- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009


R.K. Jeyaram, a 19-year-old with a 10th-grade education, used to go door-to-door offering to repair stoves and washing machines. Then he heard about a company that manufactured lanterns rechargeable by solar power. It fired up his entrepreneurial spirit and he approached the manufacturer. The company saw potential in his work ethic, guaranteed a loan from a bank and started selling him the lanterns.

These days, Mr. Jeyaram, his brother and another partner are in business, renting the lanterns to more than 80 vendors in Mysore for about 30 cents a night, and in the process helping vendors and their customers do away with the soot and smell of kerosene lamps.

Mr. Jeyaram’s story is characteristically Indian. People in this teeming nation of more than 1 billion seem to have a natural knack for entrepreneurship. For many, invention comes from necessity, with jobs and money scarce and social obstacles such as caste, making getting by all the more difficult.

Yet Mr. Jeyaram’s success is in other ways atypical - finding a guarantor for financing is usually a challenge, and not many lenders are willing to risk loans to nonprofessionals with no assets for collateral.

Innovators in the development field have recently recognized that socially constructive enterprises like Mr. Jeyaram’s are vital to India’s future.

Among them is Lisa Heydlauff, a 33-year-old Briton who has lived for the past decade in New Delhi, India’s capital. Ms. Heydlauff has launched a number of nonprofit projects in India, and she and her team are now in the early stages of an ambitious initiative called Be.

Be’s aim is to empower low-income Indians to become social entrepreneurs - businesspeople who improve their own lots as well as those of their communities.

“In 2020, there will be 210 million unemployed people in India,” Ms. Heydlauff says. “Ninety percent of them will be below the age of 30. The economy simply can’t grow enough to provide jobs for everyone.”

Be is a multiphase initiative. The first component is the creation and distribution of videos, illustrated books and other media to explain the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to young people from low-income backgrounds.

Ms. Heydlauff believes in both telling and showing, so narratives centering on real people like Mr. Jeyaram are the core of her approach. Be has begun production of an illustrated book describing his success.

Ms. Heydlauff feels that many development models focus on what the country’s poor lack, rather than what they do have - in this case, the potential to be successful entrepreneurs.

One problem that Be is tackling is a paradox surrounding entrepreneurship in India.

Anyone who has walked down a single Mumbai block and been offered a rickshaw ride, a handful of cashews, an on-the-spot ear-cleaning, a hotel room, and a palm reading knows that Indians are innately entrepreneurial. But in India, starting one’s own business is usually seen as a desperate last resort rather than an inspired, pro-active choice.

“Low-income Indians sometimes think, ‘I’m not working, I have no money, and I don’t have a roof over my head,’ and only then do they start thinking of business ideas,” says Mahamaya Navlakh, a development specialist with Be.

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