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Shaping of a Social Entrepreneur

Sharmistha Banerjee, first Global Links program scholar from India, shares how the exchange program helped strengthen her commitment toward improving women’s lives.

She was an enthusiastic girl scouts member in school. This interest in community work percolated into her philosophy in the workfield too, as Sharmistha Banerjee, professor in the Department of Business Management at the University of Calcutta, continued to work to enhance opportunities for women in small enterprises. Banerjee is the first scholar from India to participate in the Global Links women entrepreneurship exchange program. This gave a further boost to her interests and commitments.
Founded in 2011, the Global Links program is a collaborative effort of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, Rollins College in Florida and Tupperware Brands. It is a three-phase program for women professors in developing and post-conflict countries to foster their social entrepreneurship knowledge and skills.

In phase one, called Academic Immersion, the scholar completes academic training and participates in an externship at the headquarters of the sponsoring corporate partner. In phase two, Train-the-Trainer Activation, the scholar returns to her country of origin to implement plans developed in the first phase at her home university. Under the supervision of the scholar and in cooperation with a local nongovernmental organization, selected students partner with women in their community to help start or scale their businesses. In the last phase, Return and Learn, the scholar, along with five students who participated in the second phase, returns to Rollins College for a two-week immersion experience in social entrepreneurship and American culture. Banerjee completed the program in 2017.

Banerjee points out the potential of women as small entrepreneurs is huge in India, but lack of access to practical training opportunities and a conducive environment to develop their ideas within the sociocultural milieu often hold them back. So, Banerjee joined the program to be better equipped to help explore their talent.

Banerjee says the experience at Rollins College equipped her with new knowledge about a business model that could be attractive to the millennials. “The perspective of the young toward life is the same world over. While interacting with the students [there], I also realized, though exposed to a different pedagogy from the one practiced in India, the mind of the youth is easily influenced by a professor. I felt responsible for replicating the same in my classrooms in Kolkata,” she says.

After the academic training at Rollins College, Banerjee participated in an externship with Tupperware Brands, where she acquired practical experience and business fundamentals. Interacting with professionals in the field also reinforced her belief that “if one really wants to do something and is capable of doing it, lack of money never comes in the way.” On her return to Kolkata, she partnered with Bandhan Bank to provide support to female loan recipients operating their enterprises. Banerjee has so far reached more than 400 students and 40 faculty members through nine social entrepreneurship workshops.

So, what’s special about the Global Links program? “Social entrepreneurship is a new domain of study. It gives students the opportunity to participate in proactive and meaningful terms. It’s not merely an exchange program where the students visit another country for a brief understanding about its education, culture and people. They have been engaged in using their college education to impact micro businesses they were allotted to work with,” says Banerjee.

For Banerjee, it has been a learning process too. “My initial introduction to the area was through my Ph.D. in small business, and was later fanned by an exposure to entrepreneurship teaching during my Fulbright scholarship in 2005 and then as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence in 2012,” she says. This led to her working with the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry while trying to promote entrepreneurship as an alternate career choice among women graduates.

Banerjee says her biggest takeaway from the Global Links program is “academic research and new field of thought need not merely be theoretical. The true meaning of social entrepreneurship would never be realized if it remained confined within academic research publications or the semester-end projects done by students.”

The feedback from her students has strengthened her conviction about this. For instance, one of her students Sreedipta says, “Global Links has exposed me to insightful ideas, and inspired me to continue trying to face challenges.”
Another student, Shirshita, says, “Global Links is a life changing experience that has empowered me through learning, exploring and exchange of culture.”

Banerjee insists a Global Links scholar commits herself to the program for purely non-pecuniary benefits. The benefits are actually reaped by the students in the program. “My best investment,” she says, “is in the success of my students, primarily girl students.”

Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist who writes on travel, film, and women and gender issues. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.