Social impact in times of COVID: A story of two entrepreneurs

Professor Rajesh Chandy, Co-Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development, London Business School sat down with Rhea Mazumdar Singhal, CEO and founder of Ecoware, and Gaurav Mehta, CEO and founder of Dharma Life, to discuss their entrepreneurial stories and how they are trying to address some of the biggest challenges that India and the world faces today. Social impact in times of COVID: A story of two entrepreneurs was a panel at the BITS School of Management’s BEACON Festival of Ideas.

Ecoware: Reimagining the plastics problem

Plastic pollution is an area of deep environmental concern across the world. In India, plastic waste has doubled in the last five years at an alarming rate of almost 22%. This is the problem that Ecoware is trying to address. The company was started in 2009 by Rhea Mazumdar Singhal, an alumna of University of Bristol, after a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical industry. Ecoware now is one of the largest producers of ecological packaging in India and derives 100% of its revenues from the circular economy model. Since its inception, Ecoware estimates that it has displaced almost a billion pieces of single-use plastic.

When asked about what motivated her to enter this industry, Mrs. Singhal talked about her personal experience of losing a loved one to cancer and how that made her more aware of the damage that eating out of plastic plates, cups, bowls, and utensils was doing to our bodies. With that in mind, Mrs. Singhal started Ecoware  to produce biodegradable plastics-based food packaging using agriculture waste, which is available in abundance in a country like India.

She talked about the guiding principles and values on which the company was based, which were namely, (i) safety – whatever the company created shouldn’t affect the nutritional value of the food that was put in it and should be safe for the environment; (ii) purpose driven – being based in a developing country, one of Ecoware’s main goals was to create jobs and livelihoods for the local communities; and (iii) authenticity – there was a clear emphasis on making products that are genuinely good for the human body and the environment.

Dharma Life: Encouraging participation of women in the workforce

Gaurav Mehta and his team at Dharma Life are seeking to address the challenge of livelihoods for women in India. India has one of the lowest participation rates amongst women in the labour market in the world. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in businesses closing and job losses for many. This has reinforced a popular sentiment, especially in rural India, that when jobs are scarce, men should have more of a right to a job than women. As a result of this, female labour force participation has gone down to a record low in India at about 16%.

Dharma Life’s model is to recruit job-seeking people from villages, train them in entrepreneurship and sales skills, and get them to work on solving urgent developmental challenges in their communities. Thus, this model achieves two objectives – creating livelihoods for the people being recruited and helping address some of the major challenges around health, energy access, gender, and livelihoods at the village level. As of today, Dharma Life has a network of 17,000 entrepreneurs, most of them being women.

Through their work, Dharma Life have observed that the impact of female entrepreneurs is much higher because they typically spend the money on their families. However, one challenge they faced in the beginning was that self-selection was largely male, as this role required people to go door-to-door to sell products and services that have a social impact such as light cookstoves, water purifiers, sanitary napkins, and so on. Therefore, they had to go back to the drawing board and reiterate their business model, redesigning everything and focusing on female entrepreneurs.

The impact of COVID on their businesses

When asked about the impact that COVID has had on Ecoware, Mrs. Singhal remarked that COVID has made products like those of Ecoware more pertinent as single use is equated to hygiene. However, Ecoware also faced several day-to-day challenges over the last two years, the biggest of them being loss of talent, and especially that of young women. This was triggered by the national lockdowns that forced migrant workers to return to their towns and villages from the big cities. On the plus side, Mrs. Singhal mentioned that COVID has made her team more resilient and cognizant of uncertainties, which has helped drive motivation and determination.

Mr. Mehta then shared Dharma Life’s experience of dealing with COVID and stated how the focus shifted from initially delivering daily essentials and medicines to households in villages to other pertinent problems such as creating livelihoods for women and education. Mr. Mehta talked about how technology has helped design and implement interventions in these areas. Dharma Life recently launched a program called The Jaya Alliance, which specifically works on women workforce participation and helps women from villages acquire skills they would like to pursue through digital platforms, and then helps them start the businesses as well. In the area of education, Dharma Life’s employees took the initiative to teach students in villages via Zoom to prevent a discontinuity in education. This has now evolved into a platform where Dharma Life is enrolling kids into assisted digital tutoring.

Way forward

The speakers concluded with the observation that ‘business as a force for good’ is a combination of paying taxes, engaging in CSR activities, creating employment, selling products and services, and creating wealth for shareholders. Ultimately, it is important for businesses to create value and long-lasting impact for all stakeholders and embedding the impact of climate change in their business models.

This conversation was part of a panel titled “Social impact in times of COVID: A story of two entrepreneurs” at the BITS School of Management’s BEACON Festival of Ideas, organized in collaboration with the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development.

Rhea Mazumdar Singhal is the CEO and Founder of Ecoware. Mrs. Singhal won the Nari Shakti Puraskar (‘Woman Strength Award’) award from the President of India in 2019. She’s a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. Mrs. Singhal studied Pharmacology from the University of Bristol and worked at Pfizer in the UK before returning to India to start Ecoware.

Gaurav Mehta (LBS MBA’10) founded Dharma Life in 2008 and has won many awards for his work including the LBS Alumni Award for creating the biggest impact in the last 10 years. Gaurav is also a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum. Prior to starting Dharma Life, Gaurav worked at Pratham, an NGO focusing on high-quality, low-cost, and replicable interventions to address gaps in the education system in India, and in private equity in Germany.

About Dharma Life Labs and the Voice of the Village Event Series: Dharma Life Labs is a rural innovation lab with a focus on driving inclusive progress. A collaboration between Dharma Life, the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development at the London Business School and Siriti, the Lab leverages local relationships, digital connectedness and real-time insights to drive impact at scale. The insights from our work are brought alive through a series of virtual roundtables – the “Voice of the Village” – which bring together the rural community with global partners as equals. The objective of these roundtables is to create inclusive communities of practice to help villagers lead themselves and their communities on the path of progress.

Sagun Tripathi (MBA 2023) worked for more than eight years in the energy sector, across different geographies – the US, Germany, and India – and functions – R&D, consulting, strategy, and operations – before coming to LBS. He is passionate about climate action and how sustainable energy holds the power to transform lives in the developing world.

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