About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Building social enterprise ecosystems in India, lessons from Sankalp

Why are some places more entrepreneurial than others? The answer might lie in entrepreneurship ‘ecosystems’ - the wider structures that support innovation and entrepreneurial activity in an area.

Last week, social innovators, incubators, impact investors, corporates and government actors gathered in New Delhi for the yearly Global Sankalp Summit to discuss how innovation can trigger inclusive economic growth.

A major challenge for India is to strengthen innovation and entrepreneurship outside the main metros (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai), in Tier 2, 3 and 4 cities. A panel session on the Drivers of a Robust Social Enterprise Ecosystem was particularly inspiring and led us to reflect upon this challenge.

A simple equation: Assets + Networks + Culture = Successful Ecosystem

Entrepreneurship ecosystems can only really function and be efficient at the local level. So, what are the conditions for a successful local entrepreneurship ecosystem?

  • Assets: innovative people, entrepreneurs, existing infrastructure or services. Most regions already have many assets, but are simply not able to link them together to produce an ecosystem.
  • Networks: formal or informal, at the organisation or individual scale. In India, especially in rural areas, local and individual support ecosystems are usually already very strong and tight (relying mainly on friends and families). The panel made an interesting point: we can all build our own ‘ecosystems’ by creating good networks around ourselves. Aggregating these individual networks creates a stronger, wider ecosystem of support.
  • Culture: ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘risk taking’ culture, a society that values entrepreneurship and a common language are the cement in an ecosystem. Beyond entrepreneurs themselves, families, friends, and other stakeholders at the fringe need to be engaged.

Incubator, facilitator?

By nature, incubators are very well placed to operate as ecosystem facilitators: well-managed, they can influence all three parts of the equation, and can even act as the initial spark starting off an ecosystem.

A great example is Startup Oasis, an incubation centre based in Jaipur (Rajasthan). It was set up in partnership with the state government, ensuring its strong local focus. Startup Oasis aims to develop Rajasthan’s ecosystem(s), supporting students, entrepreneurs and startups with scalable innovative solutions to persistent problems. Startup Oasis is led by a team of entrepreneurs with a deep understanding of local ecosystem components, therefore more experience and credibility in working towards making these components come together.

Implications for social entrepreneurship

The panel left us with an interesting question: is social entrepreneurship an organic outcome of ecosystem building and strengthening?

Is it possible, simply by empowering entrepreneurs who understand local context, needs and challenges, to foster more responsible and socially-aware businesses? Do you really need to brand an incubator as ‘social’ to generate social businesses? Panel members argued that if a traditional business incubator is successful in local ecosystem building, more social businesses will flourish as a natural result. But what about some of the specific needs social enterprises may have, and that traditional business incubators may not be able to bring?

Many questions yet to be answered... Sankalp has left us with a ferocious desire to learn more, and looking forward to the 2016 edition!

Listings image credit: Waterdotorg Photo Collection via Flickr cc


Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

View profile
Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Florence Engasser

Senior Foresight Analyst

Florence was a senior foresight analyst within Nesta’s Discovery Hub, which aims to create a link between Nesta’s current portfolio and our pipeline of future work.

View profile