Pandemic has made entrepreneurs more cautious on contingency planning
Archanna Das, Head, Ascent Foundation discusses the vision behind ASCENT, a foundation developed to identify and enable high-potential growth-stage entrepreneurs in their journey to grow both as entrepreneurs and their enterprises. She also talks about interesting facets of the entrepreneurial mindset and temperament that the foundation has learned through its programmes over the years.
IBT: What are the objectives and context in which Ascent Foundation was set up?
Archanna Das: ASCENT Foundation is a not-for-profit expression of Harsh Mariwala (Chairman, Marico Ltd.) and his personal passion to identify and enable high-potential growth-stage entrepreneurs in their journey to grow both as Entrepreneurs and their Enterprises.. It is based on the belief that an entrepreneur’s journey can be a lonely and isolated one and sometimes having a safe, confidential, and non-judgemental environment with fellow like-minded entrepreneurs enables them to open up and share their challenges and learnings.
In the last 8 years, ASCENT has onboarded over 680 entrepreneurs as members (from more than 2000 applications received) who are part of 59 operational Trust Groups in Mumbai, Chennai and All India Chapters. The composition of these members is quite diverse with a 46:54 split between manufacturing and services industries. It has as its members, 42% family businesses; 10% women entrepreneurs, and in all about 65+ diverse industries represented. The aggregate annual turnover of the ASCENT members is more than Rs. 27,000 crores, with individual member turnover ranging from Rs. 1 crore to Rs. 2000+ crores.
IBT: How does Ascent work with entrepreneurs to help them achieve their potential? What have been the major outcomes you have managed to deliver till date and projections for the future?
Archanna Das: ASCENT is designed as a peer learning platform for growth-stage entrepreneurs. It leverages the power of the collective and enables entrepreneurs to share experiences, ideas, insights & to learn from each other through self-facilitated Trust Groups and an extended network of enablers. Further, ASCENT creates relevant value ads for entrepreneurs throughout the year in the form of mentoring programmes, workshops, webinars, knowledge sessions, academic partnerships etc. Some of these programs are:
PowerUp is created as a unique one-on-one mentoring programme for entrepreneurs with thought leaders and domain experts from the industry. The interactions are facilitated by ASCENT and are completely pro bono. Members opt to meet the mentors to brainstorm on burning issues in the organisation or to evaluate their scale up strategy. ASCENT currently has over 35 mentors from across industries and domains who have interacted with over 150 members in the last 3 years.
iRise is a structured three-phase funding programme designed by ASCENT to not only give members an opportunity to pitch to relevant investors but also to educate them on the types of funding, debt options, business valuation etc.
ASCENT, based on the need assessment done with the entrepreneur cohort, partners with leaders in a specific domain to conduct curated workshops across the year. Some of the topics covered in the past include design thinking, adaptive working, result-oriented business strategy, personal branding etc.
Huddles are closed group format events for 100-120 entrepreneur members, which are featured industry experts on a specific topic. This is a highly interactive platform where around 120-140 questions are answered in 3 hours, which enables deep-diving in a topic. Changing roles of a CFO, the magic of sales, employee retention, monopolistic thinking, building the right organisational culture etc., are topics covered as part of Huddles previously.
ASCENT Conclave is a signature flagship annual event of the foundation created in 2016 with an aim to inspire, share and celebrate entrepreneurs in their growth journey for a much larger impact. In the past five years, it has witnessed over 100 speakers, thought leaders, change-makers and innovators engaging with over 5000 entrepreneurs as part of day-long curated knowledge and motivational sessions.
Study on Entrepreneurial Well-being
To understand entrepreneurial mental health and well-being better, ASCENT embarked on a joint study with Mariwala Health Initiative in 2019. The study was co-designed by entrepreneurs and mental health practitioners and challenged the conventional paradigm of social research, by focusing on the experience of the entrepreneurs rather than an expert-diagnostic view.
The study was released at the ASCENT Conclave 2019 and witnessed the start of a much-required conversation around mental health and well-being in the entrepreneur ecosystem. Key findings from the study are listed below:
- The top three stress points for entrepreneurs are managing and monitoring finances, workforce management and persistent fear of failure.
- At least half of the respondents said that they experienced anxiety, confusion, irritability and frustration.
- Entrepreneurs are more likely to use personal coping strategies (walking, running, unplugging) or join entrepreneurial peer groups such as ASCENT to manage their stress and maintain their mental health rather than to access professional help.
The study has become more relevant and relatable to the ASCENT Members and the larger entrepreneur ecosystem during the Covid-19 lockdown. To build on the foundation laid, ASCENT aims to develop it and leverage the findings to build resources for the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
IBT: How does peer support enables entrepreneurs to navigate through specific enterprise challenges through shared learning in a safe, confidential and trusted environment
Archanna Das: ASCENT creates close-knit Trust Groups of 10-12 non-competing entrepreneurs in a similar scale and stage of business who act as a sounding board for each other. The Trust Groups meet every month in a highly structured meeting to discuss challenges, review strategies, share insights, best practices, and experiences to learn from doers in a confidential, safe yet liberal environment!
The initial four meetings of a new Trust Group are handheld by the ASCENT Executive team along with a trainer initiator (existing ASCENT Member) to set process and structure to the meetings to ensure value-driven discussions based purely on experience sharing of the members and not advising or consulting each other.
The diversity in each Trust Group in terms of age (age spectrum of ASCENT 21-67), gender, nature of business (manufacturing/services), industry and type of business (1st generation enterprise/family managed business) enables entrepreneurs to view a challenge from varied perspectives and hence increasing the horizon of knowledge and solutions. These groups are strictly non-transactional, in that, members of one Trust Group do not go into business with each other, which is important to build trust among the members.
IBT: How have the economic changes post COVID-19 impacted entrepreneurship ? What would you advise startup founders in this regard? And do you see any serious long-term implications from the same?
Archanna Das: The pandemic has taken a hit on SMEs since April 2020. Entrepreneurs across the nation have to recreate and redesign their employee engagement, customer relations, cash flow management, marketing efforts etc., while ensuring business survival and continuity. This had a larger impact on the SMEs rather than the larger corporates as they were not equipped to support employees working from home. ASCENT Members shared experiences where they had to purchase laptops and have them delivered to each employee during the lockdown.
Keeping employees motivated in the new normal and ensuring productivity was a burning challenge being discussed across Trust Groups in the initial 3-4 months of the lockdown. On the other hand, the pandemic forced SMEs to digitize and automate their internal process, a top priority for most entrepreneurs that took a back seat pre-COVID. The pandemic has made entrepreneurs more cautious and cognizant of having contingency plans.
ASCENT has actually become stronger during this crisis, with trust groups playing this very critical role of not only peer learning but peer support to fellow entrepreneurs. In an effort to extend relevant support to our members and the larger entrepreneur ecosystem through the crisis, a survey was conducted among the members of the cohort, and an entrepreneurial toolkit was designed from the 144 (27%) responses received, with challenges and strategies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic with respect to employee salary, cash flow management and challenges in working from home etc.
With virtual being the way forward, this opened an opportunity for ASCENT to expand pan-India and make the foundation more inclusive. In April 2020, ASCENT launched the all India chapter, which is an amalgamation of entrepreneurs across cities and towns in India. Currently, it has 64 active members representing Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Hubli, Indore, Raipur, Kolhapur, Ludhiana, Tezpur, Chandigarh, Guwahati etc.
Active conversations not only in Trust Groups but across the cohort, increased number of applications starting April 2020, and the interest shown by entrepreneurs from tier 2 and tier 3 cities across India validates the need for a learning platform such as ASCENT, especially during challenging times like these.
IBT: What does it mean for growth-ready entrepreneurs in India? Tell us about some business models that are emerging because of the pandemic that have great potential and showcase the ability of entrepreneurial minds to create opportunity from crisis.
Archanna Das: Healthcare and peripherals around the same are becoming the next new trend and are here to stay. Every industry and business is innovating and pivoting its business model to leverage and adapt to new opportunities in health care. Manufacturing units are converted to extend support to the healthcare sector to fight the pandemic.
With all sectors going through drastic transformations, the ASCENT peer support groups have come in handy for a lot of our members who were trying to cope with the changes due to distant working, dealing with work pressure, supplying to a sudden increase in demands, and sustaining profitability in a tremulous economy. Since members from different sectors come together in these trust groups, they learn from one another in a non-competing environment and find solutions and case studies that can be adapted to be their business modules.
Archanna Das has been heading the ASCENT Foundation for more than 6 years. She is a committed sustainability, brand and communication management professional and has worked previously with Faber Castell, GTL Limited and HSBC. In her journey at ASCENT, she enabled the scaling up of the member base from 150 to over 670 and expanded the ASCENT support to entrepreneurs PAN India. She enhanced the member experience through engaging and relevant value adds in the form of curated knowledge sessions, mentoring programme, workshops and large format signature events. Her last assignment was with HSBC India where she played a pioneering role in building the brand – sustainability and corporate social responsibility through the multivariate domains of community investment projects, internal communication, employee engagement, cause branding, multi-stakeholder engagement, consumer interaction and large mobile advertising and marketing platforms. Her true passion is in contributing towards social development and Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) work.