In November 2015 I took the decision to take a step away from Vi-Ability to set up a new social enterprise.
You can read the press release here
So apparently this officially makes me a social entrepreneur?
By definition this is:
“Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.” Ashoka
“Today’s disruptors and tomorrow’s brightest stars.” Forbes
“A social entrepreneur is a leader or pragmatic visionary who: Achieves large scale, systemic and sustainable social change through a new invention, a different approach, a more rigorous application of known technologies or strategies, or a combination of these.” Schwab Foundation
It is with bemusement that I read these definitions and think that this maybe used to describe me.
I believe passionately about people being afforded opportunities and choices to follow their dreams. Believe there is an opportunity to build a business model around this and create lasting social change but, I don’t believe this makes me any better, different or special.
After all, isn’t anyone who is truly passionate and committed to their job, the volunteer work they do, a social change maker?
Many people have said “how brave” it is, “how bold” it is, how they “couldn’t do what I was doing”.
Everyone who has said this has received the same reaction from me. “Oh….., thanks” and a look of bemusement because to me its none of these things.
Whilst no stranger to being “different”, to me I am simply following my dreams and doing what is right for me.
I guess this is the very definition of empowerment.
Two and half years into this journey and only 3 months into setting up Empower – Be The Change I have to admit that the realities of following your dreams is, at times, a double edged sword.
When I left the UK in August 2013 I know I was after one thing. Complete freedom.
By my own admissions I spent the first 2 years of my time in India striving for complete independence.
Striving to prove to myself and others that I can do what I want and do this independently. Whether I went about this in the right way is very much up for debate. Thankfully the people closest to me supported me to do this, whilst at the same time a little worried and bemused.
It’s been a very steep learning curve and not least of all doing this in, what can only be described as one of the most chaotic, culturally different and demanding countries in the world.
Simply, there is no where like India.
But I know now I can travel anywhere, navigate my way around, find things to do and look after myself.
The learning curve gets ever steeper
For me the journey of social entrepreneurship, freedom, choice and empowerment started in August 2013 and I realise now how much of me I have put into this.
Physically, mentally and emotionally with little reprieve or escape back to some kind of normality.
Over 2 years I’ve invested heavily in people, organisations and projects. Seeking opportunities, driving things forward, investing huge amounts of energy, constantly believing that it will result in some better outcome and change.
There is no denying that a lot has been achieved in this time but going about this in a completely independent way has limited longevity.
Constantly putting in and getting smaller returns from people, projects and organisations in terms of energy, commitment and most of all support soon takes its toll.
Since November, starting a new social enterprise, the learning curve has got ever steeper.
There are some, blogs, books and articles about setting up a social enterprise but few talk about the personal journey and the demands it places on individuals. An area I think needs much greater focus and discussion.
So day one and where do you start and what do you do?
For me, this was and continues to be the easy part.
Long term planning, logical processes and having the discipline to manage this effectively is something I have extensive experience of.
Week by week and even day by day I know exactly what I need to work on and its purpose in the bigger picture. The discipline and focus to get things done has been easy.
It is not the challenge in managing this complete freedom and autonomy to follow your dreams.
It is not a feeling of not knowing where to start, what to do and where to focus.
It is not about not knowing what the business model will be, the sources of income and building partnerships.
I find myself in the fortunate position that I have a lot of skills and experiences to draw and use.
Setting up in India has not been without its challenges but it is not the technological or limited infrastructure of being in a developing country that is the the challenge.
It is the continued journey of self-discovery that gets steeper and more complex.
Being a social entrepreneur
Social entrepreneurs are different.
They go places other people wouldn’t.
They find opportunities in the most peculiar places and they refuse to see conventional boundaries.
I don’t think it is arrogant or misplaced to say that this is exactly what I have done.
I’ve definitely created my own opportunities. Refused to bow to convention or what is expected and created my own path but it has always been on other peoples terms (no matter how loosely this has been).
To set up a social enterprise with ultimate freedom was therefore the most natural next step but as I am realising quickly, to do this independently is both foolish and arrogant.
Few jobs offer the opportunity to use and develop such a range of skills and is without doubt the most rewarding and satisfying thing about this.
Its definitely brought out my true geeky side but also creative.
Immersing myself for hours into working out and calculating the business model has been complex, brain heavy but rewarding.
Developing a website from scratch, writing the content, creating the layout, deciding on fonts, colours, pictures and other media has been fantastic.
Building links and partnerships, perhaps the bit I have always enjoyed the most, is providing significant developments in the growth of the business.
With work I am by own admissions a complete geek when it comes to planning, time management and motivation. I am not tied to a rigid structure at all but knowing what to do when, how and why has never been an issue.
Outside of work I’ve learned to adapt and find ways to enjoy some of the things I would in the UK in India. Doing exercise, watching tv, keeping up with people and I’ve done this pretty well.
Rarely if ever have I felt bored, lonely or isolated.
I’ve become pretty good at looking after myself, recognising the signs when I need a break, a change of scene, to contact people at home or to take some time for myself.
But having spent 2 years exhausting my independence I am the first to admit that what I crave is a true state of inter-dependence.
The biggest challenge is a constant feeling of isolation.
I wouldn’t say lonely as I’ve become extremely resilient to time alone and keeping myself busy.
But constantly doing things alone leaves me feeling very isolated.
It is a common feeling amongst start-up business people.
Once you step out of the conventional rat race no matter how unconventional it might be you are in a situation where suddenly everything is your responsibility, making and doing.
Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about being scared of hard work or having the belief to do this.
It isn’t about the motivation to work or even the knowledge and skills to know what to work on, setting my own deadlines and managing my own work.
It’s the lack of external input day in day out.
Yes I have family, friends and mentors that I call on regularly but with a 5.5 hour time different between most of these people it is often mid afternoon before I can seek any input into my day.
This isn’t a criticism but I have learnt early on the importance for any entrepreneur or person doing this how important a wide and varied network of support is.
There have been many articles in the Guardian Women in leadership weekly newsletter that have resonated with me lately but not least of all this one
Simply, ambition is good but a balance in our lives is equally if not more important.
Re-instating some normality
Since November I’ve realised the value of having that immediate support network around you and when its suddenly gone (albeit from personal choice) it takes a lot to readapt.
Under normal circumstances, normal being based in the UK having stepped out of a job to start a company, would still be daunting but I perhaps a lot more manageable.
Starting this after 2 years of injecting all of me into adapting to another country and trying to work out what to do has been a different ball game.
Empower is about supporting people, communities and organisations to realise their ambitions and goals.
This is the primary drive and focus of the company but to do this effectively I need to make sure I’m am also getting the right support, challenge and input.
This is challenging in India and at a time when I feel exhausted from the input I have already given I have to accept that right now I need to be a bit selfish and take some time out for myself.
Yes being based in southern India I have opportunities to travel but having spent 2 years on an independence crusade I am totally over solo travel.
I know I can travel anywhere in India and be ok doing it.
I know how the buses and trains work.
I can get myself around the country with relative ease.
I know places to visit, places to stay, restaurants and bars.
But I want to share this with other people now.
This isn’t a moan at all.
99% of the time I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
I don’t have to rely financially on anyone else to do what I am doing, a position afforded because of what my previous UK job allowed me to do.
I am surrounded by an extremely supportive family who yes have questioned what I am doing but have never sought to stop me and have helped in anyway they can.
Same goes for my friends. Long distance relationships of any sort are hard but I’m fortunate that I have good loyal friends who invest the same level of time and energy into a friendship that I do.
But right now, I recognise the importance for me to reinstate some normality back into my life.
On 14th March I head back to the UK and for the first time in 2.5 years I am counting down the days. I haven’t fallen out of love with India at all and I know as soon as I land in the UK I will miss it.
But there is an increasing sense of frustration about not being able to do the things I need to do for the company and having ready access to the input that I think is critical right now.
Every entrepreneur is different and every one will have their own battles and challenges, but for me, from my personal experience I can not underestimate the importance of:
1. Looking after yourself, recognising the signs of potential burnout and accepting its ok to take some time out.
2. Building a solid support network around you with as much input as you can get.
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