The Individual Journeys of Entrepreneurs Through the Lens of Failure

SELCO Foundation
6 min readFeb 23, 2023

Entrepreneurs Wilma Rodrigues, Arjun Arunachalam, Anand Sivaram, and Piya Bahadur talk to Anand Ganesh about what got them started, what kept them going, and why they probably cannot quit.

Anand Ganesh, the COO at the NSRCEL, housed at the Indian Institute of Management, set the context in his opening remarks, “We are trying to understand the idea of failure from an entrepreneur’s lens, what it takes to navigate the journey, and what they have learnt from it to carry on.” The panel on the Individual Journeys of Entrepreneurs featured entrepreneurs who had navigated the expected barriers and pitfalls as would pioneers on a mission, including Wilma Rodrigues of Saahas Zero Waste, Dr Anand Sivaram, Co-founder, Remidio Innovative Solutions, Arjun Arunachalam, Founder, Voxelgrids Innovations, and Piya Bahadur, Founder and CEO of MeraBills.

Saahas Zero Waste works on environmental and social impact. Wilma Rodrigues who is at the forefront says, “Social impact is a big part of our deliverables. Now, we have 300 plus employees looking at their social security based on us, I look at what happened to the three million people in the informal sector and that is the gap I see. One of the reasons we have not worked with the informal sector is because of the poor delivery of services. It is difficult to get accountability from this sector, for the lack of efficiency that is expected from organisations. However, all this still does not amount to why we should not integrate them into our formal workforce. So, now we work on social inclusion.”

In the business model, they do not work with the government. She explains the model further, “We work with bulk waste generators. These are private generators of waste — large corporate offices, businesses, etc. These places have a system where they have to manage waste and then reach out to us. So, it is an efficient market. Our revenue is from the sale of waste and revenue from the service fee. That is where an issue crops up because people in India are not used to paying a service fee. People have other options like dumping and burning, which is rampant. Why would they pay a service fee when they can have cheaper options, when they are not thinking of the people or the environment?”

At Voxelgrids Innovations, Arjun Arunachalam and his team work on building MRI Scanners, and this has been their journey of ups and downs. I wanted to start something on my own, so I spent time travelling, and met vendors, people who might want to work with us, and professors. While I did build a network during this time, none of it fructified into tangible results, certainly not from a funding point of view.” He continued to tinker with his idea through small grants at opportune moments until Social Alpha came through, “I then got funding to the tune of a million dollars for an idea that was on paper. Since then our team has managed to raise 16 crores from the Government of India, a huge amount of money. Last year we were funded by (Zoho) corporation and we received five million dollars. We are a small team and we do everything on our own, it has not been a straight journey.”

Anand Sivaraman is the co-founder of Remidio Innovative Solutions and he focused on how to take a product to the market and how to have an impact, and the failures we have had in doing that. Remidio is working on the vision of moving eye testing to primary care. Arjun places the issue in the Indian context, “The problem is that we have one ophthalmologist for one lakh patients and at least 70 per cent of the challenge is identifying who needs treatment. Is there a way to move all the testing closer to the patient? And can we decentralise testing by moving it from special labs to public health centres? These are technologies that have to be moved closer to people.”

The team were working closely with the Government of Kerala when they realised that the programme of technology can not be driven by us alone. He explains, “We needed to try these devices to substantiate their credibility. Besides being regulatory approved, we needed to see if it was relevant in terms of return on investment from the government’s perspective. Is it actually doing what it seeks to do in terms of impact? We got all the aspects of this project right. So, we went ahead to copy the same project in Tamil Nadu and Orissa. That is when we had failures and realised in India, it is not the technology in question but these solutions had to build ground up. Kerala had the advantage of registries by which we could identify people that needed care. The next thing we realised is that success in testing did not translate to success in care. We confronted a very behavioural problem. People that needed care, did not go where they were supposed to receive care. This was the second failure in terms of care and approach.”

For Piya Bahadur, the thought was simple, there are a lot of families that depend on small businesses and they all have phones. There had to be a way to enable them to manage their finances, get key insights to improve business outcomes, and much more. “That’s when I delved into what the measures could be and how they could be improved. I found out that there was a lack of technology, lack of identified technology, access to formal financing, etc. When I discussed this with my partner — we wanted to do something for these rural women with businesses and that is how MeraBills came about. This app would help them quantify the output of their business properly.”

The organisation now works with the World Bank, the Government of Tamil Nadu, and the Government of Orissa, Governments. We have about 24 thousand downloads, and we have trained 15 thousand women entrepreneurs which has given us a lot of learning. This is rural India we are talking about. We can not just walk in with our projects. So, we work with organisations that are already established and have social equity. The number of SHGs and training programmes for women is increasing every day in this country but who will sustain this model? All heartfelt emotions can be kept on one side whereas, money is a different aspect of it altogether.

Arjun highlights the drawback of being a player in an industry with a monopoly of 3 to 4 people, there is no way of moving forward. Unless you have a connection with them, they are not going to look at your software. If you’re buying from them, and they are also developing some software — they are happy to talk to you. So, it is going to the customer and saying, ‘Look this is something I have invented.’ When it is so capital-intensive, you only have one shot. If you are building one cryogenic magnet, you can not build five for trial and error. It is as simple as that.”

The spirit of the entrepreneurs was indefatigable, and it shone when Arjun admitted, “Most of my learnings happened on the go which is not an ideal case. Personally, at least it was stressful. One thing I knew was that I was not going to quit. Once you reach there, it is what it is.” And also in the determination of Wilma, when she said, Our journey was one step at a time, but it was also about the small things, the little milestones. Those are things that sustain you along the way.”

--

--

SELCO Foundation

SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.