Upaya Updates

Upaya Social Ventures Partners with Villgro to Incubate and Invest in Job-Creating Social Enterprises Through Villgro’s iPitch 2019

Upaya has partnered with Villgro as an Investment Partner for Villgro’s iPitch 2019 program. iPitch is a discovery program aimed an identifying the most impactful social ventures in India.

Caroline Bressan and Kim Rachmeler Join Upaya’s Board of Directors

Upaya Social Ventures is pleased to welcome Caroline Bressan and Kim Rachmeler to its board of directors.

“We are thrilled to welcome the expertise and social passion of these two accomplished women to our board.” Kate Cochran, Upaya CEO said.

Upaya extends debt to partners in India for the first time

Upaya Social Ventures has made 10 equity investments into Indian-based businesses employing the very poorest but until now, has not been able to extend debt due to regulatory restrictions. For the first time, in August of 2016, we have been able to structure small loan agreements with our partners to provide working capital assistance as they grow their businesses.

Parvata Foods

Parvata Foods

The first partner to receive debt from Upaya is Parvata Foods. Parvata aims to eliminate middle-men in the agricultural value chain so that poor farmers can keep more of their profit. Founded by Siddhi Karnani and Anurag Agarwal, their particular focus is to process and market the organic products from the state of Sikkim in northeastern India, which was recently declared the first fully organic state in the country. They source their products—currently spices and squash— from about 100 farmers with one to two acres of land who previously earned about $0.75 to $1.50 per day per person. Upaya has extended a two-year loan to Parvata and may make an equity investment in the future.

The second partner to receive an Upaya debt investment is Karmantik, a Delhi-based enterprise that aims to revive artisanal hand-crafted shoes. Founded in 2015  by Sruthi Niveditha Kande and Apoorva Kamath, who are alumni of the Young India Fellowship Program of Ashoka University. "Upaya came in at a time when we needed support to push ourselves forward, and for that we are very grateful," according to Kande.

Karmantik artisan

Karmantik artisan

Upaya Welcomes Bangalore-based Saahas to LiftUP Project, Promotes Job Creation Through Waste Management

Upaya Social Ventures is proud to announce today that it has joined with India’s largest business angel group the Indian Angel Network (IAN), to invest in Bangalore-based Saahas Waste Management Private Limited (SWMPL).

SWMPL provides end-to-end waste management solutions for bulk waste generators in Bangalore while creating secure employment for women from disadvantaged communities. Following this agreement, the company will receive seed funding and business development support through Upaya’s LiftUP Project.

“The waste management problem in Indian cities is staggering and is growing fast with increasing urbanisation. At the same time, the ‘waste industry’ in India is largely informal and exploitative,” said SWMPL founder and CEO Wilma Rodrigues, who has 13 years of experience in the waste management sector.  

“SWMPL was founded to responsibly manage all kinds of waste generated within corporate campuses and institutions with the firm conviction that waste has to be handled at the source itself,” said Rodrigues.

The company provides on-site waste management solutions to a wide range of waste generators, beginning with an audit to determine the types of waste generated, recommendations for recycling solutions and infrastructure requirements.

Many of the on-site facility staff employed by SWMPL are women who have worked as informal waste pickers in highly exploitative and dangerous environments. The organization provides them with reliable, formal employment and regular salaries.

“Upaya's focus on ultra poor job creation really goes into the heart of our model and I am very glad to have Upaya join this round as they will help us to remain people-centric while growing as a movement for cleaner cities,” said Rodrigues.

Across the company SWMPL emphasizes safety with adequate protective gear and training for hygienic waste handling practices. The company provides each employee with a fair salary and full benefits.

“The SWMPL team is highly experienced and respected in the industry for their work,” said Upaya’s Director, Business Development Sreejith Nedumpully.

“We are excited to work with a great organization that helps corporations and institutions reduce their carbon footprint significantly and be more ecologically sustainable and socially responsible,” said Nedumpully.

Mr. Nagaraja Prakasam, lead IAN investor, commented on the company’s growth strategy saying, “SWMPL pioneered the zero waste campus model and has successfully delivered onsite waste management services to bulk waste generators. IAN Impact was launched in 2013 to support ventures working on the ‘triple bottom line’ -- like SWMPL -- as IAN would like to encourage the growth of social enterprises that are creating better lives for people.” As an active IAN impact angel, Prakasam has lead four other deals and has made 12 investments through IAN.

Upaya’s support to SWMPL has been made possible by Open Road Alliance, a private philanthropic initiative that provides grant capital to non-profits for mid-implementation projects facing an unexpected roadblock or a sudden catalytic opportunity.


Patricia Devereux, Steve Schwartz Join Upaya's Board of Directors

Upaya Social Ventures is proud to welcome Patricia Devereux and Steve Schwartz to the organization’s Board of Directors.

“We are thrilled that Patricia and Steve are joining the Board,” said Upaya’s Executive Director Sachi Shenoy. “Each brings valuable experiences, insights, and relationships that will serve the organization well as it continues to grow,” said Sachi. 


Patricia Devereux

Patricia Devereux

Patricia Devereux most recently served as MasterCard’s Executive Director, Global Philanthropy. In this role, she transformed MasterCard’s corporate philanthropy program into a global program with more than 20 partners in 40 countries helping to drive the company’s financial inclusion strategy. She was also instrumental in the creation of the MasterCard Foundation, which is now the fourth largest private foundation in the world.   

“Upaya is leading the way in promoting a new model for ending extreme poverty, and I am excited by the opportunity to be a part of this burgeoning movement,” said Patricia.


Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz

Steve Schwartz is no stranger to Upaya. As one of the organization’s co-founders, he oversaw marketing communications and operations over Upaya’s first five years. In addition to his transition to Upaya’s Board, Steve also recently joined Tableau Software as the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility Marketing Manager. 

“From the very beginning Sachi, Sriram [Gutta, Upaya’s third co-founder] and I talked about seating as much of Upaya’s day-to-day activities in India as possible. This is simply the next step in that process,” said Steve.   

While Upaya welcomes Patricia and Steve to the Board, the organization must also say a heartfelt thank you to Deepika Mogilishetty and Sonny Garg as their board terms come to an end. Each played a pivotal role in Upaya’s evolution in its earliest days and has expressed continued support for the organization in the coming years.

New Report: Impact Investors See India’s Social Entrepreneurs Lacking Basic Financial Management Skills to be Investable

Right Click -> "Save As..." to Download

Right Click -> "Save As..." to Download

Over the past four years, the Upaya team has repeatedly heard from impact investors that the pipeline of investable social enterprises in India is frustratingly thin. While these investors regularly hear about interesting concepts, they lament the lack of entrepreneurs who have the business management skills needed to lead such a venture to profitability. In fact, many leading investors have said that a social entrepreneur who does not have a sufficient command of fundamental business tools is not someone they can even really consider an entrepreneur.

Looking to turn these anecdotes into actionable information, Upaya is today releasing the first of a series of spot surveys that dig deeper into investors’ impressions of the entrepreneurs they encounter.

Titled What They Really Think: Perceptions of India’s Early Stage Social Entrepreneurs Among Impact Investors, the series provides data and recommendations to the multitude of incubators, training programs and mentorship networks currently operating in India. The report captures investor opinions about the collective critical skills and competencies of entrepreneurs, and starts a substantive conversation on improving the ecosystem for early-stage social businesses.

In “Spot Survey #1: Financial Management Capabilities,” 18 of India’s 25 most active impact investors shared their impressions of the financial management competencies of entrepreneurs they have conducted some level of due diligence on. The report looks at entrepreneurs' skills in utilizing a variety of financial management tools for decision-making. It also looks at the quality of documentation investors receive from entrepreneurs, as well as the ability of those entrepreneurs to use valuation tools to communicate the financial health and long-term projections of their companies with investors.

Click to download the report.

Upaya exits its investment in Justrojgar, will recycle 100% of funds for future LiftUP Project partnerships

In March 2015, Upaya exited its investment in Delhi-based Justrojgar after its shares were bought back by the entrepreneur, Ajaya Mohapatra.

This is the first full exit of a partner from Upaya's LiftUP Project. The organization will re-invest 100% the returns from the transaction into a future LiftUP Project partner in a manner consistent with its Pioneering Capital model.

Upaya initially invested in the Delhi-based skilling company in 2012.

"Art to Mart" at the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015

Following the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015 conference in Hubli, thealternative.in published a series of session excerpts to share the learnings. I (Sreejith) had the chance to be a part of the "Art to Mart: How can we build an end-to-end value chain that brings artisans profitably to market?"  panel. 

The transcript of that session has been reprinted below as it appeared on thealternative.in. The original article can be found here.

With over six million people (officially) working with Handicrafts in India, traditional handicrafts are a major source of income for a large number of people in rural communities, and have a huge market potential, about 20,000 crore according to some estimates, across the globe.

But while the market itself seems to be thriving, the livelihoods for most of these artisans are not.Various factors – like wages, market price gaps, and lack of technology – are forcing these artisans to move away from the handicrafts industry, to more profitable work.

How does one create a sustainable, equitable value chain for these markets? How do we ensure that rural artisans – all artisans, for that matter – are able to reach the right markets without losing out on the profits due to them?

A panel discussion hosted by Sattva at the Development Dialogues 2015 brought together practitioners who work across the craft value chain in India,: Sreejith from Upaya Social Ventures and ROPE International; Neelam Maheshwari from Navodyami.org, and RangSutra‘s Sumita Ghose, moderated by Rathish Balakrishnan of Sattva.

Edited excerpts from the discussion:

Can market led solutions bring about equitable development?

Sumita: If we are talking about an equitable model of development, it is possible only in an organisation owned collectively by all, which is why RangSutra is a company owned by these artisans. It gives you a say in how the company is run, your wages etc. Earlier, a lot of the women we worked with were paid a pittance while working for middlemen, being paid per piece.

Now, they are paid properly, according to the material, skill and time inputs required. Having shares in the company gives them not just a right but also a responsibility. They ensure that the work is quality work because they know that the company’s profit decides their dividends.

The idea that your work is valuable, that there are people who are going to buy it and that you can make profit out of it gives them a power, an awareness of the value of your work, and that comes with equitable ownership. Using your own money makes a difference because it’s something you believe in, versus just doing something out of program funds.

An incident that really motivated me is when I visited this woman’s house in a village and she had framed a share certificate we had given her. She said it was the only property that I own, the land and the house are owned by my husband’s family. She was so proud.

Should the producer/community facing entity be different from the market-facing entity?

Sumita: We decided in the formation of RangSutra not to have many organizations, we don’t have one community facing and another market facing, that’s too complicated!

What these artisans do need are quality inputs, access to markets, efficiency, timing, delivery response etc. That remains a challenge especially in our case, where 95% of the artisans we work with are from villages.

Sreejith: A very important thing is for artisans to produce what sells, to keep updating what he makes. Can we find alternatives to the saree that a weaver can make if the saree market is going down? It’s possible. Like with artisans making mats for sleeping etc.. that market has completely vanished, nobody uses them anymore.  A few players including Industree started making table mats or runners with the same material, a lot of these artisans were able to come back to their profession.

Sreejith: I completely agree that we should have a model that combines the equitable value distribution of community owned model with the efficiency of the dynamism of a private enterprise. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose market focused, more dynamic and efficient model for the question of sustainability.

Let me tell you an example which inspired me to entrepreneurship: In 2005, in Thanjavur, I visited some of the weavers’ cooperative societies that started with the best of intentions but were not working very well. We went to procure some sarees and find market for it to give an assured market to weavers.  The cooperative societies complained that they had a huge stock of unsold sarees and therefore were unable to procure more from weavers. The weavers said that 90% of the weavers had migrated to cities to look for other jobs, so they had very little skilled labour.

They told me that someone had visited them from Holland, and was stunned by the beauty of these pieces but he asked them to make scarves or shawls as there was no market for sarees in Holland. But back then, there was no internet or any way of getting in touch with the market(or that man) and they got in the same rut of producing sarees in cooperative societies. The weavers told me they don’t want to weave sarees if there is market for it, they are glad to make anything else if it’s sold.

If that type of market dynamism were possible in a community led model, it would be great. But it’s not. Another reason is the shortage of capital.

I think for these reasons, the sustainability of the enterprise depends on their ability to continuously engage the artisans, irrespective of the structure is.

We always look for scale. Would you say that a simpler model could scale better?

Sreejith: A simpler model is more accountable, more efficient etc but that depends upon the entrepreneur who runs it. Of course, you need to scale, scaling is great, but it is not easy. Just because it has worked for some organizations in some sector, it doesn’t mean it will for all.  It takes investment in capacity building, in system and community owned structure to have a good organisation. In some cases, private entrepreneur can do it much more efficiently and they have access to capital.

Neelam: To think that in 60 years in India, we have had just one FabIndia.

We don’t have enough models, we should look at these people as beneficiaries, but also entrepreneurs. For me, it’s an information gap, we need to connect producers to market opportunities. There are so many artisans, we need many more models, we can’t stick with one or two models that we think are good.

Sumita: Today, there are also lots of people leaving the field, I have seen that it’s more for young men than women. For women, it’s convenient as it allows them to earn a livelihood while working from home, but sometimes with the men, it’s more profitable to work in a city in some other job.

Sreejith: In my experience, I’d say men too are interested… provided they have a sustained income from craft. It’s not that they want to preserve the art of anything, they really need a livelihood.

Which one is more relevant to artisans, the B2B or B2C model?

Sreejith: I think B2C is extremely relevant, but in my experience, it takes more capital and therefore for  smaller entrepreneurs with  less access to capital it’s a difficult ball game. Look at FabIndia, it’s a very successful B2C model, but it takes a lot of capital.

When I started my company (ROPE International) in 2007, I was attracted by B2B opportunities and therefore I’ll talk more about that. When we started out, we did a market research and we saw that the US had 60 or 70 retailers double the size of FabIndia. They said that India has beautiful artisanal products but they don’t source majorly from India as they had issues about production, organization, compliance to social norms and so on in India. So when I started ROPE, my challenge was to build a model where consistent large scale, quality production is possible.

Sumita: RangSutra’s overarching goal is sustainable livelihoods for artisans. So for us, B2C model wasn’t viable for us when we started out. It is more difficult in India, because people take hand-skills for granted, they don’t understand why they have to pay more. Globally there is much more respect (than India) for handmade, because most people in other parts of the world have lost that skill. We do have challenges given our goal, there have been situations where we have had to make an order and make no margin at all just so that an artisan can work.

The panel wrapped up with 2 important takeaways: Building sustainable livelihoods is the obviously the most important thing to keep artisans in their work. Produce what sells, be flexible.

This article is part of a series of panel discussions and reports from the Deshpande Foundation’s Development Dialogue 2015 conference in Hubli. The Development Dialogue is a conclave of like-minded people from across the country who believe in entrepreneurship as a way of nurturing scalable solutions for development, an International social entrepreneurship ecosystem conference hosted by Deshpande Foundation India.