“You won’t be able to achieve social change in your lifetime.”

And 4 other demoralising things learned from Mumbai.


Early this year I had the privilege of attending a competition on social entrepreneurship held by Singapore International Foundation. While the competition’s main draw was the prize money that would be invested in us with no equity exchange, it eventually turned out to be the least attractive offering that participation would reward. The competition is stretched over the course of 7 months, during which you first attend a 3-day workshop, get shortlisted for a study trip to Mumbai and a mentorship with McKinsey & Company, and finally pitch for the grant funding by a venture philanthropist.

We embarked on our study trip early June, and the intention was to learn about the social enterprise scene in a place where typically every startup can be considered a social enterprise, and bring those insights and lessons back with us to help us on our personal journeys of social entrepreneurship. These are the lessons I learned.

Photographed by Ryan Ng

“You won’t be able to achieve social change in your lifetime.”

Way to go, telling a bunch of young adults who are passionate in making a difference to the world they live in that they probably would never get what they aim for despite giving up high-paying jobs for a career of instability and unknown simply for the sake of effecting social impact. And yet, that is likely the biggest thing we need to hear as social entrepreneurs.

This is quoted from Ms. Havovi Wadia, Head of R&D in Magic Bus, an organisation that steers children out of poverty through behaviour change and mentoring, from childhood to livelihood. She further elaborates that even as Magic Bus has been in function since 2000, the social change they have made if they were very honest, was close to naught. This is because they are dealing with real people, with real feelings and real reasons for certain behaviours. To make a real social change is to influence social behaviours, and that comes with influencing cultures and age-old practices that have their own rationales behind them.

Recognising that we are dealing with something way bigger than us, and something that we can only plant seeds of change for rather than assume in delusion that we and our own tiny startups can institute behavioural change that will affect society henceforth, brings a great deal of perspective and realism down to what we are really doing, and asking ourselves:
“Is what I am doing today going to be worthwhile 10 years down the road?”

Photographed by Bow Patomporn Pongnin

“Don’t assume they’re having a tough life just because they don’t have your impression of a good life.”

It became abundantly clear day after day that people were happy living in slums and choosing to live in slums rather than move to apartment buildings and ‘move up in the world’, literally. If this didn’t totally change our perceptions towards our target beneficiaries, I think very little else will.

A typical installation of a trip to Mumbai consisted of a tour into and around the infamous Dharavi slums. This is quoted by our tour guide of a couple of hours, Manoj from Reality Tours & Travel. A quick trip around the slums with him revealed so much about why many organisations in Mumbai fail to see traction in their offerings and in turn fail to make a substantial impact. It is a clear case of imposing one’s model of the world upon others, and while it would of course avail the empathy gainers more to live in a slum instead of simply walk through it, we had the next best experience, that is to interact with and enter the realms of the ‘supposed’ beneficiaries. I say ‘supposed’ because all it takes is a walkthrough and you realise, they barely qualify as beneficiaries; they are thriving in there.

Sometimes, people aren’t in a situation because life dealt them a bad hand. Sometimes, they are in it because they choose to be in it. Circumstances evolve and opportunities arise, but we should trust that people are rational enough to make their own valued choices, and they have their reasons for taking certain actions, such as choosing to remain without help, or totally ignoring an outreach effort. While we mostly ask why they refuse our help, we should instead be asking:
“Do they even want the impact I assume I would be bringing to them?”

Photographed by Ryan Ng

“What makes you think they need your help?”

And this point is largely related to the previous, but instead of beneficiaries, this one looks at those of us who use work integration as our change-making weapon of choice. What preceded this was a pretty harmless question during a Q&A session: “How do you ensure you help the deaf boys who work for you get where they want to be in life?”

The answer was given by Mr. Dhruv Lakra, Founder and Owner of Mirakle Couriers, a courier company employing only deaf adults. His stand was made very clear to us: We do what we can to give fulfilling employment and engaged work to those who can’t find that due to a disability. But that is not to say that anyone there is on a higher ground due simply to the fact they can hear and the boys cannot. To assume we can do something to help them get what they want in life is to assume we are on a higher ground and therefore being able to help them. Rather, we create the opportunity. They help us fill the need. And by filling this need, he helps not through an able-bodied mindset but through a caring executive mindset, setting out savings plans and flexible arrangements for his staff for them to benefit from his education and finance background.

Budding social entrepreneurs I meet who intend to use the work integration model as part of their business ALL fall into the trap of taking the higher ground. Hearing these words from Dhruv that came as bluntly as a quick jab jolted everything I thought I knew about providing meaningful work. It made me ponder:
“Do they really need my help?”

Photographed by Arvin Tang

“Not everyone wants to climb high and get rich like you. Some of us just want to make a living.”

On one of the tours we had the privilege to meet with the Dabbawalas and engage them in a conversation while they were in the midst of their jobs. The Dabbawalas are a 125-year old industry focused on the prompt and unfailing system of food delivery from homes to offices all around Mumbai.

Many studies have been made about the Dabbawalas, largely towards their efficiency and extremely low error-per-million statistic. But going beyond their primitive methods and what may seem to be consistently backward technology reception (they are still using coloured markers to write on cloth, and in the age of smartphones they have just started to use SMS in their operations), one cannot ignore the lifeblood of the organisation: The men themselves. The quote is paraphrased from something that was translated for us, that goes on to say that the association only takes in men who don’t have much education and are willing to work as Dabbawalas without thought of leaving for greener pastures. This ensures consistency in customer relations (as each delivery man interacts closely to his charge of customers for many years, building a relationship of trust and understanding) and also ensures the commitment of each Dabbawala. In addition, recruitment is only done through recommendation, which then holds the recommender responsible for the new recruit, effectively instituting a quality control that is carried out on the ground level.

Entrepreneurs everywhere fall prey to a presumptuous mindset: People want to climb long and far and reach high places. We presume this because we are like that. We never rest. We never feel like anywhere is enough. We reach for greater heights and sometimes expect that the people we work with should be like this as well. It serves us well to realise that sometimes the best way to serve someone’s needs and interests is to give them what their values consider to be important. Like the Dabbawalas — family, stability, camaraderie, responsibility. We should really ask ourselves:
“Is what I’m doing as a startup founder serving the values of my people?”

Photographed by Arvin Tang

“(You’re) no longer fit to compete.”

So at the end of our trip, we had a bit of a closing that tried to sum up the learning outcomes and how it applied into our own social enterprises. During this moment, my partner Arvin and I sat to analyse where we stood in our development process and it occurred to us how this trip, sneakily embedded into a competition, drove us from being cold-blooded rivals seeking a grant funding to being more driven to help others succeed more than ourselves.

The quote didn’t actually come from anyone we met in Mumbai but rather from ourselves, as a result of the week we spent together with our so-called ‘fellow competitors’. We found that through the time we had with each other, laughing and learning in a foreign land, having fun with the locals and growing our repertoire of business networks and knowledge together, put us in a very peculiar position. Us as individuals passionate about the development of others and the growth of young people, versus us as business owners who should do everything necessary to further the cause of the startup. The answer was very clear: We were first and foremost trainers and developers of youth, who so happened to find ourselves starting a company. Along that note, the development of our peers and their business ideas was more important than our personal agenda in the competition. We put aside every logical consideration by business standards, and sought to use what little we know to share and impart to our newfound friends.

We realised that if one considers themselves to be social entrepreneurs, the urge to want to see others succeed should be far greater than the urge to succeed personally. You have to be someone who wakes up everyday aiming to make a difference to the world, and beginning from the people you are close to. You have to love others more than you love yourself. You have to see how giving to others what you have enables you to get so much more than if you hoarded knowledge and resources to yourself. You have to ask yourself this question, every single day of your social entrepreneur life:
“What am I doing that will add value to the people around me?”

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