Scaling sustainable social enterprises: The personal story of engageSPARK CEO and founder Ravi Agarwal

engageSPARK CEO and founder Ravi Agarwal is not your ordinary social entrepreneur. With several years of prior experience in management, business development, and innovation in the corporate and startup scene, Ravi has an extensive skillset and knowledge to offer. He is also an angel investor, investor at 500 Startups, and philanthropist. His goal is to create scalable social impact for poverty alleviation.

DLSU Center for Business Research and Development – Social Enterprise Research Network interviews Ravi about his personal journey in building his businesses, as well as the importance of leveraging business skills to create scalable social impact.

Where did this all come from? What is your vision-mission that led to a company like engageSPARK?

I was an entrepreneur from Boston, where I built three businesses. After the last one, I started becoming an investor for a whole bunch of startups. I realized that living in San Francisco is a great life, but the way I defined happiness and meaning felt very empty. From my early 20s I’ve always been passionate about poverty alleviation and volunteering. I felt it was time to move on to the next phase in my life and think about how I can have an impact through my field.

I left the United States six years ago, but I did not know what I was going to do. I have been a capitalist pig my whole life. I was trying to figure out how I will take this journey. I was still burnt out from my previous startup, so I was in a whim. I was thinking—should I do another startup that makes more money, or should I do things that give me meaning? I was ready to start something on the capitalist pig side again, but I decided to take some time off and think.

I went to Mongolia, because it is one of my dreams to go there. Six years ago, I started a roundtrip ticket to Mongolia for a month, and toured the whole country. Mongolia does not really have roads outside a couple of cities, and so it takes a very long time to travel between places. I had a lot of time to think. I became perceptive of what I wanted to do, and escaped my normal environment. It felt good, so I decided to extend by another month for a trip to Nepal to go hiking. That became a two-week trip to a six-week trip to Nepal.

It was about finding what I wanted to do and how I can leverage my skills. I talked to poor people in the cities, like a taxi driver who had a full college degree. From those travels my conclusion was–over the last few decades–development has done a really good job. More kids are now getting to primary school, secondary school, and college. At the bottom end, however, the economic opportunity of finding jobs and making a good living is not. I realized that is probably the part that I can have the most impact in, having been a business person.

That year, it was about understanding and talking to a lot of people, and then I decided it’s time to work on the ground. I wanted to work in an emerging market. We got a whole bunch of opportunities like digital data divide, and selecting one with the Grameen Foundation. I Volunteered in Ghana and Uganda.

When you said that you were leveraging your business skills, what particularly were you doing for Grameen Foundation?

In Ghana, there is a maternal health project developed for women living in rural areas to help them become more successful with pregnancy. It was to reduce the infant mortality rates. Information is very scarce, and so my job was to come up with a sustainability strategy for that project. At some point, the funding would end, so how could this project become self-sustainable? That was my first exposure to a real social enterprise.

There is another one I worked at when I was traveling for a year. As a social enterprise, this organization helped create crafts that they would sell in the markets on behalf of the youth. As for Grameen Foundation, it was much bigger. It focused on converting charitable projects into sustainable social enterprises. How do we build a business around that? That was my role, coming up with business models and implementing one of them. Volunteering was a great experience.

I also started getting involved in the startup community in Ghana. There is a great incubator called the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, which offers incubation, training programs, and seed funding. I got involved with the startup community there, as well as had conversations with other social entrepreneurs. Like this local social entrepreneur, I was talking to him about what they were doing, and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

We have a sense that all these previous experiences have an impact that led to the formation of engageSPARK. Can you tell me the connection?

When I was talking to all these social entrepreneurs, I was trying to figure out why are all these entrepreneurs who are talented and smart not scaling their businesses to have real impact? My goal was on finding out how to impact poverty alleviation on a large scale. I was talking to these people, asking them why they are building small businesses, and why they’re not going mid-size or large size. I could not find a single one that has crossed this chasm.

As I talked to them I realized there were two things that were missing—one was a lack of experience and skills. I saw that they were bright and had well intentions, but they did not have the skills. That was true not just for people with social enterprises, but also with NGOs. What is the difference here?

I realized there are two ways of learning management skills. One way is to have the training and having mentors, role models, and managers who you learn from directly and see them in action. At General Electric, there are tons of great managers. When I went to Africa, I did not see anybody working who had management training. They do not have mentors or experienced managers whom they can learn from. I realized those were two major gaps for NGOs and social enterprises. Due to those lack of skills, it is hard for an entrepreneur to scale up.

The second one I realized was that—and this is a personal commentary as I have interacted with social entrepreneurs across the world—for social entrepreneurs to scale seem like a kind of luxury.

By that I mean, you know most of the social entrepreneurs I’ve met, they were trying to do good, but they were also trying to do good for themselves and their families. As I was talking to them, I saw that they were generating profits as well as extracting all those profits for their families and communities. There is nothing wrong with that. However, they get in the way of building an enterprise at scale.

I realized that it might be for the rare one, but for majority of them, their goal is to have a good lifestyle, because they’re coming from somewhere where they haven’t had a good lifestyle for themselves, families, and communities. Just like here in the Philippines, they are paying for their families’ well-being, health, and education.

My vision that time was to build an incubator that will help local entrepreneurs become social entrepreneurs and help them scale, but I realized that those two things are difficult to overcome.

Having all those great discussions with people, local and international to create these models—how is the model then? How do we solve these challenges? How do we have social enterprises at scale that can have real impact on poverty?

The motto that I came up with while living in Ghana and Uganda was really a time to think. It did not happen overnight; it did not happen in a week. It happened over a year. I realized that those people who were building great things and looking at things on a different perspective—what can we build like GE, poverty alleviation?

I imagine a conglomerate of subsidiaries that all have businesses that are pro-poor. They build products that directly or indirectly affect the lives of the poor. It could be by creating jobs and building an inclusive business. It could be by selling a product that is already in the market, but maybe a bit lower or at a certain cost that is beneficial for the consumer.

That is basically the idea. Why can’t we build a General Electric that has lots of different businesses that will directly or indirectly affect the lives of the poor? Instead of the profits being extracted to the shareholders of the company like General Electric, why can’t we just recycle all those profits and then scale more businesses that are pro-poor? That was the conclusion of that journey.

 

Rey-Mic Enterprise Founder Thelma Reyes-Miclat on women empowerment, social entrepreneurship

Ms. Thelma Reyes-Miclat, or more commonly known as Tayna, is the founder of Rey-Mic Enterprise in Davao City, a social enterprise that produces gourmet salted fish and employs non-working mothers. In its company description, it states, “We strongly believe that the personal needs of most women who have devoted thir lives fending for the household needs have somehow been neglected, thus the need to be empowered.” 

The DLSU Center for Business Research and Development – Social Enterprise Research Network interviews Tayna, wherein she talks about her social enterprise’s focus on women empowerment, her previous experience in the corporate setup, and the importance of social entrepreneurship. 

Can you describe to us your value proposition and what makes the business unique?

In the first place, we are all women in the business, and I do not say that they are my employees, they are more of my partners. Many women are typically given the burden in the household and have no capacity to finish college—that is what I tapped within the community. It becomes easy for us to partner with them because even if they work for eight hours or more, they can still go home and attend to the laundry or cook. That is the opportunity for us to do business and at the same time help these women continue to perform their tasks as mothers.

I was a working mom, but in the corporate setup. Even though I had the decision-making power, I still valued family. This is because work should never compete with family or vice-versa. What I did before when I was with Sky Cable was I had an area made for mothers to be able to bring their children at least once a week to the workplace. That is the bonding between mother, father, and child—I applied that practice here in my social enterprise.

Can you tell us more about your professional experience? Did you work for a long time at Sky Cable?

I was in marketing at Sky Cable, and then I was suddenly transferred to customer service—this is one of the most stressful jobs. The tendency is that my people will go home tired and stressed, and this affects their children. Most of them are women, so as you can see I really value women. In the workplace, if the women simultaneously get pregnant, that also becomes a problem. The society dictates that if a woman gets pregnant, it is automatically a burden to the company. These women take a leave of absence for around 60 or 75 days, and once they return to the workplace, there comes a time where they become insecure due to being gone for long. That is what I want to address. As a woman, I can relate. Whenever women get insecurities during the time of childbirth and this happens simultaneously with postpartum, the situation worsens.

During my time at Sky Cable, there are also women coming to me, complaining about their husbands due to infidelity and involvements with vices or other issues. I started an annual Halloween treat to bring together the mothers, fathers, and children, and from there it became a tradition and bonding time for them. I realized, I think this model should apply to companies that are very machismo and patriarchal. We must strengthen the women and wives in whatever form, and enable a participative environment for them.

Going back to your social enterprise, can you tell us more about Rey-Mic Enterprise’s work with the Great Women Project?

We wanted to partner with the Moro women of Maguindanao, and this was possible because of the Mindanao Business Council and Department of Science and Technology who brought 15 Maguindanaoan women to our facility and encouraged them to join. The Moro women said they wanted tons of supplies. Our negotiations went great. As for me, I taught the Moro women how to teach their own children and become empowered in their own, simple ways. The biggest problem at that time was the Mamasapano clash. It was okay beforehand, then security went bad. We did not earn much.

Given your corporate and social entrepreneurship experience in business, are there any tips that you can give to other social entrepreneurs?

Check if you are doing it for yourself only or if you are doing things that you want others to benefit from. Sometimes, you’re more educated than the others, so your stock knowledge will have to be imparted. For me that is social entrepreneurship. It is really being able to share what you have. If you do that, then perhaps you can be what is called a socially-responsible person.

 

From corporate to social entrepreneurship: The ups and downs of Erika Valerie Ng Wong

 

Erika Valerie Ng Wong is a corporate-woman-turned-social-entrepreneur who partners with farmers in the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF) and the nearby community to create dairy products from carabao milk. Her past experience in the corporate world left her questioning her personal role in society. She knew she had to do something to help address social problems. That was also when she discovered the Social Business Summit in GKEF, which talked about how a new breed of businesses called social enterprises. These businesses are socially-innovative and tackle core social issues such as poverty and employment.

In our interview with Ms. Wong, we highlight the steps she went through from being a corporate woman to slowly scaling her social enterprise Karabella Dairy.

What happened after you joined the Social Business Summit? What drove you to continue your path as a social entrepreneur?

I was so inspired after the summit. At that time, I just went to GKEF once a month during weekends, because I still had my corporate job. Every time I went there, I sit in during their discussions and meetings. At that time, the management meetings were still very informal. The farm was also not a VAT-registered entity yet; it was more of a foundation, so it wasn’t profit-generating. Then, there was this time when they were looking for social entrepreneurs interested in ice cream because, before, there was this social enterprise called Cream of the Crop, which suddenly disappeared. Their concept was focused on partnering and working with dirty ice cream manufacturers.

Did you have a specific objective that time?

At that time, I really wanted to become a social entrepreneur. So whatever I was assigned to, I was willing to take that on. Eventually, I decided to be a social entrepreneur, and so I joined the countryside fair. They had me buy a tub of ice cream, specifically dirty ice cream from local manufacturers, which was around P900 each. It was very expensive.

At that time, we had different flavors including watermelon, salabat, and coffee. I found myself asking, why dirty ice cream? I decided to visit the community that produces this type of ice cream. There, I found that the facilities and equipment are usually placed in the middle of the squatters’ area, and there were no walls. I asked my friends from engineering how to make the dirty ice cream business into a food-grade level business. They said that it’s important to build walls, tile the floors, and place a sink for sanitation purposes. When we estimated the costs, it turned out that I needed a million pesos in capital investment. That includes only the facility. To create the set-up, I used my savings from my corporate stint.

Initially, however, I thought that the business model was not entirely feasible. There was a time wherein I discovered that, underneath the machine being used to make ice cream, there were hair and even shards of glass. My community partner showed it to me.

At that point, I told myself that I can’t work with them anymore. I revisited the business plan and looked at it on a macroeconomic scale. I was able to use the different templates from my college classes in economics and business. While researching, I found out that 98.8% of the dairy products in the Philippines is imported. Almost all the brands in the market are imported, but packaged locally. That’s also when I discovered Fonterra, the fourth largest dairy industry in the world, which is also a cooperative. Their shareholders were farmers, and they’re based in New Zealand. They also have cooperatives in China. I told myself I wanted to emulate Fonterra’s practice, but I’ll focus on carabao milk, mostly because of the poor farmers commonly associated with it.

I researched about carabao milk, and found that it is richer in terms of nutrients as compared to cow’s milk. I was raised with cow’s milk, so I don’t know much about carabao’s milk. People who came from the province—they’re the ones who know more about carabao’s milk. That’s when I thought to myself that I wanted to champion carabao’s milk. I formed my vision, and that is to be the supplier and processor of carabao milk. From there, I eventually created a full line of dairy products like ice cream that are made of carabao milk.

How do you measure your enterprise’s social impact?

For now, it’s more of how much salary we are able to give to the community partners and how many liters of milk we buy at prices higher than the market value. Usually that’s how we do it, because we haven’t thoroughly studied how we would measure our social impact. Eventually, what we plan to do is that we can buy the milk at even higher prices. It still depends. We will still undergo studies. On top of the P75 cost of milk, we’re planning that to include what would go to the SSS contributions and PhilHealth of farmers, among others.

Do you have any tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

It’s very difficult, because it’s a constant battle. There are days when it can get very depressing, but at the end, you should always ask yourself why you are doing it in the first place. What for? Why did I start this? What gives me inspiration are the people who work with me in the GKEF community. On the other hand, you need to make sure that the farmers are taken care of, and that they will still be there in the next generations to come. If not, there will be much less production of food, and many people would starve. That’s what the GKEF is breeding — a generation of social entrepreneurs and farmers.

Bridging entrepreneurship in rural and urban areas: An interview with Plush and Play founder Fabien Courteille

Fabien Courteille is the social business incubation head of Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF), the social innovation platform of the globally-recognized Gawad Kalinga that aims to “raise social entrepreneurs, help local farmers, and create wealth in the countryside.” He is also the founder of Plush and Play, one of the eldest in more than 20 social enterprises being incubated in the farm.

In this special vignette, the De La Salle University Center for Business Research and Development – Social Enterprise Research Network interviews Fabien for an overview of the social incubation work being done in the farm as well as the vast, untapped opportunities he perceives in the country’s entrepreneurial landscape.

How would you describe the purpose and rationale behind the creation of the farm’s business incubation team?

The basic idea was, how do you create a conducive space for people to actually start a business? Oftentimes, what you hear is that not so many people are actually prepared to be entrepreneurs. It’s only recently that the different schools in the Philippines are putting entrepreneurship classes. Before, there were not so many formal ways on how to learn to be an entrepreneur.

One thing we are trying to do is, how do we develop more activity and economic development in the province? Everyone wants to go to Manila. It’s overpopulated. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to Manila. Gawad Kalinga (GK) has built thousands of houses and communities all over the country. The only way to sustain the people within these communities is to actually give them sustainable jobs. That’s one thing we started of thinking–what if we started businesses in the different GK communities so that we can provide sustainable jobs for the communities there?

The first idea was to bring the graduates from top universities to the province and work with the communities in terms of agriculture. Many of those graduates from the top universities actually come from the province, but as soon as they graduate, the only objective is going abroad or corporations. None of them are thinking, “Hey, I will go back to my province and help my kababayan.” That’s something we have a hard time on. We realize that many things that were taught in school were–this is a bit of an opinion–is disconnected from the realities of work.

Can you cite examples?

Most of the graduates don’t even know that, for instance, 98% of the dairy, 90% of the mushroom, and 85% of chocolate industry in the country are imported. The Philippines, however, is proud of the cacao belt, so they can grow cacao here easily. The PH is rich in carabaos, cows, and goats, but how come we’re not using the milk for such purpose? There are millions of carabaos in the country and yet they’re not used for dairy purposes. That’s one thing I’m trying to understand, if it’s not an opportunity, then tell me what it is.

I hear oftentimes the challenge of people wanting to be an entrepreneur, but ayaw nila sa probinsya. Ayaw nila sa farming. Ayaw sa livestock, so what type of entrepreneur is it going to be?

I received hundreds of inquiries of people wanted to start a business. 95% of them wanted to start online selling platforms. But before you have something to sell online, you need the producers, and we don’t have producers. We have millions of people who are waiting for opportunity. There are millions of hectares of land that are abandoned. The Philippines is one of the most fertile lands in Southeast Asia and one of the richest biodiversities in the world.

So what are they learning in school if it’s not taking advantage of these opportunities? I have skilled people; I have a hundred million-based consumer market. I have industries that have yet to be developed or yet to be tapped.

The way is to start an agriculture-based business in the countryside of the Philippines. I hear too many excuses like, oh it’s too hot to start a dairy industry. In India – the largest producer and consumer of dairy in the world – their climate is worse than the Philippines. It’s hotter and more humid, so what’s our excuse? It’s an excuse if you want to do it with cows, but why would you want to have cows if you have carabaos?

How come no one is actually taking advantage of it? How come the Philippines is proud of being the biggest exporters of coconut in the world, but the coconut farmers are among the poorest in the country? I don’t know where the pride is there. The coconut industry is one of the biggest value chains. Value chain is one of the keywords you should learn as an entrepreneur. As of now, because we’re exporting raw coconut, we’re not getting anything from this value chain. Same for chocolate. As for bamboo, we’re not even talking about bamboo in the Philippines. I don’t know if anyone minds bamboos in the country, but it’s one of the biggest industries being developed in China, Indonesia, Europe, and US – they are crazy over bamboo. The Philippines has the potential to grow a lot of bamboo.

Those are things that I call disconnections. I come from a country where opportunities are limited, and so we have to push entrepreneurs to actually move into technology and innovation. Looking at the Philippines, we’re not there yet. The Philippines is a country with thousands of industries that are yet to be tapped and developed. Every time I go to business competitions and schools, parang wala silang idea aside from e-commerce sites.

You mentioned a lot of the opportunities available in the Philippines. In terms of your business incubation team, how do you select the social entrepreneurs who will actually have their enterprises incubated in the farm?

The first direction was to get the graduates from top universities, because at one point we want to show entrepreneurs that they are just one piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes, the entrepreneurs would come in, look at the community, and say, that’s my labor. But if you come think of it, the entrepreneur, most of the time, he has no idea how to grow peanuts or how to make peanut butter. However, he has marketing skills, business skills, and access to networks in Manila. On the other side, mothers from the community – they know how to grow the peanuts and make peanut butter, but they don’t know marketing and networks. Let’s be business partners and let’s do something, but oftentimes it’s too much of a job and too much of thinking. I will be the one to come and run this show and I ask them to walk for me – this oftentimes does not work. That’s again, the disconnection of not understanding where they come from, what they bring in to the picture, or sometimes the sense of entitlement that is strong when you come from top universities.

It’s not just the Philippines; it’s also around the world that the entitlement because of the degree is so strong. However, a degree of a top university will not take you anywhere in Bulacan; literally in one context it’s true, but in another one it’s not. That’s one thing, we try to bring students from top universities to come in here.

Oftentimes, the challenge is actually family pressure. You hear things like, “I did not send you to top universities for you to go to the countryside. I did not send you there for you to go to the wet market or for you to not earn money in the first year.” Oftentimes, as soon as they graduate, the parents ask them to start paying the bills at home. That’s usually what slows down entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs should be free for the first couple of years to get their business moving forward before they can pay the bills of the family. I’ve seen many, because, “Oh, I have to pay the bills for my parents. Car. Condo. I keep paying for my parents, even though they’re retiring.” That’s the pressure that people from the city are enduring – the entitlement of family or anything, loans, many pressures.

Now, it’s starting to move into different directions where we realize that among those in the communities, we have a lot of kids who are motivated who have the character, time, and desire to go out of poverty. What they like most of the time is the science, technology, and competencies. That’s one thing we’re trying to do now – we identify the different kids in our provinces and communities who show good academic records, but don’t have the opportunities to go to college. We’re moving into an incubation that’s started even before the business. We incubate the entrepreneur. We train them like a college degree. While talking the degree, he’s starting the business, that’s part of his grades. By the end of year one, you should have already done this business plan and SWOT analysis. By a year or two there’s a prototype already.

If you’re going to give a tip or advice for social entrepreneurs, what would be the primary strategies they can do? What should they focus on? What should they pay the most attention to in terms of their strategy?

As a social enterprise, it would be very important to understand what social issue they’re talking about, because you do have a lot of people who want to venture into social entrepreneurship, but they don’t have a group of people they want to help. That’s the problem – you think you’re going to help them, but you don’t know what they need.

I would recommend anyone wanting to become an entrepreneur to spend every sixth month or year just to shadow an existing entrepreneur. In the farm, you can shadow 40 entrepreneurs. So that’s one thing I can suggest, don’t be in a hurry. But when you start, don’t be slow. You’re going to engage other people. Once you start, be focused, be committed, and just do that. It’s not a hobby anymore. If you’re not ready to be full-time, just help. Volunteer. Just shadow. Don’t start your own yet. It’s only when you’re ready. It’s super demanding. It’s not 8-5. The biggest challenge, honestly, is you don’t have the boss behind you to make sure you get the work done, so it’s easy to actually be tempted of not doing it, postponing it to tomorrow, and not challenging yourself to do more. That’s what’s challenging, I think. Unless you’ve grown that self-discipline, then better. And very critical also is who are you going to do business with. Spend enough time to choose. Once you’re tied with a corporation, it’s very difficult.