“If you are passionate and have a good idea, the money and resources will come.” Pooja Warrier speaks with enviable conviction. It probably stems from the fact that, in the past few years, she’s been the one providing the means for a number of passionate people to launch their great ideas.
Pooja, 29, is director and co-founder, along with Richard Alderson, of Unltd India, a launch pad for social entrepreneurs, by giving them support, funding, space and other resources. As Warrier puts it, the organisation “invests in ideas”. It finds people with the ideas and skills for projects aimed at bringing about social change – from improving agricultural productivity to rehabilitating burn survivors – and gives them an eco-system of seed funding, networking and coaching and guidance needed for their projects to take off. The belief is that there are people who have a vision but don’t have the means to get there.
“Where are the new ideas and leaders? That was my thought,” says Pooja, “People shouldn’t be held back for other reasons.” With this in mind, she began the groundwork for Unltd India in 2006, assessing the sector and exploring India’s needs. She had the advantage of having worked at Unltd UK, a place “infected with energy”, after which she decided to replicate the model in India.
There was massive outreach in the first two years to go out and find the right people. “How do you find and trust people? What happens if it fails? How do we give the funders their money’s worth? These were the issues, and we had to prove to ourselves that things would work,” says Pooja. In the first cycle, Unltd India picked 10 investees; they currently collaborate with about 40 investees. They have continued to support some of those projects, while they have exited from others for reasons like lack of scalability or focus.
If you meet the basic eligibility criteria, there are three steps to the selection process – an intensive meeting with an Unltd India associate, followed by submission of an application form and then a presentation in front of an interview panel. “We look at four things – the individual’s qualities, the project’s impact, whether it matches with our philosophy, and whether we can add value,” says Pooja.
Depending on which stage the initiative is at, the organisation provides support at three levels, with funding starting at Rs 80,000 and going up to Rs 20 lakh, and various hands-on support packages tailored for each stage. For instance, Grassroutes, an organisation that generates income in rural areas by promoting tourism, has moved from level 1 support to level 2 support this year.
“The big picture is to create leaders like Muhammad Yunus and run high-impact programmes within communities. It’s about creating change and finding new solutions,” says Pooja, adding, “We look for that entrepreneurial streak in people, where you keep absorbing from things around you, where one trigger moves you to action.”
The passion she sees in her investees bubbles in Pooja as well. “I’m excited by new ideas and I love the process of making them real. And I believe that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you should stop and find something else.”
And she has this advice for other entrepreneurs: “Although I love ‘doing’, I see the sense in planning and getting systems in place. All those things we think of as boring are necessary. She adds, “It is important to attract a great team, listen to what people are saying and follow your gut.”
Unltd India is now selecting its 2010 investees. Deadline to apply is August 31, 2010. Visit www.unltdindia.org. For logistical reasons, the organisation currently collaborates with projects based in and around Mumbai.
– Aditi Seshadri