How an Incubator-Investor platform transformed a dorm startup into a successful company: The Journey of BIOSENSE

First time entrepreneurs generally lack the experience to build business models that are not only scalable, but also profitable in the long run. From the early startup boom of the silicon valley till today, this has been the pattern almost everywhere in the world. However, in the past decade, incubators and accelerators/investors across the world, have slowly but surely tried to fill this gap. While incubators help early-stage entrepreneurs with mentorship, investors help in accelerating the development through capital.

First time entrepreneurs generally lack the experience to build business models that are not only scalable, but also profitable in the long run. From the early startup boom of the silicon valley till today, this has been the pattern almost everywhere in the world. However, in the past decade, incubators and accelerators/investors across the world, have slowly but surely tried to fill this gap. While incubators help early-stage entrepreneurs with mentorship, investors help in accelerating the development through capital.

But the catch for the entrepreneurs has been to find the perfect incubator-investor combination. Incubators to help them shape their business model and the investors to back their business through funding. This is especially difficult in the social entrepreneurship universe. While Villgro was founded in 2001, Menterra, its partner investment fund was set-up in 2016. Together, this platform provides a strong value to early-stage entrepreneurs. The platform works like a well oiled conveyer belt and enables a business right from its formative stages to growth.

To know exactly how this model works, I caught up with Paul Basil, Founder & CEO, Villgro and Mukesh Sharma, Co-Founder & MD, Menterra Venture Advisors. The duo explains how one of their flagship portfolio companies, Biosense, achieved success, and is now creating impact at scale.


Biosense is a cutting edge IoT product that is focused on tackling India’s twin challenges — malnutrition and diabetes. The product leverages connected devices to increase accessibility of tests. From the hilly regions of Ladakh to desert districts of Rajasthan to the tribal areas of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Biosense has been catering to some of India’s poorest, in diverse geographies.

It can be hard to believe that Biosense was just a dorm room startup!

“When we incubated Biosense, it was a product idea and the founders were still pursuing their degrees at IIT Bombay. It was a typical dorm startup!” recalls Mukesh. “The founding team told us they know the problem and they can create solution. They didn’t know how to build a business around it. They asked us if we would help them to build a business. It was a test of our incubation model. Over the last 7 years, Biosense has launched 7 products and has raised more than USD 4Mn.”

~ All Biosense devices use mobile platform with geo tagging and cloud-connectivity enabling data on disease
prevalence by village and district.
~ Potential Aadhaar integration would enable care to high risk patients.
~ Government and corporate initiatives are now able to use this data to provide targeted intervention resulting in
efficient usage of scarce resources.


Apart from the infrastructure setup costs, hiring the right talent is the first major hurdle for any startup. While speaking about tackling this, Mukesh Sharma says “We helped them build a team and business around their passion and idea. So, the Villgro-Menterra partnership with Biosense can be summarised in one line: transforming a dorm startup into a solid organisation that delivers impact at scale.”

Mukesh elaborates, “We helped them raise first angel and VC round. Once we launched our fund, we provided more than USD 1Mn in equity funding. For working capital, soft debt funding of more than USD 2Mn was arranged through our investor network. Capital was an initial impediment. There was need for very intense hand-holding in multiple areas.”

“We worked on talent development at all levels (CxO, board and the execution team). Building sales DNA and engine has been an area of focus for us. We engaged distributors and mentors from large pharma companies to provide them with very specific commercial, distribution and sales inputs. We formalized the board and initiated robust governance structures. We helped team of doctors and engineers develop a business aptitude with sound financial discipline.”


Villgro initiated the incubation of Biosense back in 2012. Initially, it focused mainly on a strong product and smart customer insights. But later on, after about 4 years – in 2016, we wanted Biosense to become aggressive in the market. That’s when Menterra entered the fray.

“From a friendly, caring Villgro there was a shift to a more aggressive Menterra. This taught us a lot at Villgro that we need to be harder and tighter with our entrepreneurs, while providing them the shelter to kickstart their businesses.” Paul says while talking about the transition.

Mukesh also has fond memories of those days. He recounts, “Our journey started 7 years back. The trust was already established at Villgro but there was more tough love at Menterra. They knew that we only have their best interests in mind. So, our relationship evolved but the trust and mutual respect remained. That helped through difficult times that every enterprise invariably goes through.”


The mentoring through the Villgro-Menterra platform has helped change the DNA of Biosense – from being a tech & product-driven to a market-focused organisation, according to Mukesh.

He continues “When Biosense joined Menterra, its revenue was ₹1.5 Crore. Within 3 years it would likely be at 10x in a segment where fewer companies have built serious domestic business. It is also an important Make in India story and is well aligned with the development challenges and priorities of the country as well as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our focus is to help them scale. For that, the level of intensity and engagement needs to and continues to remain high.”


Paul Basil is excited about the future of other similar prospects like Biosense. “We are extremely delighted to see a company that has travelled through our ecosystem in form of the incubator (Villgro) and investment fund (Menterra). To build successful companies, incubator and downstream investors need to partner and work together. This alignment is very weak in our current funding and support ecosystem. Investment Funds wait for good quality companies to emerge. Entrepreneurs and incubators toil hard to build investable businesses. To fill this gap, we need serious collaboration. A closely aligned incubator-investor partnership like Villgro-Menterra can go a long way in building a strong and vibrant startup ecosystem in India.” he concludes.

Learn more about the impactful, innovative and successful enterprises that we are creating at and
If you are an early stage entrepreneur and want to be supported, please connect with us at


Hardware Innovation is … Hard

Hardware Innovation is… Hard: How Four Entrepreneurs Overcame the Challenges

So, Walmart recently agreed to buy a majority stake in Flipkart – a popular mobile app-based online retailer in India – for $16 billion. That’s roughly a billion for the founder, who started his app-based innovation with about $1,500. “Good for him!” I thought. Not too many have such luck. And then I immediately thought about an expectant mother in rural Maharashtra, India, whose version of luck was being able to deliver her baby and survive the process, since her anemia was diagnosed fairly early and she has been on iron supplements to counter it.

It is not all luck, actually: Her survival (and that of thousands of other mothers) is possible, in large part, thanks to a non-invasive anemia screening device from Biosense. She might not understand the concept of an app, let alone shopping on Flipkart, but the impact of the hardware-led innovation that led to her survival is all too real to her.

(Note: Biosense and the other companies mentioned have received investment capital from Villgro, where the author serves as chief technology officer and health care practice lead).



It was one such rural mother, whose luck had run out in a peripheral health center where undiagnosed anemia took her life, that motivated Biosense co-founders Dr. Abhishek Sen and Dr. Yogesh Patil to embark upon a journey of innovation and entrepreneurship. It was a radically new path for these freshly minted physicians. Fast forward seven years and Biosense is in scaling mode, having grown slowly, painfully and steadily into an entity focussed both on its original mission of serving public health needs – and also on reaching a sizable share of the private health care market in India. But its journey was not as “utopian” as Flipkart’s. For starters, hardware-led innovations are, for lack of a better word, really hard to pull through. The resources and time required to churn out iterations are much larger, even if one has a clear understanding of the problem-solution fit and the design expertise needed. Additionally, the lack of a mature ecosystem to support such hardware-centric enterprises is a stumbling block. The journey of a social entrepreneur is fraught with a minefield of crippling mistakes and cash-robbing redesigns. It is not surprising that many entrepreneurs and investors avoid risking their resources on such ventures.



Another complication is the fact that the buyer of this type of innovation is distinctly different from the user, who in turn is entirely different from the beneficiary. Even a simple innovation is bound to become a lot more complex to deploy if all these different stakeholders have to be satisfied. The Bempu bracelet by Ratul Narain is one such example. Designed as a simple intervention to reduce infant mortality due to hypothermia, the bracelet measures the infant’s temperature and raises an alarm when it falls. Worn by the infant and monitored by the caregiver, it is an effective solution – but who will buy it and help deploy it?

That is a seemingly simple question with multiple complex answers. In the Indian context, it is the government that is capable of purchasing this at scale, and is also tasked with reducing infant mortality – especially the state government, which is responsible for public health. But to complicate matters, the state health budget has two components, funded and approved at two different levels: Suddenly, identifying the buyer is not so obvious. In some ways, the biggest thing Narain had to accomplish was NOT designing the bracelet, but figuring out which line item in the budget is the key to a government sale. But he realises that while this path is clearer now, it is certainly not a sprint to the end, but a marathon – 29 states in India means at least that many stakeholders to convince – pilot after pilot after pilot.



Imagine the plight of K.S. Satish, the founder of Flybird Innovations, who discovered this reality the hard way and had to overcome it without running out of cash. Satish was a 13-year veteran of aerospace R&D and product development, but passionate about agriculture. There was an acute water shortage in his hometown of Chitradurga, and yet farmers were not using irrigation technology – mostly because small farmers couldn’t afford it. So he left his job and started creating a product for water management – a controller that automated water delivery to crops. After some hard knocks, he pivoted to an efficient drip irrigation system, enough to satisfy a small farmer’s needs, at an attractive price.

But selling a radically new farming practice required significant behavior change, and hence extensive concept selling. He started doing small demos at farmer fairs and saw some traction, but achieving serious scale required big sales muscle – Flybird was too small to attract such talent. Though Satish’s story has a pleasant ending – he managed to get a co-distribution/co-branding solution with a major agribusiness – many hardware-led enterprises flounder and slowly fail because they underestimate the stamina required to tackle this dissemination step. Unless well-planned and executed, the cost of sales/customer acquisition for these one-product companies quickly becomes prohibitive to enable scale.

All these innovators did get one aspect right – they were able to leverage the support their ecosystem partners offered vis-a-vis mentoring, knowledge, networks, etc., and navigate the challenges a typical hardware-led innovative enterprise faces. But such partners are also few and far between, a gap that Villgro hopes to fill in its mission to create impactful, innovative and successful enterprises. With our investment and outreach programs iPitch and Unconvention, and through partners like ASME iShow, BIRAC and the DFID-funded INVENT program, Villgro strives to support many such innovators – who went well beyond tapping and swiping!

I respect and empathise with the plight of these innovators, and wonder if the ecosystem will mature fast enough to offer them enough support before the hard path of app-less-ness consumes them. Yet I am touched by the fact that this enthusiastic lot is laboring on, fueled by the smiles on the faces of their beneficiaries – although they assure me that they would also gladly take the next billion-dollar exit!


Arun Venkatesan is the chief technology officer and health care practice lead at Villgro.


Social action in India: Past, present, future

Looking at social action in India from 1947 onwards, and given where we are today, here’s why we need civil society as a balancing force between the state and markets.

Based on Vijay Mahajan’s essay ‘A Retrospective Overview of Social Action in India: 1817-2017’, this three minute video gives you a brief history of social action in India. Watch it here, or scroll down for the slideshow.

Social action is an aggregation of efforts by various individuals to address what they see as the social problems of their times. Thus, before we think about the future of social action in India for the next 30 years, we need to think more fundamentally about our role as individuals in society.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming concerns for survival and securing livelihoods, and the growing influence of market institutions have converted most relationships between individuals into mere transactions. We have reduced ourselves to producers and consumers, sellers and buyers. The interactional aspect of relationships has taken a back seat.


On the other hand, the rise of the state—including its encroachment on essentially social sectors such as health and education in the name of welfare—has reduced the definition of the word ‘citizen’. Today, a citizen is nothing more than the relationship they hold with the state. In a recent speech, Rajesh Tandon, founder of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), argued that we need to broaden the concept of citizenship from being a vertical relationship between the individual and the state, to numerous horizontal relationships among individuals.

The third level at which people relate is one that encompasses the natural world or environment, as well as the spiritual—the need to find meaning and purpose in our daily lives.

Therefore, an individual who is not only engaged in transactions and interactions, but has humane relationships with others, cares for nature, and cultivates their spiritual side is more evolved than the mere producer-consumer archetype.

The central challenge of the 21st century then, is to build robust eco-social action-oriented institutions that can nurture such individuals across income, caste, and class levels.

These eco-social instituions (ESIs) are therefore civil society organisations of the future; they focus on changing environmental and social norms—critical for the future of the planet.

The role of eco-social institutions

There are at least six reasons to build robust eco-social institutions.

  • ESIs promote diversity and pluralism. They are like bio-diversity reserves for preserving a vast variety of ideas and beliefs, necessary for the survival and evolution of humanity.
  • They serve as incubators for innovative approaches to resolve problems, which neither the state nor the market have been able to crack.
  • They can act as ‘practice fields’ for democracy, where people form numerous neighbourhood groups and wider social associations to address a number of needs and issues. These collectives provide them the practice for political democracy.
  • ESIs can act as early warning mechanisms that are able to detect and amplify anxieties on the ground, among the people, and alert society, the state and the market to take corrective action.
  • They play a balancing role between the state and market institutions and are essential for ‘restoring sanity’ whenever either of these crosses a line. ESIs can influence political change and enable pro-consumer and pro-environment laws to control market players.
  • Finally, they are focused on enhancing the overall well-being of all people. Market institutions are designed for maximising profits, while state institutions are designed for maximising power, control, or order.

Eco-social institutions therefore have a huge responsibility to work at the normative level, that is, establishing principles of what is widely accepted as desirable for the long term good of individuals in a society. This is partly because governments have ripped the normative fabric of society in the name of social good.


We need a normative vision that will ensure liberty of life and basic freedoms—of expression, belief, occupation and association, a safe and clean habitat, with a minimum level of health, education, economic opportunity, political representation, and cultural self-expression for all.

The state as well as market institutions have failed to offer these to us. It is time that ESIs step in and influence both the state and the market. If the 21st century has to avoid the folly of the reassertion of the state in response to the excesses of the market, ESIs need to be strengthened, as a balancing force between the state and market institutions.

Using eco-social institutions to influence the state

In order to provide primacy to ESIs, several constitutional and legal amendments are required. These would:

  • Make the Directive Principles a conjoint responsibility of the state and eco-social institutions by amending Article 38 (1) to read as follows: “The State shall strive, directly as well as by enabling associations of citizens, to promote the welfare of the people…”.
  • Establish a permanent national commission on eco-social institutions so that there could be an interface between the state and civil society.
  • Advocate that the Finance Commission as well as the State Finance Commissions devolve at least a minimum portion of their tax revenues to ESIs.
  • Broaden the ambit of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Central Vigilance Commission, and the Central/State Information Commissions to cover social institutions. Doing this would bring social institutions at the same level of accountability and transparency as they expect from state institutions.
  • Ensure that the Union and the State Public Service Commissions—which are responsible for recruitment of candidates to the various civil services—have at least two members from the social sector to ensure the selection of right people in public service.

Using eco-social institutions to influence the market

Business has acquired enormous power to mould and control our lives; it is necessary that businesses and market institutions are influenced by eco-social thinking. To ensure this,

  • Companies and regulatory commissions must have at least two board members from the social sector.
  • Universities and professional schools must have adequate representation from the social sector on their boards; they must also offer courses on social sector issues.
  • At least 50 percent of CSR funds should be given to independent social institutions to undertake various programmes.
  • Users and consumers must be organised as a countervailing force against the untrammelled power of large companies.

Building effective institutions for eco-social action

The time has come for individuals to evolve from being passive participants in market institutions—producers and consumers, or passive recipients of state entitlements and welfare services.

To go beyond the control of market and state institutions, individuals imbued with a deep ecological and spiritual consciousness need to come together and form a new generation of eco-social institutions. Inspiration, leadership, legitimacy and resources are crucial for making ESIs more effective. Each of these can be and will have to be developed systematically to make such institutions more responsive, participatory, efficient, accountable and transparent.

The bell curve of altruism

We need to look beyond our existing definitions and approaches to Funding, Talent, and Partnerships, if we are to address Social problems at Scale.

One often hears the question (and you’ve probably asked this yourself): “What is the role of private enterprise in addressing social problems?” The general belief is that the moment you allow return-seeking capital, you are opening the door for exploitation. After all, how can you profit from the poor?

These may be fair concerns, but for-profit, impact-seeking private enterprise has a role to play in development; and this article is an attempt to articulate why.


The Limitations of traditional approaches

The development problems we face are large and complex. Income inequity, poor health outcomes, low rates of educational achievement, low farm productivity—everywhere you turn, you see these issues staring you in the face. Some of these are hundreds of years old, deeply intertwined with other issues, and seemingly intractable.

While government has the potential to scale, it is not designed to experiment with risky solutions.

Traditional ways of addressing these have been through government intervention (such as targeted schemes), or through initiatives of nonprofits. While the government has deep pockets and the potential to scale, it is not designed to innovate, or experiment with risky but potentially game-changing solutions.

While government has the potential to scale, it is not designed to experiment with risky solutions.Nonprofits, on the other hand, struggle with finding the talent and resources required to scale. The donor shift to project-based financing also means that they don’t have the ability to experiment too much with new and innovative, but risky, approaches.

Lastly, solving these complex problems requires collaboration. Parties working on different parts of the problem must work together, contributing what they individually do best, while also collectively making a difference on the whole. However, without the resources–people and money–to engage partners effectively, attempts at collaboration often break down.

Related article: Building coalitions



To address these problems at scale, what can we do to increase the flow of money, talent and partnership, support to develop, deploy and scale innovative solutions for our most pressing problems?

I like to think of these in terms of the ‘Bell Curve of Altruism.’ If there was an index of altruism, I believe that funders—both individual as well as institutional–would generally be distributed normally along that index.

On the extreme left would be the Amazing Altruists, people who readily give their money and time to causes they believe in. On the other extreme are what I’d like to call Greedy Goblins who don’t think much about the impact of their actions, as long as they continue to make more money doing it.

I think most would fall in the middle, where they’d like to see fair returns, but are conscious about how those returns are earned—fairly and legally.


If we have to increase the flow of capital to social causes, we have to be able to move beyond the Amazing Altruists and draw in the Big-hearted Benevolents, and some of the Conscientious Capitalists.

While Altruists are willing to give their money as pure grants, expecting nothing but social impact in return, Benevolents need a little more—they expect to get at least their capital back, and are willing to be patient about it. The Conscientious Capitalist may be willing to accept a lower-than-market return, but expects the investee to at least cover inflation, and maybe a little more.

At Villgro, a nonprofit, we’re firmly in Altruist territory. However, to expand the pool of capital available to the social entrepreneurs we work with, we launched the Menterra Social Impact Fund, which gives muted returns, with social impact. We were thus able to tap into the Benevolents and Conscientious Capitalists and expand our footprint of financial supporters.

The same logic can be applied to people as well. We need hundreds of social change agents at all levels, within both nonprofits and social businesses, if we have to make a dent in the size of problems we face.

We need social change agents at all levels, within both nonprofits and social businesses, if we have to make a dent in the size of problems we face.

Some of the best entrepreneurs we’ve seen, are those who have gained valuable experience working at a corporate. When they evaluate the decision to take the plunge into solving a social problem, the ‘opportunity loss’ in giving up the security and quantum of the corporate paycheck weighs heavily on their decision.

We need social change agents at all levels, within both nonprofits and social businesses, if we have to make a dent in the size of problems we face.

People sitting just outside the Amazing Altruist territory–2-3 percent of the population–want their basic material needs to be met. They have families to support and student loans to pay.

Founders of social enterprises might be willing to make the sacrifice, knowing that their shareholding will compensate them in the future, when their social enterprise gets acquired. But companies aren’t built on founders alone; one needs senior and middle management to execute and scale.

Related article: How to crack the talent test

If we have to increase the flow of smart, capable, talented people addressing social problems to the sector, we have to meet the needs of the people in the upward slope of the bell curve – the human equivalents of the Big-hearted Benevolents and Conscientious Capitalists.

Which means, we must pay them reasonable salaries, be able to share equity, and allow them to have some chance of an ‘exit’ so as to create wealth for founders and employees, something that is possible through the legal structure of a for-profit social enterprise.

Lastly, partnerships are key to execution and scale. Social businesses need partners who will help them use their labs for prototyping equipment, test their medical device in clinics or distribute their product. Here too, the bell curve of altruism will come into play.

While a few partners will enthusiastically support your cause, with little expectation of a return, true scale will only come from partners who will charge for services rendered.

I believe that we need to recognise that not everyone is an Amazing Altruist. If we have to expand the pool of funders, people and partners who can help us in our journey of addressing social problems at scale, we need to leverage structures that give them more than just social impact.

Of course, some checks and balances are required to ensure that we guard against mission drift, but with those protections in place, I do think we can leverage the benefits that are on offer.

Striding their way to create social impact – insights from women entrepreneurs

Women entrepreneurs, for decades, have had a significant role to play in the development of local economies, which further fed into the overall development paradigm. The contemporary startup-led ecosystem has also witnessed a surge in women entrepreneurs who have successfully carved a niche for themselves. Around 14 percent of the businesses in India are currently owned by women. Several of these businesses not only showcase tremendous growth potential but are also excellent examples of innovative social welfare solutions.

Despite such developments, much like everywhere else, the incremental growth of women-led businesses in India is often hindered by persisting gender biases and preconceived notions. Fighting all odds, the stories of their startup journeys, especially as women, are powerful and inspiring.

Gina – promoting artisans from rural hearts of India
Gina Joseph has always had an eye for appreciating art and the history it entails. This ‘accidental entrepreneur’ took a break from her corporate career and decided to pursue her passion in arts through Zola India.

Zola India was born in 2014 out of its founder’s pure love and admiration for Indian art, culture, and heritage. An online jewellery platform, it sources designs and products from the rural heart of India, providing a necessary link between the artisans and modern-day marketplaces.

Working closely with rural artisans, Gina realized that the absence of the right market connects often pushes the rural youth away from their traditional art. For instance, the Pattachitra (palm leaf etching) artisans of Odisha end up selling their hand-painted/etched scrolls to middlemen at extremely low prices, earning just about the money to survive on a day-to-day basis. In order the revive the art form, Zola India is currently working with about 10 Pattachitra artists and 20 women Dhokra (bronze casting technique) artisans in Odisha. Dealing with the artisans directly, the involvement of middlemen has been reduced to a large extent, helping artisans get better prices for their products.

Since its inception, the organization has been able to impact the lives of rural artisans in more ways than one. “It was such a moment of joy for me when one of my artisans from Odisha proudly told me that she could now afford better education for her two children, while another artisan from Andhra was able to pay part of her home loan through her earnings from Zola India,” says Gina.

More so, designs at Zola India are always a collaborative effort of technique and insights from the artisans. As a brand, it allows rural and folk artisans to express themselves through wearable art, thereby allowing them to realize sustained economic empowerment by conducting regular design intervention and innovation workshops across rural India. Zola India has been working with Dhokra and Pattachitra artists from Orissa, Toda embroidery artists from Tamil Nadu, Wall Mural art and Aranmula mirror artists from Kerala, Leather puppetry and Lac Turnery from Andhra Pradesh, and Bidri from Karnataka.

Anuradha – bridging the ‘English medium’ gap
Coming from a traditional Baniya background in Rajasthan, Anuradha broke all barriers and stereotypes when she decided to set up her own startup. “While pursuing higher studies was still encouraged, the idea of ‘working women’ was quite alien to my culture when I started off,” recalls Anuradha.

Visiting her hometown in 2015, she realised that there was a growing insecurity among women her age, mostly housewives, due to the lack of English education. This often led to low self-esteem even while coping with the most mundane day-to-day situations. “I could relate to the women at so many levels and their stories often reminded me of my struggle to find a footing,” says Anuradha.

Realising the need, Anuradha started posting interactive video modules on her Facebook page which generated a lot of traction from eager English learners. Seeing the response, she decided to take a plunge into entrepreneurship and launched an Android app to learn English through Hindi and Bengali in Dec 2016. This is how Multibhashi was born.

With an aim to build capacities of its users, Villgro- and Startup Oasis-supported Multibhashi focuses on early-stage English learners who want to learn communicative English. Since inception, the Multibhashi app has modelled English learning through 10 Indian languages and has been downloaded by close to a million users.

Going beyond its userbase, Multibhashi also employs a large number of women and provides them with an opportunity to earn a living. “All our women employees have been able to hone their skills in the process, and have become more confident,” beams the proud Founder of Multibhashi.

Ekta – going organic all the way
Aiming to build a sustainable, organic, and resilient community, Ekta Jaju started working with small farmers in Nadia districts of West Bengal and converted them to organic farming in 2012. “I started working on a business model that was financially sustainable and scalable in the organic space, where my main aim was to keep farmers’ interest in mind,” says Ekta.

ONganic Foods is an agri-organic social enterprise which works across the value chain – farming, processing, R&D, and domestic sales – and connects small organic farmers to markets by supporting them to convert back to organic farming and growing indigenous varieties.

Recalling the challenges in her startup journey, Ekta emphasizes that failure is just not an option, especially for social entrepreneurs. “If you face a certain challenge, or find a certain blockage in your path, you need to find an alternate route to reach your goal. We have to constantly remind ourselves of the many hopes and opportunities of our beneficiaries. It’s a big responsibility,” explains this committed entrepreneur.

Currently, ONganic works with 300+ farmers and aims to impact 10,000 farmers by 2025. In the last two years of operations, ONganic has supported farmers to increase their profitability through organic cultivation and value addition.

Ambika – ensuring farm fresh produce from Western Odisha
“My decision to move to Bhawanipatna in Kalahandi district of Odisha and ditch a corporate career to start my own venture was questioned by many,” recalls the Co-founder of ZooFresh.

ZooFresh Foods is an agri-tech startup, creating post-harvest management technologies and retailing platforms for meat products (chicken, fish, and eggs) in Eastern India, especially in economically backward zones like Western Odisha.

Working in such backward regions was a major lifestyle change for Ambika. Despite being constantly overworked and underpaid, it took a while to see any tangible impact of all her hard work. Coupled with this was the frustration of coping with a plethora of challenges associated with stereotyping women entrepreneurs.

To deal with this, Ambika quickly learnt the skill of leveraging all the advantages one gets in lieu of being a woman entrepreneur like government-sponsored programmes and schemes as well as the benefits of the general inclination towards women-run businesses in the private sector ecosystem. “I have lately come to realise all my advantages as a woman entrepreneur. We, as a group, are a micro-minority, and when we speak, everyone listens! You will be able to network better (since there are so few of us, we get remembered easily), and you will get ample invites for critical events which you should leverage,” explains Ambika.

Besides promoting fresh farm produce, Ambika envisions ZooFresh as having a significant impact on women as well. ZooFresh now works with a large number of tribal women, who are the company’s micro-entrepreneurs and distributors in remote tribal communities.

For women entrepreneurship to truly thrive in India, we need to look for more investment support for gender-diverse founding teams through discovery programmes like iPitch.

Lonely at the top?

It sure could be … but don’t worry

P. Ravi Shankar
Advisor – Menterra Venture Advisors

Some years ago, when I had just begun my Executive coaching journey, I met the CEO of a firm at his corner office on the 9th floor. It was 9 p.m on a Friday evening. He had just seen off his Board members after a—as he told me later—tough meeting. There was no one else on the floor, and as I entered I remember saying to him, “It sure is lonely here” to which he replied mischievously, “and windy too.”

I was lucky to be with this CEO who still had his wits and sense of humour intact after a gruelling board meeting. Others aren’t so lucky.

My interactions with founders and promoter CEOs of other companies, large, small and start-ups were not half as entertaining most of the time. Many of them (privately expressed) were despondent and extremely stressed although most tried not to show it. Many of them told me that they felt lonely most of the time and had no one to confide in, especially when it came to taking difficult decisions. This is in spite of the fact that in large and more “established” companies there is a deep hierarchy of talent and specialists, both internal and external, that the CEO could rely on. Turns out, the buck ultimately stopped at the corner office and it’s occupant had to, ultimately, carry the cross.

A recurrent theme was their inability to take control of functions that were not their core, which were in most cases, sales and marketing. This, coupled with their inability to hire resources, especially at the start-up stage, to manage these functions make them put in extremely long hours, with more misses than hits and a lot of ensuing frustration. Another recurring frustration was the inability to be on top of everything as the company grew and newer people were hired. A third, was the feeling of bitter betrayal when someone critical (and seemingly loyal) left to join the competition.
These were just a few recurring problems, among many others, that led to frustration and feelings of acute loneliness. Some founders, took the decision to wrap up and go back to jobs and organisations, but most went on to achieve success to various degrees.
How do we understand these symptoms? How do we find answers to these questions, pleas, frustrations, and stresses, some of which lead to deep psychological scars, strained relationships with families and co-founders, other organisational issues, and other manifestations including physical and mental illnesses?

In my experience, both as a management practitioner and coach, I have realised that every situation is different and most problems faced in the corner suite are contextual.

However, there are several common root causes that helps one suggest some general solutions to the issue of loneliness at the top.

My experience also is that happy entrepreneurs create happy, more engaged workplaces, and these make for successful business success with the judicious management of resources, great products and other commendable management strategies.

Think about it. When did we last look at some aspects of individual happiness as non-negotiable? When did we last sacrifice something at work that could be safely delegated for something that gave us more happiness?

I think everyone would agree that happiness at work and loneliness at work are related. Happy persons generally are not lonely. More on work place happiness later – perhaps in another paper. Let’s now get back to the issue of loneliness at the top.

The root cause of work place loneliness is not only related to happiness at work. Let’s look at some of the other causes.

  • Fear of not knowing what is happening around him/her. This is a constant fear among most entrepreneurs I have met and dealt with, especially first time entrepreneurs. I would help to develop dash boards from the beginning. Developing structured reporting frameworks will save time otherwise spent on unnecessary meetings. Understand that you will never be in total control, nor are you expected to ever be. Develop a list of key things you should know. The rest is a bonus. Let go, get a life, and stop worrying. The core issue here is trust which is the biggest ingredient of happiness and comfortable environments.
  • Feeling betrayed when someone leaves your organisation. This will happen, again and again. If you create a happy organisation, it is more likely that people will want to stay. However, even then, people leave for all sorts of reasons, some beyond your control. In the event that they do leave, make sure they leave with praise for you and your company. One person leaving you does not mean you begin to distrust the next person hired. It’s up to you to share your happiness through trust.
  • Just as you share happiness to reduce loneliness, from the beginning plan to share your wealth with those who contribute to your well-being and happiness. Once you have decided to , it doesn’t pinch when you actually give it away.
  • Keep the entrepreneurial magic alive. There are limits to your ability to know everything , be in every meeting or meet every customer or competitor. Prepare to break your monolith companies into small manageable parts, parts that your best performing managers can manage and grow. Yes, doing this involves sacrificing some control, but that sacrifice may well be the key to your success and happiness. Create growth plans for people so that they are in tandem with your company’s growth. And most importantly, communicate your plans. In the process, you may make great friends in your journey to great success, then where’s the loneliness? Everyone fails. But they rise again with the help of their teams.
  • Remember, help comes from unexpected quarters. Many years ago during the “industrial relations” phase of my career, I was terribly lonely much of the time. It was a time when careers of a large numbers of people (and by extension, the lives of their families), especially blue collar workers or line supervisors, rested on me. My managements vested on me the responsibility to close down units or bring up labour productivity sharply and stave off closures. In all these times, I had help and support from traditional ‘foes’ ( Union leaders) who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with me and staved off imminent closures. Similarly, entrepreneurs need to look beyond traditional sources of advice. A failed entrepreneur, a distributor or even a competitor could become your best advisor. Case studies off the internet could be a great teachers. Sometimes, dig deep into your company hierarchy and you will find great solutions. Some of the most creative solutions have come from ‘floor level’ employees and in recent times from bright young people unfettered by hierarchy or tradition.
  • Make sure you have a competent Board, selected for their independent thinking and forthright views. Entrepreneurs seeking board control and Board members who will not disagree with them, are doing a great injustice to themselves and their companies. Discussions around strategy, even if many in the Board disagree with you, are refreshing and make you think. Maintain an open relationship with investors and key employees. Speak to them frequently, even informally. Everyone needs someone. Including you.
  • Confide in people, even if you are not the “type”. Getting rid of your fears and anxieties even without any expectation of a solution, will make things better for you. Confide in your spouse, your children and co-workers. They will rally around you and sometimes come up with unexpected solutions.
  • Don’t stop yourself from training in areas that are not the “CEO type” training. Some of the best CEOs I know are those who showed an inquisitiveness that was almost childlike. Many years ago, when I sought approval from my CEO to attend PMP classes as I had to oversee Project Managers, my CEO joined in as a fellow student. People development, for example, is not a fuzzy area as it is most often perceived—it is a hard, focused area, training in which will benefit CEOs greatly. Business Development / Sales and Marketing skills is another area in which start-up CEOs (largely technologists) should receive formal training. Training is not an admission of a failure. It is actually an acceptance of your shortcomings and yearning to learn more.
  • Have group activities in your companies and become part of it. Task forces, off-sites, celebrations. Make yourself central to some of them. You will see the difference.
  • Stay fit. Take time off every day for some exercise, a brisk walk, a jog, a swim, to play a sport, whatever. It is a great way to not only ensure your own well-being but also to meet very interesting people who will treat you as an individual, and not a boss or a work colleague. It’s important and refreshing to be amidst such people.
  • Above all, remember that failure is a great experience and it directly increases the probability of success. There are great lessons to be learnt from every failure.

Menterra has attempted to address this issue of loneliness and happiness directly. As a fund we remain focused on and committed to going beyond traditional parameters of success. We are a fund that goes beyond risk capital, one that creates impact with a scale that we have demonstrated again and again through our deep commitment to the entrepreneurs in whose dreams we have invested.

We also have agreed to have a buddy system within the Menterra founder group so that we reach out to each other in times of need. We will continue to explore this question of loneliness and happiness, candidly, forthrightly, and sensitively, with our entrepreneurs, so that they, their senior teams and their businesses are happy, enabling them to run happy and impactful companies that build happy communities and societies