Scaling impact and footprint of local businesses in India: A Panel Discussion with Upaya’s Accelerator Program

The eight entrepreneurs in in Upaya’s Cohort1 are growing small businesses from India’s informal sector, such as food delivery, jobs placement, shoe cleaning, and waste management. Each business has been successful operating in a local environment, and is preparing to scale across a wider geographic footprint and market size in India. For social businesses, achieving scale does not just mean increasing financial returns – it also means increasing social impact.

A simplistic approach to scaling would be to repeat the local business model across multiple locations. But India is an incredibly diverse country; it is far more culturally diverse across regions and towns, than is, for example, the United States. Language, local customs, dietary preferences, purchasing power – these factors can all change dramatically over just a few miles of distance. Thus the challenge to grow a business is not reserved to social enterprise alone; it faces the majority of companies operating in India as well.

This topic was discussed by a panel on April 27 at Upaya’s Cohort1 Accelerator kickoff in Delhi. The four experts on the panel represented different types of funders, including Hemendra Manthur from Bharath Innovations Fund, Subinder Khurana, a private investor and successful entrepreneur, Santosh Ramdoss from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Dilip Chenoy, former CEO of the National Skill Development Corporation.

The 4 panelists offered thoughtful and informed advice to help the entrepreneurs think about how to best approach scaling up their businesses. Much of the funders’ discussion offered insight into the specific criteria that they prioritize when assessing whether or not to invest in a company with the expectation to achieve scale, such as:

  • “The Entrepreneur must have a fire in her belly.”

This came up multiple times among most panelists. The entrepreneur is up against incredible challenges that are in constant fluctuation, and at times, all-encompassing. Thus, funders seek out entrepreneurs who demonstrate sincere, unwavering commitment to succeed, and the flexibility to adjust appropriately to make that happen.

  • “Execution, execution, execution.”

An entrepreneur must demonstrate the ability to execute. Planning is important, but trying to perfect a plan wastes time in an ever-changing environment. Entrepreneurs must be able to make decisions somewhat rapidly – and then demonstrate the ability to execute. Funders value this highly.

  • “Understand the power of pivoting.”

As mentioned earlier, the business environment is dynamic and it is rare that a business model does not change substantially over the course of development. The entrepreneur must be comfortable with pivoting in order to succeed.

  • “Document your information.”

The panelists spoke at length on this topic. Given India’s diversity, it is especially important for entrepreneurs to document everything as they test their businesses in each environment. “If you don’t do it initially, you won’t remember the information later.”

Lastly, this really resonated with me as leader of the 3rd Creek Foundation:

  • "Measure impact."

As Subinder Khurana described: “Any time you measure something, it improves.” Thus, if you take the time to measure your impact, you will not only know what your impact is, but you will subsequently improve the impact that you have.

I was grateful to have joined the Upaya entrepreneurs for this illuminating panel discussion, and to spend a little time with such an impressive cohort. 3rd Creek Foundation wishes them all the best in their experience with the Upaya Accelerator and beyond!

Gwen Straley is the President and Executive Director of 3rd Creek Foundation.