Sat at my desk at the beginning of December my colleague strolled over from the other side of the office, I was hoping they were going to offer me a cup of tea, instead the conversation went:
What are you doing at Christmas?
Erm, you know family stuff, the usual.
Do you want to go on a train round India?
What, why? YES.
SSE are venturing into the sub-continent for the first time this year and with the launch in Delhi just around the corner we need to get the word out far and wide so that we can find a great inaugural cohort of social entrepreneurs. To help us do this we have partnered with Jagriti Yatra who are ‘Building India through enterprise’.
Jagriti Yatra is a fifteen day train journey around India. The train becomes home to 450 ‘Yatris’ (the name given to the participants). The Yatris are carefully selected for their entrepreneurial flair and potential, they are mostly Indian but there is a small number of international participants too. Each day there is a packed schedule of inspirational visits and talks designed to get the Yatris thinking about India’s future and more importantly their role in driving systemic change in the country. The train stops off at some of the most famous cities including Bangalore and Delhi but intentionally dedicates as much of the schedule to the less developed states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa.
I joined the Yatra with the SSE India team, Mohit and Shalabh, to spread the word about our upcoming launch in Delhi. Two visits particularly stood out for me: Gram Vikas and Goonj. Both amazing organisations with humble leaders. The visits were particularly pertinent as the speakers didn’t just focus on their successes they highlighted their challenges, bringing reality to the whole experience. The issue of changing mindsets seems to be especially pertinent in India. For example at Gram Vikas’ educating people about the benefits of using indoor toilets and discouraging open defecation is more of a challenge than actually building toilets in rural areas. It was an important message to the Yatris: before you can effectively make change, you need to understand such cultural challenges.
In between the visits the Yatris are split into groups and set the challenge of creating a feasible, scaleable, replicable and financially sustainable business plan. Cue much drama and politics. It seems when you set a group of self identified leaders the challenge of working together democratically it can take a while for anything to get agreed upon. However once the groups decided on what ideas they were going to work on it became a seriously impressive competition. Considering the focus was meant to be on enterprise, not necessarily social enterprise, it was also great to see so many of the Yatris choosing a social model – being taken to visit all those social innovators must have rubbed off on them!
Much like a SSE programme the lessons learnt on the Yatra are as much about self awareness and leadership as they are about business. Although it’s not just the programme of activities that leads to these outcomes, it’s the environment. The sleeping on a train bunk bed, always being in a group of 400+ with no personal space and no where to hide. Washing is done in a cold bucket bath, the food (although delicious) was repetitive and not ideal for delicate western tummies. Then the toilets, what can I say… just be grateful 2016 hasn’t got smellivision.
The challenging living conditions, programme of inspirational and thought provoking visits and a huge group of hopeful, ambitious and energetic youth is a magic recipe. The outcome is a sense of togetherness where strangers become friends and brilliant ideas are formed. I really do hope some of those ideas are actually implemented, thankfully SSE India and the Jagriti Enterprise Network are there to support those who do!
I was only on the train for seven days and in that time I was inspired, challenged, exhausted, bruised, frustrated, motivated and my passion for social enterprise well and truly reignited.
What do you get when you put 450 aspiring young entrepreneurs on an Indian train? A unique, once in a lifetime experience (much better than a cup of tea!) Thanks Jagriti Yatra for the opportunity.