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Paving the Way for Social Entrepreneurs

Ayesha Khanna’s initiative, the Points of Light Civic Accelerator, supports start-ups with social missions and citizen action. 

Ayesha Khanna is the president of Civic Incubator, which supports social entrepreneurs and early stage civic ventures around the world. The incubator is a division of Points of Light, one of the world’s largest organizations dedicated to volunteer service, engaging and mobilizing more than four million volunteers in 30 million hours of service each year. It was Khanna’s post-university stint with ADAPT, a Mumbai-based nonprofit working toward a disability-friendly India, that inspired her to work for social change.

Her latest initiative, the Points of Light Civic Accelerator, is a 10-week bootcamp-style program and investment fund which supports and invests in early stage nonprofit and for-profit civic ventures that accomplish social missions by engaging people. Khanna was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Leading Global Thinkers in 2015. 

Excerpts from an interview.

In your opinion, what are the most important ways to improve diversity within entrepreneurship in the United States and in India?
This is an important and challenging issue since the lack of capital and resources to support diverse entrepreneurs mirrors larger societal issues.

The Civic Accelerator at Points of Light is proud of the diversity of our portfolio—57 percent of our 102 ventures are founded or co-founded by women and 44 percent by racial or ethnic minorities. We have been intentional about developing a program to attract and support diverse entrepreneurs—from our recruitment, where we work with over 60 diverse, non-traditional pipeline partners across the country; and our outreach, where we employ scouts in particular regions that reach deep into communities to attract entrepreneurs; to our program design, where we convene our teams for three intensive weeks and, in between. They go back to their home markets to test and learn from customers and mentors, allowing parents and older entrepreneurs to participate.

Most of the cities in the U.S. and around the world do not look like Silicon Valley. This region is struggling with the issue of diversity—overall, one percent of venture capital goes to female founders and three percent to African American founders. Therefore, communities around the world cannot and should not try to duplicate mature and relatively closed ecosystems like Silicon Valley and should, instead, focus on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem based on unique community assets. As an example, Atlanta has leading corporate headquarters; a deep civic rights legacy as the birthplace of [Rev. Dr.] Martin Luther King Jr., an active philanthropic community; universities graduating talent, including historically black colleges; famous start-ups like The Home Depot, and local innovators addressing complex social issues. The question is how to build upon and weave these assets together into a cohesive framework and also fill the gaps.


How did your time as an educational consultant with ADAPT in India influence your work today?
My work in India came at a seminal time in my life and was transformative for me as an Indian American. I lived with my grandparents and grew to know my amazing aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom are working on shaping and changing India. I was able to immerse in the villages of Dayalpur on the outskirts of New Delhi, along with colleagues from all over the world, to build a health care and education center to meet the needs of the local communities. It was instructive to see what a small, scrappy group of people—a nonprofit (ADAPT), U.K.-based physical therapists, Mother Teresa’s missionaries of charity, local village leaders, mostly women—could accomplish.

The second learning was from my research to translate the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests to village norms. I saw firsthand evidence of cultural bias when children were unable to perform age-appropriate tasks using colored blocks they were not familiar with, yet excelled when using locally available materials. I was also inspired by young people with cerebral palsy who were overcoming physical and discriminatory challenges. These are life lessons that have stayed with me and have informed my work throughout my career.


What kind of programs do Points of Light, via iVolunteer, run in India?
In India, Points of Light’s affiliate is iVolunteer, a social enterprise that promotes volunteering. Their mission is to bring volunteers and organizations together to share time, skills and passion to promote India’s social development. I have met the co-founder, Shalabh Sahai, who started iVolunteer initially as a digital engagement model. It has now expanded to include iVolunteer Centres; International Volunteer Programme, Whiteboard; iVolunteer Overseas and India Fellows, a year-long social leadership program.


Could you share how a volunteer program like iVolunteer’s Whiteboard benefits the stakeholders?
iVolunteer’s Whiteboard brings together business executives to provide strategic and operational recommendations to improve nonprofit organizations. Many nonprofits in India see this as a key benefit and opportunity to build high functioning boards. One of the additional benefits has been that executives establish a close relationship with these nonprofits and identify opportunities through which they and their team can deliver additional projects and benefits.

Over the last decade, iVolunteer has expanded to support over 300 organizations in India and has grown into one of the largest volunteering enterprises with offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Pune.


In your opinion, how can social entrepreneurship make a positive impact in India? Which sectors need it the most?
India is particularly well suited for impact through social entrepreneurship because the entrepreneurial spirit is so deeply rooted in Indian culture and there are so many social needs to be addressed. By tapping into India’s culture of enterprise, finding practical solutions and aligning these solutions with an understanding of citizens’ responsibility to respond to the needs of the country, India can grow the social entrepreneurship movement.

Indians are recognizing that the government is not able to solve all of the problems and many creative leaders are taking matters into their own hands. Social entrepreneurs are having a profound impact on education, economic inclusion and microfinance, economic development, workforce development, health, human rights, women’s rights and the environment. There is not a sector that won’t be impacted by the creativity and passion of social entrepreneurs, who have a vision for a more equitable, just, inclusive and productive society.

Kimberly Gyatso is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California.