepreneurs bring us creative destruction and the creation of opportunities through invention. I am most reminded of Thomas Edison’s long work to finally give us usable light bulbs – which have been transformative. Sir Richard was followed by Simon Bransfield-Garth – the serial CEO brought in by Richard to take the research from the lab and turn it into products and services that customers will pay for. One of the most significant lessons here has been the truly creative and adaptive behavior of the team to continuously modify their understanding of the markets and to develop new business models, create new supply chains and funding approaches. Probably the most significant step forward to commercialization was the creation of a pay as you go business model. Simon and his team developed a box (Indigo) that combines mobile phone pay as you go technology with a switch that connect s to sources of solar energy to enable people to make micropayments to gather up energy to recharge mobile phones and get LED lighting for 2 – 3 hours each evening. This model and the technology has enabled users (presently in Africa at the bottom of the so called economic pyramid) to get 2 – 3 hours extra per day of their lives for half the cost of filthy kerosene lamps. Game changing strategy as a result of a changed business model. Having said that this is not entirely new (anymore) because organisations such as SELCO in India are also doing the same thing. And Bunker Roy from Barefoot College is addressing the same problem with his own model of engaging grandmothers to earn livelihoods However, The Big vision of the Eight19 proposal is two fold. First get deep penetration of the Indigo box with built in capability for what Simon described as an energy escalator. In other words as solar capability increases so there would be greater potential for increased wattage to the off-grid community. And this would give scope for helping people to move fro one light bulb to say 4 – 6 lights, increased number of phones being charged and new devices coming on such as radio, TV, sewing machines and so forth. All these devices need reliable sources of energy and as societal aspirations increase the energy escalator can play a huge role. The second part of the vision which makes the whole thing more compelling is to see and understand the transformative impact of such technology to millions of people who live around the equator. They gain more productive hours per day, gain access to more modern devices and appliances and can feel part of the modern world. To succeed with this vision requires the development of an entire set of systems – whether you call it an ecosystem, supply chains, stakeholders or whatever – the team has to persuade multiple agencies, individuals and others that “this is the way to go”. How to move solar from a subsidy dependent sector competing with vested interests in kerosene and other dirty fuels into a sustainable technology that people (in their millions) would be prepared to buy. Our final speaker for the evening (Seena Rejal) helped paint this picture by talking about how Eight19 had given him a huge potential to leverage his networks and passion for sustainability to bring a buzz and energy through guerilla marketing efforts to the most senior decision makers. A key tactic was to get the Indigo box into the hands of senior policy makers, industrialists and others. The team also entered and won competitions thus creating greater awareness of their product and service. They raised money from private investors, government grants, and from charitable trusts. It was the vision of alleviating people from darkness that has won them these prizes. So – what is opportunity recognition? Especially for young graduates? We had a brief view of this from Seena – who had played a role at Eight19. He summed up why he joined and what the opportunities were for him. What we learn about opportunity recognition is that it is not a single cognitive construct – it is something that emerges! And means different things to each of the players – not unlike the story defining an elephant from the perspective of 6 blind men! Slide deck is available on: (slide share)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Entrepreneurship education: We need entrepreneurship that is meaningful

We need entrepreneurship that is meaningful

There is an urgent need to help find ideas and propositions that have the capacity to transform people’s lives. This blog sets out the arguments for doing that and points to a joint venture project that aims to do just that at the Judge Business School, Cambridge.

The drivers for a sea change in entrepreneurship started in 1991, when the Berlin Wall came down and when India and China embraced open(ish) market systems. According to Prof Willy Brown Master of Darwin College – there used to be two labour forces, one in the soviet (closed) economic system and the other in the capitalist system. Approximately 1.5billion in each. After 1991 – we have one overall system of 3 billion workers.

The impact of such a shift, tied into the internet and telecoms revolution means that we really have to think differently about the world, its resources, opportunities, political stability, empowerment and inclusion of numerous societies. The world is dividing and power bases are changing. There are demographic changes too. Not only is the world “flat” but also at the same time there are increasing new demands. For example the Middle East and North Africa region alone will need to help create over 85 million jobs over the next 10 years or so. How is this going to happen?

Meanwhile, due to the seizure of policy makers, individuals and communities are getting on with it – all over the world. Entrepreneurship has become a social movement.

Interestingly the notion of the single market system coupled with technology advances in so many fields has started to lower barriers to entry in entrepreneurship. The result is a fabulous growth of innovative companies that have the imagination and management teams to execute. Companies in telecoms, internet have been significant beneficiaries. The other impact of this macro-economic change is that information travels faster, aspirations are raised. Media is also having a huge impact. Some TV formats are democratizing talent shows and giving people increasing level s of hope about their futures. Sure there is a dark side, but the overall impact is going the right way.

All these signals have lead to hundreds of start ups, and incubation programmes that further stimulate new venture creation. In my view they are responding to a wider societal need, otherwise they would not fill up so quickly.

But, are we really focused on the right questions in entrepreneurship?

When you combine this new phenomenon of a social movement, with people who are willing to assist with new venture formation and look at what remains to be done – you get a feeling that it is time to help create meaningful enterprise.

We need to harness the technology, the social movement of entrepreneurship and the increasing levels of support for enterprise to help create new ventures that can make a deep impact on society. To be honest this is an antidote for me when I see ventures that only rely on providing convenience shopping for the rich! Nothing wrong with that – but why not instead work on things that can answer questions for more people.

Where might we find enterprises that are meaningful?

Well there is the UN Millennium Development Goals – poverty, water, health, literacy, infectious diseases and so forth. There is climate change and sustainability. There is health care for the elderly. There is civil rights, human rights, improved and more efficient public services. Civic services. Fair trade, micro lending, family support, child welfare. Frankly only our imagination limits the scope and scale of what we might do that is meaningful.

We might wish to limit the boundaries of what is meaningful. You might consider families, community, country or region. Or, to save the planet. At whatever level you see the opportunity it can make a difference and in the words of Guy Kawazaki – make meaning.

I was inspired by the use of social media during the so-called Arab Spring. It was one of the most amazing examples of seeing a bottom-up call for change. It was not about making profits and listing for IPO – but it was for something much bigger. It would be wonderful for enterprise agencies to start to stimulate graduates into creative processes to help solve big problems and thus create new ventures that are economically successful with good rewards for their founders and management teams..

If you share in this vision and set of values join us at IdeaTransform on the weekend of 20th to 22nd April 2012 in Cambridge.

See for more information!/ideatransform

What is wrong with doing well from doing good?