Entrepreneurship & Innovation Institute (EII) kicks off seminar series with talk on "social entrepreneurship"

09/28/2011

Gururaj Deshpande inspires a new generation of innovators to "combine innovation and social relevance" for maximum impact


After 15 years of working as an entrepreneur and starting successful businesses like Cascade Communications and Sycamore Networks, Gururaj Deshpande realized that more than anything, he wanted to be a coach and teach students ways to become innovators who make a tremendous social impact on the people they reach. Deshpande shared his insight on entrepreneurial ventures in his talk, “The Deshpande Framework of Contextual Innovation to Social Entrepreneurship,” Sept. 19,  as a speaker for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (EII) seminar series at Johnson.

In 1996, Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, founded the Deshpande Foundation in an effort to promote entrepreneurship and innovation as catalysts for change. Both natives of the Hubli-Dharwad area of Karnataka province in southern India, they believed the area was ripe for a social entrepreneurship experiment. “The diverse economies throughout its five districts, with both urban and agricultural settings as well as the vast majority of problems that needed solving made it a perfect place to begin our efforts,” explained Deshpande.

This area of Karnataka — the Deshpandes’ initial “sandbox,” a term the foundation now uses to reference its projects in other geographically distinct areas around the world —became a haven for entrepreneurs interested in starting non-profit companies, a place to come together and begin to develop an innovative service or product that would improve a certain aspect of society or the society itself. “We believe that when an innovative mindset, leadership, and infrastructure support are combined, change happens,” said Deshpande. Working out of a subdivision of the Deshpande Foundation, the Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in North Karnataka, Deshpande and his wife have organized programs that teach potential entrepreneurs how to identify problems within society and find or improve solutions for these social issues through hands-on projects. The “Mid-Day Meal Project,” for example, was an opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to improve a process that was not being executed properly.

Because many children in India come to school hungry, the government created a program to provide meals for them during the school day. However, “it was executed very poorly,” said Desphpande. “The teacher had to stand in a corner and cook while teaching and it was a mess. We came in with a group of our entrepreneurs and fixed it,” he said. The Deshpande group organized the process by cooking meals in advance, packing them, and transporting them to classrooms in vans. The non-profit project worked so well that it has expanded to over 1.3 million meals a day. The group’s success was, “the result of applying the executive excellence of a for-profit organization to a non-profit one.” explained Deshpande.
 
Because many of Deshpande’s programs are geared towards non-profit organizations, they also teach entrepreneurs how to ensure that their non-profit business remains financially sound. “There are three ways to create a self-sustaining, non-profit business,” said Deshpande. “Find yourself a free market economy and produce something that beneficiaries would be willing to pay for; get funding from the government; or look for charities that are willing to make donations.” Of course, businesses and other organizations can also rely on a combination of any of the three, he explained.

In addition to the sandbox in Karnataka, the Desphande Foundation has recently launched a second “sandbox” in Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts. Although the focus in Merrimack Valley is more technological than social, the same concepts and formulas proven successful in India apply, said Deshpande.

In fact, Deshpande believes that there is one key formula for most entrepreneurial endeavors: “Combine innovation and relevance and the outcome will be serious impact.”

Reported by Maria Minsker '13
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