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For a better India, we need more people’s startups

Social enterprises, which try to solve vital, chronic problems for people, exemplify the nature of business Gandhi would have espoused

The birth anniversary of Gandhi is an apt occasion to reflect on the relevance of Gandhian values to the world of impact investing and social entrepreneurship (Photo: Getty Images)Premium
The birth anniversary of Gandhi is an apt occasion to reflect on the relevance of Gandhian values to the world of impact investing and social entrepreneurship (Photo: Getty Images)

The birth anniversary of Gandhi is an apt occasion to reflect on the relevance of Gandhian values to the world of impact investing and social entrepreneurship. The impact investing industry’s broad mission—to drive inclusion across financial services, education, healthcare, property rights and other sectors—reflects Gandhi’s vision for an inclusive India, where every citizen can be a proposer.

It is generally believed that Gandhi was opposed to industrialization and business. Indeed, he has written against machines taking over the job of craftsmen and making the lives of factory workers miserable. His preferred alternative was spinning charkha, and physical work. As he explained, his criticism of modern machines was aimed at the social order that benefited only the rich and provided little benefit to the working class. His views evolved in close association with the business leaders of those times, whom he considered critical pillars of society and of the freedom movement.

Gandhi’s views of businesses as an instrument to advance societal well-being seem very relevant in today’s context. He believed that businesses should exist in a symbiotic relationship with the community. The purpose of a business should include progress and well-being of all stakeholders, not just profits for owners. Businesses have a responsibility to operate at the highest standards of ethics and transparency. These views are gaining currency, as the world takes stock of decades of unfettered profit-maximization. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s New York Times article, where he wrote “the sole social responsibility of a business is to increase profits". There is growing sense that this approach has led the world to inequality, concentration of wealth and global warming.

The world today seeks a more holistic approach by businesses—going beyond profit maximization and keeping in mind the interests of all stakeholders. Social enterprises, which operate with an intentionality of solving vital, chronic and difficult problems for people and advance inclusion and equity, exemplify the nature of business Gandhi would have espoused.

Gandhian principles apply in four ways to social entrepreneurship. First, his approach to building the freedom movement was driven by values. His pursuit was spiritual, with unshakable foundations of truth, non-violence, ethics and transparency. Entrepreneurship is challenging and presents many moments of self-doubt and fatigue—social entrepreneurship even more so. Entrepreneurs driven by a larger purpose and supported by enduring values are better geared to stay the course. A solid foundation of purpose, ethics and transparency helps stay focused on bringing about transformative impact. This purpose-orientation is the core of building sustainable enterprises.

Second, Gandhi believed in inclusion. His talisman to recall the face of the weakest when contemplating a decision applies well in the context of designing products and services for the population segment impact investors focus on—those in the lower middle-income and lower-income groups of India’s income distribution. Beyond affordability, entrepreneurs need to consider education, language skills, and social and cultural milieus when designing for underserved segments. Similarly, thoughtfulness about harms helps avoid unintended exclusions.

Third, the idea of trusteeship was critical to Gandhi’s economic thinking. He believed businesses are trustees of wealth created by a society, and should apply this wealth for advancement of the community. Increasingly, the idea of trusteeship is being discussed in the context of technology and data governance. The goal is to make data available for societal value by shifting from ownership by large firms towards a trusteeship model, governed by communities.

Lastly, Gandhi was not dogmatic. While he was unyielding in foundational ethics and values, he was open to changing his tactics based on new knowledge, consultations and his own experiments. This flexibility of tactics and testing new ideas can help entrepreneurs stay nimble and progressive.

The world is navigating turbulent waters on many fronts as we deal with a pandemic. The momentum that impact investing has been gathering will accelerate, as greater attention is paid to building resilience and catering to the needs of lower-income populations and small businesses. Amid this, Gandhi’s enduring simplicity of values, purpose and ethics can be the sheet anchor we need.

Roopa Kudva is partner and MD, and Sushant Kumar, principal, Responsible Tech, at Omidyar Network India.

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Published: 01 Oct 2020, 06:46 PM IST
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