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NRI venture capitalist plans social entrepreneurship centre in Hubli

Deshpande Foundation which runs Sandbox programme now building its own campus over around 14-odd acres of land to expand its existing model

Bibhu Ranjan Mishra  |  Bengaluru 

Gururaj Deshpande (pictured), a serial Indian American technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist, mooted the idea way back in 1996 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he first set up an innovation centre

Some 400 km north of here, in the city of Hubballi (earlier Hubli), Gururaj ‘Desh’ Deshpande, a successful non-resident Indian entrepreneur in the US, is busy preparing the ground for creating future entrepreneurs. And, there is an extra — he is creating such entrepreneurs who can create businesses that solve societal issues, apart from creating jobs.

His pet initiative, Hubli Sandbox, aiming at creating social entrepreneurship, has been at it for almost eight years on a smaller scale. He is now looking at fast-tracking the process by expanding the capacity. Deshpande Foundation, which runs the Sandbox programme, is building its own campus on 14-odd acres. This was for training at least 5,000 students a year on social entrepreneurship, apart from training non-profit bodies, Deshpande told Business Standard.

A serial Indian-American technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist, he mooted the idea in 1996 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he first set up an innovation centre. He named it Sandbox, a term derived from the item most American houses have on their backyard, for children to play and experiment with various sand designs. In 2006, he turned to his birthplace, Hubballi, to experiment with the idea by setting up what is now known as Hubli Sandbox.

With its success, the Sandbox model has spread to multiple places. In the US, Deshpande Foundation has narrowed the model with a major focus on developing of entrepreneurship. It has identified around 250 economically deprived places where it is running a programme called Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll). It has also gone to Canada and, within India, in Telangana and Uttar Pradesh.

Now, Action for India, a social enterprise founded by Sanjay Kadaveru and inspired and guided by Sam Pitroda, former advisor to two prime ministers, has forged a partnership to replicate Hubli Sandbox across the country.

“The idea is to spread this as quickly as possible by inspiring other people to solve the problem of social entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Deshpande. “The world is heading in two different ways — people who are seeing a lot of prosperity and doing good things and those who don’t have opportunities and are doing the worst. With this initiative, we are enabling people in economically deprived places to become entrepreneurs and innovative, and solve all kinds of problems.”

Deshpande is also co-chairman of US President Barack Obama’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He says the Indian government’s focus on skill development is praiseworthy but people also need to be taught how to innovate. “In the old economy, you only had to train people to have skills, so that they would go out and seek jobs. In the new economy, we need a lot of job makers, as well as job seekers. Injecting a little bit of innovation entrepreneurship into skill development is going to be key for India,” he added.

Hubli Sandbox works in different areas. First, it trains students from colleges in and around the Hubbali-Dharwad area, on how they can develop entrepreneurship by solving various social problems. So far, around 30 of the students who have undergone a training programme at Hubli Sandbox have become entrepreneurs. Many others have got jobs in the private sector, after honing new skills.

The programme also focuses on skill development, including offering domain-specific skills and software skill development. Besides, it is working with 50-odd not-for-profit organisations, such as Akshaya Patra and Agastya Foundation, on organisation-building and scaling it up with a successful financial model.

“In a country with such a huge population, any social innovation you come up with has to scale. Otherwise, it won’t have an impact,” said Deshpande. “So, we are trying to help these non-profit organisations to do things that usually people in the corporate world do when they start any new business,” Deshpande said.

In the US, Deshpande Foundation has narrowed down the sandbox model with major focus on developing entrepreneurship and has identified around 250 economically deprived places where it is running a programme called “Entrepreneurship for All’ (EforAll).

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First Published: Tue, January 27 2015. 00:36 IST