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Living with a Cause: Chat with Social Entrepreneur Vinay Kumar, Founder of The Village Store
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Posted by : thedesk   Apr 7 2010
The Story of Vinay Kumar and how he moved from working in a Bank to being a Social Entrepreneur
One day, while visiting his aunt in Borivali, Vinay happened to visit a nearby orphanage. When he stepped inside he found that this orphanage housed street children and helped in their education. Speaking with the people over there, he felt an immediate impact. He would keep going there after that, and that is when he thought strongly about working in the field of development one day.

Vinay retains a practical sense of being behind a zealous, passionate drive to do what he wants to. He knew early on that to be ready to work in the field of non profit, he needed to be financially stable. He reminded himself what that meant in terms of a bank balance and work experience. This grounded thinking has stood him well over the years in timing his decisions. Sure enough, some years down the line he chose to move from a comfortable job at a bank to an NGO. Working for a while in the NGO trained him to work in this sector. Armed with the experience that helped him arrive at his decision, he planned his next move to pursuing his passion - that of being a social entrepreneur. The Village Store - the social venture was thus born.

Vinay went about touring the interiors, talking and coaxing villagers to align their products to market needs. On the other hand, he has been relentless in marketing village products to corporates, making them see more sense in village products. In a short period of time, Vinay has begun to become a link, a bridge, a conduit between market needs and raw rural talent.

Passion, hard work, discipline, single-minded focus and austere living. These are the elements that sum up Vinay’s approach to work and life. In a career that has seen him move from a corporate professional to being a development sector professional, he has learnt to combine a corporate culture of planning and organization with the sense of purpose of a development sector professional. Whether it is participating in setting up of Pratham’s vocational training centers or the trade finance department for ICICI Bank’s overseas branch or even convincing village workers to align to his sense of the market, Vinay has had a method to his ideas and a strong belief that his methods will work. He believes failures have taught him a lot in life. That enables him to not get carried away by any kind of success.

Vinay takes heart from the Gandhi’s goal of self realization. ‘The greatest challenge is to learn to accept failures’, says Vinay, the sincerity showing through his beliefs. He models his ideas and thoughts based on his readings about spiritual greats like Vivekananda. No wonder, he has engaged his friends in putting together contributions for compelling causes regularly. His disarming mannerisms sit easy when you meet him and his instinctive trait of giving comes from someone who not only runs a development initiative, he in fact lives it - so embedded is the commitment in his psyche.

Interview with Vinay
Careersdesk: Tell us about your journey from the corporate sector to the development sector and then from there on, to become a social entrepreneur.
Vinay: My journey started in the year 2000. Instead of a regular corporate life, I wanted to do something, because I did not want to lead a regular life like all my friends and family were leading. That’s when I started doing voluntary work at orphanages and old-age homes. I gave it a thought about exploring my roots of being a Hindu. I read the Vedas and books of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Radhakrishnan.

Somewhere around 2005, I thought I needed to set myself a target and a cut-off time. I was very clear I couldn’t continue in a corporate job for long. I wanted to have more purpose in life, and felt that I could do better than what I was doing in my corporate life. I believed I could work on a better output by stretching a little bit more. I knew I needed to be financially secure and secondly, I needed to know more about how the development sector functions and the role I could play there. Also, I needed to discipline myself if I were to work in an NGO sector. That would mean working on my food habits, spending, lifestyle etc.

By 2005, my thoughts were much clearer. I set myself a target that I will quit whichever comes first - a bank balance of 15 lakhs or I turn 35!

I wasn’t sure if I would be successful in the non profit sector and thought of getting some experience that would help me if I were to return to the corporate sector later. Also I wanted to reveal my plans to my parents. It was difficult because as you know parents want their kids to work in a big firm or in a secured job. In 2004, I got a break in ICICI and the next year I met people like Nachiket Mor and Venkat and the whole thought process started evolving.

In 2006 I thought of making a move. I met a lot of NGOs. I had already decided to work in the area of children’s education as that’s where my passions lay. There are many organizations working in that area and I met with some like Akanksha, Give India and Pratham. In 2007 I started working with Pratham in the area of children’s education.

Dr Madhav, the founder of Pratham felt that after education these children should find jobs. These children were not getting employment with just school education. So all across Maharashtra we trained youths in particular industry verticals and helped them get jobs. My role with Pratham helped me learn how non profits functioned. I was someone between both the sectors - I used to interact with the corporates as well as grass-root level people.

For Pratham, my work was to set up training centers, fundraising from corporate firms, curriculum designing and content development which involved understanding corporate ideas and the capacity of the grassroots people, teacher training and placements. The people were trained and placed from 4 centers in Maharashtra. In 2008 the centres were set up and the initial batches started getting placed. Thereafter in 2009, after the centers had been established, I thought of doing some more traveling and grassroots work. I then began to explore what else I could do. That’s when the Village Store concept got started.

Careersdesk: Was it too difficult a choice at a time when not many professionals worked in the NGO sector?
Vinay: It was different. For instance, with Pratham only 2% are professionals whereas 98% are from the grassroots sector. That’s how Pratham’s model looks like. But, with Pratham I understood grassroots functioning.

Careersdesk: What were the triggers that helped in making this decision?
Vinay: The first trigger happened when I went to my aunt’s place in Borivali once and I was taking a walk near the orphanage once. Most of the people have certain apprehensions about orphanages. When I went inside and met people there, it had an impact on me. This organization, Asha Dham, housed children from the streets and helped educate them. I kept going there whenever I found time. This was in 2000. I also visited old-age homes, spent time with people there. Though initially I could give time to such pursuits, it gradually became difficult as the profile of my work and responsibilities began increasing. That’s when I started feeling guilty that I could not give my 100% to either pursuit. I started thinking about a cut-off point and decided to focus on corporate life, and shift to working full time in the development sector after the cut-off point.
I realized I would not be able to do justice to both, if I did both together.

Careersdesk: How did these experiences influence the way you led your life?
Vinay: I inculcated some habits amongst my friends, e.g., during Diwali, we would give away some sweets to the orphanage and retain some. That’s the philosophy I adopted, which was to share what I have and also retain some part of it for myself too. That apart, reading helped trigger my belief in having a purpose in life. Reading books of Mahatma Gandhi helped. Gandhi focused on self realization. Freedom was a tool he adopted to gain self realization.
So, as I do this kind of work, I feel that I move closer towards the aspect of self realization. People like Nachiket and Swaminathan, who were the top management in ICICI had this thinking which also helped reinforced these beliefs.

Dr Nachiket Mor helped me when I was planning to take the plunge into the development sector. I wrote to him asking how I should go about it. He gave me contacts which helped. He connected me with Ujjwal Thakkar of Pratham, Venkat of Give India, Lakshman of Akansha and Vinayak of Parivaar. That’s how he helped me.

Careersdesk: Who have been your role models and inspirations?
Vinay: Gandhi and Abdul Kalam, in terms of their principles.

Family's reactions to his decision

Careersdesk: And the reaction of your family when you told them of your decision?
Vinay: Convincing my family was tough, but I was lucky as my elder brother was very supportive. He understood my inclination. My parents couldn’t understand why I would quit my job to work in an NGO. In fact my career plan was underlined by the need to have financial stability. My brother said he would take care of the family expenses and advised me to pursue my decision which he would support. It was during this time that my nephew was born that I broke the news. My parents were happy and busy with the birth of a new member and I took the opportunity to tell them what I wanted to do.

My parents were scared about my plans. I told them that I didn’t want to get married because working in this sector requires a lot of flexibility and commitment. Another thing they were worried about was my financial stability. They are financially stable themselves but they weren’t sure if I could make myself financially stable working in this sector. Initially they said don’t do it, but then they told me ‘if you like it and follow it, then go ahead and do it.’ I told them that I need to do this and this was my passion.

Careersdesk: How have you been able to use your experience as a professional in this sector instead of jumping in straightaway from college.
Vinay: Experience at work teaches you application of skills and that helps oneself. When I worked with the corporates, I learnt about the efficacy of processes. The development sector is highly unorganized. It helped when I joined an NGO, as I could set processes in place there. Processes help an NGO to be much more stable and less dependent on certain individuals. Also important was communicating with the corporates and understanding their needs. Both corporate and development sectors need each other and my experience in the corporate sector helped and I could play the role of a bridge between the sectors.

Careersdesk: What are the innovations that you introduced in the development sector?
Vinay: The first innovation was setting up the vocational training centers as per the market needs and with corporate backing. Till then centers didn’t have corporate backing. So the idea was to set up centers where corporate participates more in curriculum development and is also a part of quality assessment where they tell us if the quality is as per the market requirements. The centers, thus was set up on the basis of market needs, not the needs of grassroots people.

The second one was about building up the stability and sustainability of the organization, and we introduced the concept of fees in this. We have our focus on development and we told the corporates that we will give you quality people and you pay us fees for that. The third one was the village store we set up later.

Careersdesk: What is adequate experience for work as a social entrepreneur?
Vinay: Working in both sectors is helpful. I feel working in the middle level and then going to the top level helps in the development sector. Someone merely moving into a top management position in the development sector can be a misfit. He isn’t likely to understand the sector and would find it difficult to communicate with grass-roots people. So, a person who has risen from a middle level to a top level understands the work better.

Therefore, you should have some middle management experience in the development sector before you move to the top management. At the middle level you learn to work with your team. You interact with fresh graduates and can see the impact you are making on them. You deal with freshers and have an opportunity to upgrade their levels. If you talk something of a different level, they might not understand what you are trying to say.

Careersdesk: Do you look at solution to a problem and therefore arrive at what to do or do you identify your passion first and then address it through a cause. Tell us about your passion for children’s education - in this context.
Vinay: Initially the passion to work in the space of child education attracted me. Thereafter I realized so many areas like hygiene and sanitation and health etc existed, and that I should address one field. I realized I could use my linkages in the corporate sector to address development sector needs. So, if a challenge lay ahead, I looked at solutions and addressed it accordingly. Passion also played a key role in deciding what to do. I always did what I wanted to - the underlining point was making an impact with whatever I wanted to do. I feel it is defined more by making an impact than the cause per se.

Careersdesk: Tell us about The Village Store and your involvement with it.
Vinay: I work at a thing till I attain stability; and then I move on from its comforts. That’s been the trend. This movement allows me to pursue what I want. When I was working with Pratham, I told them in Dec 2008 that I had completed the work with them and was planning to move on. Feb 2009 was when I decided to set out and do some grassroots learning. I did backpack traveling from Kanyakumari to Kargil.

The TVS group wanted a study of impact of their programmes in certain areas and in connection with the project. I visited villages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra and met people in the rural areas. I stayed in temples, participated at a public event where they garlanded me and asked me to inaugurate a road. Connecting with people in the villages and interiors was a lot of fun. TVS recommended me to others and it helped build a network.

These villagers were being given information about the needs and requirements of the market -employment trends and consumption patterns etc. The assessment work I used to do was related to vocational training - an area I had a good deal of experience in. I visited 80-90 villages. By April 2009, the requirements of these villages had increased and I felt the need to have a start-up that addresses them. I decided to cut short the travel and decided to concentrate on creating a unit. That’s how village store was conceived.

The idea was to make villagers make products and earn regular income streams out of what they did. NGOs and organizations like NABARD had trained people in the villages in skills, but they still didn’t know how to sell their products.

The Village Store aims at bridging the gap between villagers and corporate entities. The villagers make products but don’t know what markets want. Similarly, corporates do not know the potential of villagers. We help both know what the other could provide. We stressed on four or five important ethical considerations before we started working with a village group including following wage norms, shunning child labour, doing community work alongside, following environmental considerations etc. We told them we would work with those groups that followed these ethics.

We would take sample products to corporate entities (a kind of soft-selling) and after taking feedback, we would then suggest some modifications in the product so that they were more aligned to market needs, and take bulk orders. We started evolving in May 2009. There was a group called UnLtd India and another one called Ekya Foundation - started by NRIs, who supported us and also provided seed funding.

Careersdesk: What are the biggest challenges you have faced, with The Village Store?
Vinay: One of the biggest challenges that I have faced is regarding working capital financing. There could be an order placed for products needing advanced funding. Corporates don’t extend advances easily either. Products require labeling, branding for marketing purposes which requires investment. The cash inflow happens only on the sale of products which takes time and therefore you can recover your money only over a period of 5-6 years.

Funding is a challenge in this area. I tried loans from banks, but they needed a security as a deposit. All I had was my FD. So I am taking loans against my FD and am financing this. I tried approaching Edelweiss, but they weren’t too sure how this project would work. They wanted to see the results two years down the line and then respond. On my part, I was new and hence didn’t have a business plan ready.

I knew I would be successful, but I wasn’t clear how that would happen. It was the same resolve that led me to Pratham. I can say that we have done well till now. We will have made 15 lakhs soon, have already trained and provided employment to 80-90 people in the villages, worked with 6 groups and have worked with products from khadi, bamboo, cloth bags and food products like jams, pickles, honey etc.

Careersdesk: Do they contact you directly or do you reach out and contact them.
Vinay: I go and meet these groups and we divide our work. It works in two ways. One we can reach out to more people in the market. While the villagers can concentrate on developing the product, we look at marketing and feedback, and thus are able to market the products to a larger section of people.

Two, it puts pressure on groups that have taken grants from NABARD and have not done much. I started with a group called Uravu. The news soon spread that Uravu and others who had tied up with The Village Store had been doing well. The good news of people being able to sell their products meant that more groups wanted to be associated with us. This created pressure for these other groups. Mr Giriraj, Chairman of Khadi Gramudyog got to know about us and helped us get in touch with other groups.

Careersdesk: How do you deal with social, economic and structural barriers at work?
Vinay: Language has not been a problem. Hindi is understood by most people though they may speak a regional language. However, we don’t have direct contact with villagers and NGOs are the ones we interact with and reach the villagers.

Another challenge with villagers has been the apprehension about revealing information. They don’t divulge recipes, for instance. I had to convince them that we didn’t want to make jams but only sell them. There are challenges about perceptions. The decisions of the villagers are affected by past experiences when urban people fooled them. Urban people think villagers don’t give things on time. I tackle this by beginning with Gandhi’s principle of non-violence. I ask them if they want to do it, I am there with them. If someone doesn’t complete a task, I pursue it till its done. Advance money solves a major insecurity for villagers. We don’t try to exploit anyone. I tell villagers I don’t have a problem if they want to use the label they have used for a product here in another market.

With the corporates it’s the same thing. A pharma company asked me where I am getting the things from. I told them the place and well, if they planned to get them from there, they were most welcome. But then, a pharma company is usually busy with other things to get involved here. The purpose is to increase the market access of the group we work with. Once that happens, we move on to another group and try and increase their market access. The moment a market gets developed we move to other products and markets.

Careersdesk: What’s your revenue model and alternative plan?
Vinay: I look to add a margin and then sell. There are lots of hidden costs. We started this venture in August and right now, we are running a loss of about Rs. 50000 against a turnover of about Rs 15 lakhs. My capital investment has been to the tune of 6-7 lakhs, most of which goes into working capital funding. We keep our overheads very low, we don’t have an office and travel by public transport. No luxury, no stocks, no exhibitions. We have gradually built up this for profit venture with seed funding out of personal funds, and I have got some external funding too. I have also got some seed funding and some friends have contributed. I feel the venture will be sustainable from year 2.

Careersdesk: Tell us how discipline has been an important factor in this area.
Vinay: Discipline has been another area which sustains an enterprise. This one has been no different. A Spartan lifestyle has helped to retain flexibility, focus and keep costs low.

Careersdesk: The mental preparation involved in the making of a social entrepreneur.
Vinay: 90% of ability depend on your mental stability and 10% on your skill sets. You need a lot of will power and tell yourself not to quit. The villagers don’t care about you and don’t bother where you come from. The corporate people don’t understand your work. The lower management at a corporate don’t always understand new concepts and you need to interact with them which is a real challenge. So, there are challenges from all sides that weigh on you. Self discipline, perseverance, will power, fund management and keeping costs low are important as well as being strong mentally.

Careersdesk: Is seed funding difficult to come by in the development sector?
Vinay: In case of funding, people go by business plans which are all on paper, whereas in the development sector, I feel, you need to have people orientation. I feel you need to have funding organizations who will work with an entrepreneur and not with a concept. I myself work with people, and not with concepts or products. I don’t love bamboo or jam. I am convinced about the people behind the bamboo or jam and hence I am working with that product. I started The Village Store to support Uravu. Since they make bamboo, I sell it. Most seed-funders have an agenda, the area of education is popular, for instance. I have relied on instincts and on individual funding and less on institutional funding.

Careersdesk: What’s the larger goal you have in life?
Vinay: I always work with cut offs in terms of time. For the development sector I have given myself 10 years. Without an exit plan I can’t function. I will be focused completely on the development sector for 10 years. I am trying to make an impact over the next 10 years. To be a more refined person is what I constantly try to be. Every thing I do I learn something new. I keep doing something new and stretching myself.

The model that I follow is to unlearn what I am doing wrong, learn and experience. So I plan to continue to unlearn, learn and experience in this sector. I have not planned beyond that, but after 45, I want to work in a different sector. Maybe teach in a village school or something. I feel that till 45 I can be effective in this sector, not much so after that.

Careersdesk: Are you satisfied with what you have done till now?
Vinay: It’s been a fun journey. I have done so many things which I could have otherwise never done. Inaugurating roads, standing on a dais and speaking with farmers, dealing with corporates etc. are things which I wouldn’t have done otherwise. So, yes, it’s been very satisfying! When I get bored or tired, I go for a movie or walk down the road. The greatest challenge is to learn to accept failures. That’s the one thing that I have learnt. As a social entrepreneur you can’t be weighed down by depression as you face failure often. You have to charge yourself to do better when faced with failure. People relations, pricing, delivery schedules all cause concerns and stress!

Careersdesk: How do you motivate yourself?
Vinay: I have set a timeframe of 10 years for meeting my goals. I am clear of my focus for this period - to contribute in the development sector. In fact I need to do a lot more than I am now doing. My family and friends have been supportive and that helps me also.

Careersdesk: What has given you the greatest joy and satisfaction?
I feel happy when I get orders for the villagers. In Pratham it used to happen when I used to place people, get people jobs - that was very satisfying.
The ice cream makers Gelato Amore wanted their waffle making outsourced to villagers. We identified three ladies, who were really challenged, to work on this. They included a rag picker, a single mother divorcee and an employed lady who had a lot of family challenges. We trained these people and they have been working on the Amore work for the past four months now. I saw that they have become healthier. So, I asked them about it. They replied that now they and their family were very happy. They were getting regular salaries and they could plan their expenses better. They all eat better, work in a good environment and like the fact that they are associated with a good brand name. Their overall lifestyles have improved. It is satisfying to see this.

Even for the villagers, e.g., Uravu was earlier heavily in debts and couldn’t repay loans from State Bank of Travancore. Now they have paid back their loans and SBT is now willing to lend them money. Seeing that my efforts have made someone’s life better motivates me. Besides this, me and my friends do some work in areas of philanthropy on weekends. We do a lot of work in children’s education. We have set up a school in Lonavla, a computer lab in Panvel. We conduct English speaking classes in villages. We help schools improve their infrastructure; we encourage sports in village schools. We also have a telephone mentoring program. We connect children of Class XIIth with volunteers over the phone on weekends. Each volunteer is allocated one or more children for a period of 3 months. The volunteers help children improve their English speaking skills.

Careersdesk: Your advice to someone who wants to be a social entrepreneur?
Vinay: Believe in your passion and keeping on thinking of it and follow it when you’re ready. Have the right discipline, attitude and a support from family is needed when you pursue it. Also, passion should form the core of your existence. I don’t have stress at work, just follow my passion and I never get tired even when I work on holidays.

Careersdesk: How can professionals contribute to The Village Store?
Vinay: People can contribute funds and by sourcing village products. Friends have also helped me with their connections over time.