Six years ago, in 2009, US-based Vaishali Rao shocked her parents by saying she wanted to go to India and work in the social sector. Her Silicon Valley-based engineer dad, who emigrated in 1999 to the US, protested. “We moved here to give you and your sister a good education and a better way of life and now you want to go back."

“I told my parents it was the values they had brought us up with that made me want to contribute. It was unusual in those days, but today it’s catching on. I know of many young people who decide to work in the social sector," says the 27-year-old, who works as a programme manager, livelihoods, at the Bengaluru-based Solar Electric Light Company (Selco), a social enterprise that provides sustainable energy solutions and services to underserved households and businesses.

Vaishali is just back from Kalahandi in Odisha and part of the trip involved visiting paddy farmers. “Since they live in remote areas with no access to machinery like threshers, they thresh the paddy by making cattle walk over the grains, a process that takes very long and is inefficient," says Vaishali, who is in charge of the project at Selco that is testing a low-cost thresher. If viable, this thresher, developed in West Bengal, will help many farmers save time and make more money.

Vaishali, who is a graduate in political science and history from the University of Oregon, US, began her career by working for Oxfam in Hyderabad in 2009 and joined Selco in October 2014. “Social enterprise makes sense to me. It forces you to work with the triple bottom line of profits, social impact and the environment aspect, she says.

P.V. Raghavendra Rao. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
P.V. Raghavendra Rao. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Harish Hande, the 48-year-old founder of Selco, says the social sector needs youngsters. Hande , an engineer from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, US, won the Magsaysay award in 2011 for his efforts to put solar power technology in the hands of the poor.

“The sector needs an unconventional approach. And young people who haven’t yet got into the corporate mould of thinking can be effective with their out-of-the-box solutions," he says. Selco gets a lot of internship applications, but only five out of the 300 applications that came in last year were from India. “In India, the decision about where to work is not one made by a youngster on his own," says Hande, who finds that most Indian parents are reluctant to let their children work in the sector.

Hande narrates the story of a young architect, a graduate from the Delhi School of Architecture, whose father refused to speak to him because he decided to join the social sector rather than work as a private architect. “There is an absence of mentor figures in India who have made their career in social entrepreneurship and that is also what holds people back from joining this space," he says.

Abbas Dadla. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Abbas Dadla. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

“Today we work across 11 states in 20 cities, reaching 2,500 children," says Dadla. He is happy he managed to convince his family about his decision. “I felt this job would have much more impact than a conventional job. I told them I would do it for a year. They thought I would try it, fail and then come back to something conventional," says Dadla, whose family is now proud of his work and his role in education.

Also, before joining the social sector, talk to people in the field, as lawyer Sanjana Govil, 25, did. “I attended Sankalp, the largest conference on social enterprise in Asia, and met impact investors, social entrepreneurs and other lawyers." Attending the conference helped Govil decide last year to join Impact Law Ventures, which does legal work for organizations in the social sector. “It is a huge motivation for my work that the client I am working for is doing something that could potentially change the life of so many people," says Govil, who has since decided to enter the social entrepreneurship space, and pursue a master’s in business administration.

Of course, working in the social sector, which includes healthcare, education, alternative energy and law, still involves negotiating a minefield of misconceptions. “People pigeonhole you as an activist or a jholawala. It’s very unfortunate. They feel you have to be a feminist or a crusader to work in this sector. The truth is, you don’t work for free, you can be a professional, you can innovate and make a profit and you can bring about real change," says Govil.