Making a Difference through Impact Investment
Srinita Mitra had always enjoyed supporting startups and helping them succeed. But after participating in the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program, she decided to focus on impact investing in India. Now she’s a portfolio manager overseeing several startups that seek to develop opportunities for lifelong learning.
Designation- Portfolio Manager
Interview in February 2019
A sense of purpose and a philosophy that guides work. Nobody can give these to a person—they must be found within. This is the personal philosophy that Srinita Mitra discovered during her experience taking part in the Fujitsu-JAIMS Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program during spring 2017.
Srinita had already spent most of her career working amid India’s fast-changing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Drawing on her experience in banking and finance, she had been working for an incubator which provided seed funding to startups. Srinita recalls being excited about joining the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program and learning about how innovation plays an important role during the phases through which a startup goes.
Yet, while working for a consulting project on the program, Srinita realized both the need to serve the social good in India and her interest in doing so. After finishing, she left Japan armed with two strong desires:
・To work in impact investments and projects which delve deeper into the creation of sustainable business in urban and semi-urban areas
・To create a plan—via her own Capstone Project—to collaborate with impact investment on a project that would create a livelihood for deprived women
―The Capstone Project
The way in which students in the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program create a plan—one that applies the concepts they have studied and observed to address a particular issue—is through a social innovation model called the Capstone Project. Srinita’s approach was entrepreneurial in nature: she aspired to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem for upskilling women farmers in apiculture and help gain a new livelihood.
Srinita had a clear vision and a general approach to bringing together different segments, people, and industries to create a sustainable value chain. However, the realities of starting up a business in the new, unfamiliar fields of agribusiness and apiculture proved challenging.
“You definitely need money and partners, which were difficult for me [to find] in this area,” she says. “Rather than starting up something new, I realized it would be better to work within the processes for startups.”
So, Srinita decided that empowering women through her occupation would be the more effective path. True to the other desire mentioned above, she found a role in impact investment after returning to Bangalore. She began serving as a local portfolio manager for Atlanta, Georgia-based Gray Matters Capital (GMC). “The organization was interested in my work; hence I married my thought process with the philosophy of GMC in India.”
―Supporting the Future
Now, Srinita leads Post Investment for edLABS portfolio at GMC. The company is committed to investing over the next three years in early-stage funding to help entrepreneurs in India who are working on solutions to address three key points:
・The future of work with a Gender Lens
“I specifically look for companies in this domain and help them out with connections, finance, support, and financial management, among other aspects,” she says. Srinita has seen many startups work in an unstructured manner. Operating this way can lead to mismanagement and a lack of professionalism in running an entrepreneurial venture.
Being the manager of a portfolio of startups allows Srinita to better understand the challenges these organizations face, and to help them find ways to overcome obstacles. “One of the things that I have come to realize is that the entrepreneurial journey is a very lonely one,” she says. “When you’re working alone, you need mentoring and guidance. That’s why bringing entrepreneurs in contact with others who can brainstorm solutions is so important. When I was working on my own project, I failed to get this kind of support system for myself, which is why I wanted to build one for others.”
―Having an Impact
Already startups in the portfolio she oversees are working on specific initiatives such as:
・Offering after-school programs
・Providing hands-on solutions for STEM—or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—fields
“Through the companies, I’m trying to reach around half a million women each year and impact their lives through the quality of education and improving their life,” she explains.
The dream of entrepreneurship is still very much on Srinita’s mind, and she says, “There is nothing more fulfilling than an entrepreneurial journey.” Meanwhile, she looks forward to the day when she can transition from portfolio management and “lead Global Initiatives and help give direction to different investments.”
The need for impact investment certainly extends beyond India’s borders, and Srinita has her sights set on the surrounding region. “In one or two years, I’d like to spread my wings and provide this kind of support beyond India to other areas in Asia.”
Guided by a clear purpose and a focus on creating opportunities in education and employability, Srinita knows that—while her approach may have changed—she’s indeed found a way to make a difference.
Interview in June 2017
―Providing Value for the Common Good
Srinita Mitra recently graduated from the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge 2017 Spring Course. Based in Bangalore, India, Srinita has spent her career helping start-up businesses grow through her work at an incubator which also provides seed funding. In addition to the subjects, Srinita enjoyed the opportunity to interact with members from other countries and work through cultural differences to cooperate on group projects.
Each member of the program creates their own Capstone Project as an innovation model with which they apply the concepts they have studied and observed to address a particular issue. Now as she returns to India, Srinita’s Capstone Project is based on inspiring women in northern India to become entrepreneurs and earn a livelihood through the production and sales of quality, organic Indian honey.
―What appealed to you about the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program, both before you applied and after completing it?
I come from the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India, and I worked for an incubator which also provides seed funding to start-ups. I realized that we could bring about many changes to the phases that a particular start-up goes through, and I wanted to learn how innovation plays an important role during these processes. The program puts innovation and change at its center, hence the interest to learn and interact with a group of highly creative people, working towards bringing a change in the society.
The program has many elements which matched up with my aspirations. The best thing about it is that you continuously improve yourself through this program. There may be certain areas where you feel like “Oh, I am weak in this area, “but that is all right because you are competing with yourself and not with others.
This program has inspired me in many ways and improved my confidence. It is a rigorous and fast-moving program, so you need to be quick to keep up with the pace. At the end of it, once you succeed, it brings out the best in you. That is how I feel this program has developed me.
―How do you think you have changed over the past few months?
Many of my thought processes have changed, especially in the way I think about my Capstone Project. We learned about “gemba” (first-hand field research), and it is a different approach of doing primary research. When looking for a solution, you need to speak to the people, get involved, and get down to the cause.
―Which of the subjects had the biggest impact on you?
Every subject had a very different aspect to it, and they all served to deepen my understanding. My favorite subjects were Concept Creation, Knowledge Management and Innovation, and Multiculturalism and Global Citizenship.
Let me tell you why Concept Creation was one of my favorite subjects. We think about creating a business and creating impact, but we rarely think of building a business based on philosophy. I guess that was the greatest point of change – I started thinking deeply about the essence of a business. What is the philosophy behind the creation of any solution? The effect is you start thinking long term; you are not just thinking about three months from now or even six months from now. The term “essence” is something which I knew before, but it had a different meaning this time.
I found Knowledge Management and Innovation was an interesting subject with a practical aspect. Going back to the term “gemba, “the only reason for using it so many times is to understand the “why” of a particular project. What am I looking for? What kind of value do I want to create? Alignment is necessary, which makes processes essential, and this subject nurtures this thought process.
I thoroughly enjoyed Multiculturalism and Global Citizenship. We all live in a multicultural society now. Bangalore is multicultural and not just because there are different nationalities. India is diverse, and many people come from across states to work in the Silicon Valley of India. When you live in such a society, people need to be sensitive and live in peace. The entire subject of Multiculturalism and Global Citizenship gives you a new perspective or way of thinking about how to coexist in such an environment. A multicultural society is going to be the reality in the future as we are all going to be global citizens. The more advanced we are, the more connected we become.
―What would you say was the most important thing that you experienced in the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program?
The relationships that you build during the program are fascinating because you are put together with people from different countries. There were cultural differences of course. At the same time, having to work together when you are in the midst of all these intense subjects is in itself a learning process. There is a human connection involved in making other people understand your views on any particular subject. I remember that during the beginning of our group projects, it was hard to make other group members understand. But this situation is like an open canvas – you are interacting for the first time, and the other person does not have any expectations of you, and vice versa. It truly is an experience to learn how to conclude this kind of conversation and bring a logical flow to it. I guess all these experiences would be my biggest take away from the program.
―How did visiting Doi Tung Project during Thailand module affect you?
Doi Tung Project was fascinating. I would say that the project implementation was successful. At first, we thought that Doi Tung was merely at the stage of sufficiency. However, they see themselves as a sustainable business. Doi Tung Project’s success and international partnerships and collaborations are commendable. It took them a considerable amount of time to bring change to the valley. The most important part was to bring social change which benefits everybody, especially lower-income communities.
It seems to me that Doi Tung Project shows the success of a visionary. The vision helped them to work through difficulties and complete this project successfully for the common good. The people working behind the scenes had this thought process of creating value along with skill development. The project went far beyond the success of the handicrafts, coffee and macadamia plantation; it is the reason for the economic well-being of the local people.
When we visited Doi Tung, I noticed that much of the work does not require the use of technology. For example, we went to this place where a lady was making paper, and operating the instrument involved manual work. One of our classmates tried to operate it, and it was difficult for my colleague to follow the same manual process as it requires years of practice. The process can be simplified by using machines. However, Doi Tung has a different focus than industrial efficiency: They want to create opportunities for people. They want to provide the real value of the human who is working on the creation of the notebooks, handicrafts, etc. Doi Tung Project enables the members of the different hill tribes to think not only about self-sufficiency for themselves, but also about how they can contribute to their community. This project provides them with the purpose of creating a sustainable life cycle.
Implementing this kind of project is very tough, and the work behind it can be very wide-ranging. Every day you will face different challenges, but you have to deal with them. Doi Tung Project took more than 30 years, primarily because it involved working with people who are sensitive. It was Princess Mother’s vision and the efforts of its founders which brought life to this project. Every entrepreneur faces this challenge. When you are creating value, you have to believe in yourself all the time. Communication has to be clear and consistent, and you have to remember that what you are creating is for the larger community and not for yourself.
My Capstone Project is similar to the challenge of Doi Tung Project. I wish to help rural and tribal farmers with an additional way of earning their livelihood. Apiculture is the easiest way to use their land, nature and time. This segment is unorganized, and I wish to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem surrounding the honey industry. The key learning from Doi Tung was its approach to bringing together different segments, people, and industries to create a sustainable value chain.
―Are there any comments that your classmates or advisers gave to you that helped in developing your Capstone Project?
My advisers, classmates and the support staff of the program found my Capstone Project very interesting. Some of my classmates’ comments concerned how to take it from the concept stage to implementation. They helped me determine what exactly I need to do. Through various discussions and projects, they shared their ideas to take it to the market stage. For example, for whom do you want to create this? What exactly are you trying to get out of it? Who is the target segment? These are the kinds of questions they asked.
My adviser also directed me through critical stages of the project. He asked me to bring valid evidence which supports the hypothesis of the project. Also, members of the support team were accommodating, and they connected me with the right people in Japan, with whom I was able to meet. This validated my ideas further.
―What do you want to do when you return to India and what do you think will be your next direction in the next 5 to 10 years?
I am very much interested in impact investments, projects which delve deeper into the creation of sustainable business in urban and semi-urban areas. I am looking forward to working with or being part of impact investment projects or firms.
First of all, I want to continue my research on my Capstone Project. It is just a business case right now, so I want to take it through the proof-of-concept stage, where I will have a basis for implementation. I want to collaborate with an impact investment to bring it forward. Indians are at a stage where urbanization has been happening, yet not much development has taken place in rural areas. There are still millions of people in rural areas who lack basic healthcare. We as Indians have the capability to solve such crucial issues, so that is one impact investment area that I am looking forward to working on.
Also, the project that I am working on is basically about creating a livelihood for women, because in developing nations, women are at the most disadvantaged stage. An entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting the social ventures for livelihood is the need of the hour. I took up this kind of project because the whole aspect is about creating value and sustainability, and that is exactly what I want to achieve once I return to India.