Building a Social Enterprise

Prof. Ankur Sarin & Prof. M S Sriram

"What Is a Social Enterprise?" - Professor Ankur Sarin

We continue to ask the question, even after teaching "Social Entrepreneurship: Innovating for Social Change" for nearly 15 years. Perhaps, that is what still makes the course interesting for Professor MS Sriram and me. Although we were not the first ones to teach such a course, the idea of social enterprises was relatively unspoken, especially in the mainstream. Over the years, we have seen several cases taught by us be incorporated in first-year-required courses. The course has consequently evolved in multiple ways and so has our own understanding of the phenomenon. While Professor Sriram was already a seasoned and well-loved teacher in finance and accounts, it was my first course. However, neither of us had done any coursework on social entrepreneurship. Consequently, we were our first students (apologies to all who might now feel they were guinea pigs!). Over the years, we have had students write reflection memos - this is mine.


One of the traps of management teaching is believing that management education is ideologically neutral - that what we teach is technical and therefore bereft of any values, beliefs or moral positions. Coming from a training grounded essentially in applied microeconomics and statistics, taught to see objectives such as profit maximisation and efficiency simply as given, I shared these ideas as well. However, more than any other, this course made me recognise my naivety.

I have come to believe that while initially we might genuinely have failed to agree on a definition, the idea of not hard-coding a definition for social enterprise has worked well in multiple ways. In hindsight, I would argue that it is an essential constraint that we were lucky to have to put on ourselves. For instance, if we were to define social enterprises only as for-profit organisations with a social purpose - as I was tempted to do when we started the course - I would be ideologically pushing out any other forms of enterprises such as non-profits and cooperatives that have also brought people together historically in very creative, impactful and sustainable ways. In emphasising only financial incentives, I would have devalued all other incentives that motivate people. Ironically, a definition restricted to for-profit enterprises only reinforces dominant thinking and contradicts the idea of social enterprises being instruments for challenging the status quo. I admit I had not started out thinking this way. Instead, these ideas emerged from the space created by the ambiguity, which allowed participants to express themselves. To impose a definition would have killed the most insightful debates we have had during the course. Curbing the temptation to impose my authority, values and beliefs as a teacher onto students is a skill I continue to learn as I teach this and other courses today.


Ambiguity, however, is not easy to embrace. As a teacher, the anxiety of being - or at least appearing to be -the person with all the answers in the room is acute, especially in the early years. What perhaps gave me courage was the presence of my co-instructor, who played a critical role in being able to keep the course open to ideas but at the same time coherent enough for students to engage with and hopefully learn from. Without a clearly defined body of knowledge that often characterises other subjects, we have had to define what we teach and how. For most of the years we have taught the course, we have tried to join each other's sessions. Questions during the sessions have spilled over to conversations outside the classroom, helping us see new perspectives and articulate them in different ways. The fact that we have not agreed on everything has helped us learn from our disagreements. No credit system gives points for it, but observing a co-instructor at work is perhaps the best way to learn to teach (something that is ironically never taught in most PhD programmes)!


The human stories that underlie most organisations we study are remarkable, both in terms of the people who create the enterprise and the people they impact. However, when Professor Sriram or I teach the sessions, we try to steer clear of any hagiography. Participants with expectations of hearing heroic stories perhaps find our questioning disappointing or even uncomfortable. However, we would rather like students to hear the stories directly and leave the task of inspiring participants to guest speakers who have actually walked the talk. We have been lucky to have several alumni who have chosen to work in this space, in addition to several other absolutely wonderful human beings who the students can not only take inspiration from but also identify with. An idea we have imbibed from several of them is that working in this space is not necessarily about "doing good" or "giving back", but it is about addressing the most complex and challenging problems we face as a society. What can be more intellectually stimulating than that?


Labels such as social entrepreneurs, social enterprise and innovation often put individuals, organisations and activities on a pedestal. However, I have come to believe that by not asking hard questions of them, we treat them as objects of generosity and only demean them. By valorising all innovation, we ignore their distributive implications. Instead, if we truly respect and admire the work done by some extraordinary people, we have to be constantly asking how they move us to a more socially just - however, we might define it - world? To recognise a social entrepreneur, we have to understand both the enterprise and the society they work in. We have to ask not only how they can better meet the needs of those at the "bottom of the pyramid" but also what keeps generations permanently there as well. We have to ask not only whether the enterprise can sustain itself but whether it can also sustain its mission, the purpose for which it exists? And should enterprises not asking themselves these questions be called social enterprises? This is a question perhaps best left to you.

What is NOT a Social Enterprise? - Professor M S Sriram


This is an excellent opportunity to write a reflection note on the course "Social Entrepreneurship: Innovating Social Change", a payback for all the notes we have made generations of students write about how they connect the practical aspects elucidated by the guest speakers with the theoretical constructs we presented in the classroom. We have seen this course as a continuous learning for us. This learning comes from two sources. The first source of learning is students, who challenge us in the classroom. We have to ensure that we do get defensive but engage in a conversation. Not having a predefined position on what we think is a social enterprise has helped us make this endeavour a joint exploration with the students. The second source of learning is from the guest speakers. An aspect we have tried to ensure is not to repeat a speaker, which has held us stand in good stead because we are constantly discovering new and unique challenges people working in the broad societal space face. Not only do they have challenges, most of the time, these speakers irreverently challenge the posits we have proposed. Therefore, the conversations move beyond the boundaries to the frontiers.

We use a convoluted route of elimination to define a social enterprise. When we ask the question, "Is this a social enterprise?", we are collectively forced to slot the answers in the Yes and No boxes. While there could be ambiguity on what goes into the "yes" slot, by sharply eliminating the "nos", we draw a line on what it is not. We call this approach as inspired by the Shankara philosophy of neti neti (not this, not this)!


When we first designed the course, we informally decided it would be largely about not-for-profit enterprises, though it did not explicitly say so. We were trying to attract attention to the course by drawing some boundaries in our minds. However, as far as the class was concerned, we decided that we would not take any ideological or conclusive position in one form or the other. In our successive offerings of the course, we found this was a limiting proposition because many exciting interventions had chosen the for-profit route for funding or signalling. That led us to move towards a slightly redesigned offering: choose a sector with multiple forms of the organisation operating and examine what happens to the core objectives as they reach a tipping point of scale or leadership transition. This opened our eyes to the pressures the enterprises face while remaining "social'. However, we also have enterprises that do not claim to be social enterprises but have a large positive impact on society as an unintended consequence. We have learnt to negotiate that space as well.


The course on social entrepreneurship that Professors Srinivasan and Trilochan Sastry offered at IIMB inspired me to teach this course. I was on a leave of absence from IIMA for a year. I spent the time in IIMB co-teaching this course with Professor Sastry when Professor Srinivasan sought a break in teaching this course. This is where I developed deep learning on a firm's structuring and design and why the form was important. Professor Srinivasan's understated but rigorous approach has been a great source of learning. Meanwhile, the course seemed to be more "social" than enterprise, giving the learning a good flavour of enterprises that were questioning the status quo in the market. From this learning came the core non-negotiable part of the course, which has continued ever since - that the course would focus on enterprises having an underlying exchange of products or services, with a potential to charge a fee. If this was the basis, then the aspect of "social" (in the Social Entrepreneurship) was the mechanics of compensating the service. Would it be compensated through grant funding, soft capital or user fees? What does it mean to waive or subsidise the user fee given the users' vulnerability as a category, and how could that be still paid for? This has helped us constantly negotiate the alternative funding strategies and the enterprise models and opened doors to new vistas.


We have been working on a mythical book on this area for over a decade. While the book itself is elusive, this frame has helped us constantly keep in touch with each other on our readings and new ideas and helped us sharpen our understanding. These exchanges bring to bear on the design and constant changes we introduce to the course.

There is one more fun aspect. We (Professor Sarin and I) could have fundamental differences on the pedagogic material to be used and how to pitch a particular concept. However, these differences have never resulted in a conflict. This may be because both of us teach a variation of this course elsewhere (Business Unusual: Understanding Alternative Business Models at IIMB by Professor Sriram, and Social Entrepreneurship and Impact by Professor Sarin at Ashoka University). We used these solo performances to test our belief systems and revert to each other to exchange notes on the aspects that worked or failed elsewhere. This has helped us remain a cohesive team.

My association with IIMA taught me one thing - the best learnings happen not only by the interactions with the co-instructors and the readings but also by attending classes led by other faculty. We get to know smaller nuances of how to handle the hardware (board, power points and other visual aids), engage with students and articulate a concept better. Co-teaching has also helped us pass on the leadership in a particular class to the other person if we think they could articulate a particular concept much better. This helps us develop a healthy respect for the skill sets of the co-instructor. We certainly have learnt what-not-to-do from student group presentations: Divide a presentation into multiple segments and provide equal time to every group member. We recognise that in a 25-session course, we uniquely do five sessions each, where each of us has a unique strength to offer, but the rest of the 15 sessions are a jugalbandi, where either of us could lead and the other could play a secondary role. After all, the concept of a jugalbandi is not about who wins - it is not a competition; it is about delivering a musical experience playing on the strengths of differing styles so that the audience (or students) get the best of both of us.

Now, I have been away from IIMA for more years than I was associated with it. However, this is still the course that gets me back to the campus and has helped me keep that association of still being an insider going. I am thankful for this.

About The Authors

Prof. Ankur Sarin

Prof. Ankur Sarin

Professor Ankur Sarin ( is a faculty in the Public Systems Group area.

Prof. M S Sriram

Prof. M S Sriram

Professor Sriram is a faculty and chairperson of the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. Previously, he was a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, vice president (finance) at BASIX and a faculty at the Institute of Rural Management Anand.