12 Lessons From My Year As A Start-up NGO Founder
“The year 2018 has been a roller coaster ride for me. Adventure, ups and downs, high excitement and moments of nail-biting panic – I have experienced them all in this, my first, year as a social entrepreneur,” writes Anu Prasad.
The year began on a high note with the official launch of India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS), a non-profit learning and leadership development organisation I founded late last year. January 2018 saw the dream finally take shape in the form of a unique leadership development program that seeks to educate and enable senior corporate leadership talent to engage meaningfully with the social sector and also help build leadership capacity within the social sector. Last week, we wrapped up the fourth edition of the program– looking back, personally, it has been 12 months of learning some valuable lessons in entrepreneurship.
Just do it
Done is better than perfect. Too often great passion and brilliant ideas remain just that, because we tend to overthink. I thought of ILSS in June 2017, by September 2017 I had unveiled the brand and in January 2018 we were off the ground. My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to take the plunge and leave some space for yourself, your idea and your start-up to evolve along the way. Leave some room for emergence – who knows what unexpected, happy opportunity might be lurking ahead?
Be open to tweaking your business plan as you go along and new opportunities present themselves. Although we started out as a program to help corporate leadership talent move to the social sector, we were quick to spot the opportunity to build the capacity of leaders in other sectors such as the social sector itself, the government and the armed forces; we believe even women returning to the workforce after a hiatus can find this program useful.
Yours is to ask why
…and why not, where, how, who, when. I stay curious and foolish enough to ask questions constantly. I seek and have conversations with as many leaders in as many forums as possible. The best ideas can surface from the most unexpected places. The knowledge and perspective I gain from this is incredible, and my team, my organisation and I are richer for it.
Practise humility every day – more so in the social sector. It’s a great space to operate from and allows you to have honest conversations, build genuine relationships and trust.
It’s your baby. If you don’t nurture it yourself, who will? Work hard, stay energised and enthused, and watch every step your baby takes.
Build your team
Much as you would like to do it all yourself, be realistic about how much you know and how much you can pack into a day. Assess your own skills and get talented, committed people on board to complement your strengths and weaknesses. Then give your team the space and opportunities to work to their full potential and to have complete ownership. It’s important to create a shared vision and make your team true partners rather than employees.
Find your champions
It can be a lonely journey as a founder, so make sure you have a support system of people to lean on when the going gets tough, or when you need a piece of quick advice or bounce some ideas off. Find a mentor, a 4 am friend and a coach if you can. And a whole lot of people who speak well about your organisation.
Get an additional layer of skin
As a woman entrepreneur, developing a thick skin is a great idea. You will come under more scrutiny and scepticism than men (don’t ask me why!), so the sooner you develop the art of separating honest feedback from plain negativity and cynicism, the easier it will be for you to stay mission-focused and happy with what you do.
Value your relationships
Be it your funder or partners, make sure they share your belief in your business and are truly vested in seeing you succeed. Invest your time and commitment to build a relationship of trust, mutual respect and transparency.
As a founder, always be on top of the numbers game. Don’t be shy to discuss money – be it with your funder or your partners. Given that there is so much philanthropic money available in the social sector now, it’s easy to get carried away and ask for more funds to do more things. I believe there is a risk of mission drift when you do that – your focus could shift from what you set out to do, and you could instead land up doing too many things that don’t necessarily help you achieve the impact you were really keen to achieve.
I can’t overemphasise upon the importance of communication: never lose an opportunity to speak about your organisation and the work you do. As women, we tend to leave far too much unsaid and we also often underplay our achievement – be aware of this conditioned behaviour. Practise a succinct description of what you do – and make sure your team does too – so that you are always ready with a clear answer when you are asked about your work or your organisation. And remember to keep the communication lines open with your team, your funders, partners and all stakeholders.
Continuous learning and an open mind keeps you well-informed and allows you to have interesting conversations and build perspective. All of which helps your work. More importantly, it makes you a better person. Seek out opportunities to learn, interact with people you can learn from, read. I am fortunate to have these opportunities built into my work – as part of the ILSS program, I meet some of the brightest, most inspirational people. I read like it’s going out of fashion: my favourite reads in 2018 include, Principles, Factfulness, Poor Economics, Small is Beautiful, Doughnut Economics, Hind Swaraj.
Anu Prasad is the founder of India Leaders for Social Sector, a non-profit that seeks to help committed, experienced senior talent from various industries to engage more meaningfully with the social sector. The views expressed are the author’s own.