US-based social innovation startup Ycenter expands to India

A post-graduate in biomedical engineering from the US, Dhairya Pujara quit his job on the first day and left for Africa. He worked with a hospital in Mozambique for five months, returned to the US and founded a social innovation training company Ycenter. A TED talker and HuffPost blogger, Pujara has just launched a six-week social innovation and entrepreneurship programme back home in Mumbai for students and young professionals.

At the end of the certificate programme, he hopes, foundation for at least two-three companies will be laid as investors and mentors including industrialist Samir Somaiya who is chairman of The somaiya Trust and Rajinish Menon, director at Microsoft Ventures, have conveyed their interest to back some of the promising ideation stage ventures that emerge out of this programme, Pujara told VCCircle.

“Doing good and making money need not be two different things. Any business is a social business as a business won’t exist for long unless it addresses certain problems we face,” said 27-year-old Pujara who has built a social venture training business. It has so far offered field social entrepreneurship experiment in Africa for a number of US students besides workshops for around 800 college students in the US and Mosambique.

According to Pujara, the startup culture that has set in India can spawn not just billion dollar consumer internet companies but scalable social businesses too. “Amul, $3.4 billion turnover milk product company that has empowered so many farmers, is an example of a successful social venture,” Pujara said.

“In the US, tech startup scene is reaching some kind of saturation while social entrepreneurship is emerging,” Pujara said. He cites the example of the sunglass company Warby Parker. For each pair of sunglass it sells it donates for the production of a pair of eyeglass under ‘Buy a pair, give a pair’ programme. The company founded by four Wharton graduates in 2010 is currently valued $1.2 billion.

Incidentally, Pujara is one of the early e-commerce experimenters in India. He launched, an online used engineering book sale site in 2007 when he was 19. It made a few lakhs of rupees before it was shut in 2010 when he moved to the US for pursuing higher studies.

While working on his startup, Pujara was granted 0-1 visa by the US immigration authorities, a priority visa for the foreigners who demonstrate “extraordinary ability in sciences, arts, education, business or athletics,” or extraordinary career achievements.

Ycenter, launched in March 2013 in the US with $20,000 he crowdsourced, is self-sustainable with the fee it charges from the students who enrol for its training programme, according to Pujara. “Many educational institutions in India have shown interest in collaborating with us for social entrepreneurship training programme. If that happens, we would need some investments. However, I am not actively seeking any funding now,” he said.

“We are probably the only social innovation startup with presence in the US, Africa and India,” Pujara said. It all started with his five-month experience in Mozambique. “In five months, I fixed broken devices, created training programmes for doctors to use latest medical equipment and figured out certain gaps that can be filled,” he said.

The business projects initiated by candidates under Ycenter programme in Africa include real-time monitoring of disease outbreaks and solar mobile chargers.

As many as 43 have enrolled for the six-week training programme in Mumbai. “There are many in India who would want to start for-profit social ventures but are scared to do so for various reasons. We want to offer them orientation,” he said.

“Though much talked about the real impact is still not seen in the social innovation space,” said Rajinish Menon of Microsoft Ventures. “I will be playing the role of a mentor for the potential startups from this programme,” he said.

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