In conversation with Ms Renu Shah, Founder, Shakti - The Empathy Project.

Shakti began in 2019 after realising that social entrepreneurs, particularly women, faced challenges just like Ms. Renu Shah did when she began her first social venture.

1. Can you tell us about Shakti’s Program and its format?

Ans: Shakti - The Empathy Project (STEP) is a non-for-profit incubation program started with the intent to support women entrepreneurs who are in the early stage of their startups, working to find solutions to social problems. Shakti began in 2019 after realising that social entrepreneurs, particularly women, faced challenges just like Renu did when she began her first social venture. She hopes to build a community of women entrepreneurs and provide them with the necessary skills and resources to run an enterprise aimed at creating social good.

In the cohort, twenty exemplar projects will be selected based on their concept, impact and scale. STEP is a six-month journey which starts with an induction program and ends with a networking event. During the six months, we provide the entrepreneur with:

● A safe space for open exchange

● Workshops for skill building

● A mentor for hand-holding

2. Why only women social entrepreneurs?

Ans. The most obvious answer to this is that it is 2020, if not now then when? We should have already had enough number of women in the workforce but if we are still lagging behind then we really need to focus. The country’s GDP could increase anywhere between 16-60% depending on the number of women in the workforce.

We, women, have to constantly prove our worth in the business world to be taken seriously. The journey becomes more difficult if we decide to be a social entrepreneur. It is considered more of a hobby and not a career choice. A lot of women also give up on a successful career due to gender stereotypical roles. When Renu started her own social venture she was questioned by everyone for her decision to leave the business and venture into a world of uncertainty. Thus, she ended up in a space which has very few like-minded people, making the journey lonelier and tougher. This story is not exclusive to her but many more women who want to create social impact but lack a safe and powerful network of other women from their own tribe. Most of them give up in the first three years due to several socio-economic-support-skill issues. Fast forward 10 years and things haven’t changed a lot. Being a woman entrepreneur isn’t easy but being a woman social entrepreneur is an added layer of difficulty and thus she decided to build a tribe of these women and provide a supportive environment.

3. Any interesting incident or experiences along the journey which led to the start of Shakti-The Empathy Project.

Ans. After running the school for slum kids for a few years, Renu realised that she was treating only the symptoms of a problem whereas the problem was systemic. She joined Harvard Kennedy School to find answers to her questions about systems change. Her time there was very fruitful and led her to understand and question formal and informal systems prevalent in society. She returned to India to continue her work in the social sector.

4. What is the message that Shakti would like to share with women entrepreneurs?

Ans. Shakti- The Empathy Project as the name suggests, has empathy at the heart of it. Renu wants to tell all the women social entrepreneurs that at Shakti we understand them. Shakti sees the challenges these women are facing and wants to ask them not to give up. “Let your inner Shakti rise and don’t give up on your dreams. If you are looking for a safe and robust community of women which is as passionate as you are, then be a part of the Shakti community”. Stay tuned and apply for the next cohort of STEP’s incubation programme.

5. Why did you feel the need for an incubation programme?

Ans. Renu started her career in sales and marketing. She worked for about a decade in the sector and alongside started to sponsor some kids’ education. After 10 years in the field, she realised that her passion lay in the development sector. She hung up her boots and started a school for slum kids in Kathmandu, Nepal and later co-founded an education project for rural government schools. During the course of her work, Renu realised that women social entrepreneurs were facing problems similar to the challenges that she faced as a social entrepreneur. She felt the lack of a community and support structure where she could share her ideas, challenges, and wins. With this background, Shakti - The Empathy Project was born to create a support system for women entrepreneurs in the social sector.

6. How is Shakti different from other incubation programmes?

Ans. Shakti is an incubation programme designed especially with women in mind. At Shakti, our purpose is to nurture female entrepreneurs, to improve the survival rate of women-run start-ups in the social impact sector. Shakti is a combination both of power and feminine values, and that is what we stand for. Empathy and listening are integral to our work. We are not just talking about building hard skills; we spend a lot of time in building the community. We aim to build a safe and empathetic ecosystem to create a snowball effect which will increase women’s participation in entrepreneurship and workforce.

7. What are the difficulties faced during the selection process?

Ans. All the applications we received were doing impressive work in their sector. The most difficult thing was to shortlist them and pick only 20 applications. Other typical problems that we face are when an organization is doing great work but are not registered or there are multiple startups doing similar work or the idea is great but they are yet to establish a proof of concept.

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