‘Engineering’ a social enterprise – how Jyotsna is building an online learning and mentoring platform for low-income students in India
Jyotsna Budideti’s first entrepreneurial venture was redesigning motorcycle helmets. She soon discovered that this was not going to be her lifelong passion, so she set on a journey to explore how she can combine her engineering background with a passion for social change. Through +Acumen courses, she found the tools and inspiration to do just that.
After growing up in India, Jyotsna landed a spot at the prestigious École Polytechnique in Paris to study Technology Innovation. She spent a semester at the University of California Berkeley to participate in an intensive ‘Learn to Launch’ program where, together with other engineering students, prototyped ideas for new tech startups. Her team worked for weeks to develop a smart helmet for motorcyclists that could alert them when they were getting tired and distracted. Pitching the concept to Silicon Valley investors, they received useful counsel and some interest in their idea, but then lost steam. “No one in my group—including me—really had the passion to take this project forward,” she said.
Her entrepreneurial spirit could have stalled there. But Jyotsna had always wanted to give back to the world, and particularly to the communities in India where she had grown up. She had volunteered with various nonprofits and had grown disillusioned with the inefficiencies of the sector. “The people working in nonprofits spent half the time raising funds,” she noted, “and so I got discouraged by seeing the way they worked and wanted to try something different. But when I was at Berkeley, I couldn’t convince myself that a social cause would work for an entrepreneurship project. I thought it would become very difficult to make it financially sustainable.”
Then, when she returned to France, Jyotsna stumbled upon two things that proved game-changing: first, a community in Paris called MakeSense where she met other like-minded social entrepreneurs, and then, the +Acumen online course Social Entrepreneurship 101.
“+Acumen helped me to understand that a for-profit social venture was possible,” she said. “This course is a great guide for budding social entrepreneurs. Through case studies and methodologies, early stage entrepreneurs are guided to explore and test, form strategies, understand and plan the path to be taken. You learn through the exploration of your own idea.”
Finally, Jyotsna realized that her engineering skills and knowledge of lean startup principles could be compatible with her passion for social change. Her drive to give back to the community was ignited again.
Jyotsna took the methodologies that she had learned at Berkeley and École Polytechnique and combined them with what she learned from +Acumen courses to launch Amara Education, an online mentoring platform that connects young people all over the world to students in low-income after-school programs in India to provide mentorship and English tutoring.
She recognized that there were many young people who, just like her, wanted a way to give back, but might not have the time or resources to travel abroad to find students who could benefit from their mentorship and tutoring. Amara Education would make that possible through online communication.
During the Social Entrepreneurship 101 course, Jyotsna refined and piloted her idea by spending one week at a shelter home in Bangalore. Then she traveled to India and did two additional pilots with twenty 10th grade students. “While on the ground in India, I spoke to various nonprofit organizations, schools, teachers, students and volunteers,” she said. “I signed up a school for our focused course in English and I am also in talks with two other organizations, one of which works with villages in India.”
To refine her idea further, Jyotsna also took the +Acumen courses on Human-Centered Design and Lean Startup Principles for Social Impact. Yet, it is the foundational lessons from that first online course that stay with her: “Being a first time social entrepreneur, I had many questions about the business model for my startup. The Social Entrepreneurship 101 course helped me gain a perspective on different types of business models that worked in this industry through case studies and stories from the founders. It also introduced me to the concept of ‘Theory of Change’ and helped me think more strategically about my plan for implementation.”
Jyotsna’s social enterprise is still in the early stages. She’s recruiting a team of volunteers and launching additional pilots as she finishes up her degree at École Polytechnique. But she’s made good progress and has a clear vision of what she wants to achieve. “One thing that keeps me going is the image of the day when my solution will help millions of kids receive a good education irrespective of where they are or how much money they have. That image motivates me like no other. Like Elon Musk says, ‘If something is important enough you should try it, even if the probable outcome is failure.’”
Through the +Acumen courses, Jyotsna found practical tools and information on how to build a social enterprise, but also inspiration. “I cannot say enough about the impact that the featured stories of startups like Sama Group, Aravind Eyecare, DonorsChoose.org and College Summit had on me,” she adds. “These stories, told by their respective founders, showed the passion each of them had for the cause they were fighting for, their struggles and their successes. It was amazing. Whenever I am in doubt or I am stuck, I look at those videos on the +Acumen platform and I am reminded why I started this journey in the first place; and once again I feel motivated and confident that this ‘slightly crazy’ dream can become reality.”
Amy Ahearn is a Senior Innovation Associate at Acumen where she builds online courses to inspire new approaches to tackling poverty. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.