The first thing I notice when I walk into UnLtd India’s office is a poster of Apple’s legendary ‘Think Different’ ad — the commercial that talks about the ones who see things differently; the round pegs in the square holes. An hour later, after meeting Pooja Warier, I couldn’t help but wonder how appropriate the quote is for the lady herself. After all, she was just in her mid-twenties when she co-founded UnLtd India, India’s first incubator to provide both financial and non-financial support for social entrepreneurs. In eight years, the company has supported 132 unique fellows, created 390,000 jobs and has reached out to more than 2.5 million beneficiaries through their ventures.
It all started during Warier’s nine-month stint at UnLtd UK as an intern when she was 25. Warier recalls that then, the idea of starting one in India wasn’t well structured as it is today. “It was less about incubators and social entrepreneurship and more about building a community for individuals who want to contribute towards change and try to build an organisation,” she says. But as time evolved, the objective sharpened and focused on helping entrepreneurs in the social sector.
It was also at UnLtd UK where Warier met her co-founder Richard Alderson, who was also her first boss. Her experience there laid the foundation for her work in India. ”When I first stepped into UnLtd UK, it was as if I was coming home. Even though I was just an intern, watching the coaches counsel the fellows was enlightening,” she says. When she realised, that UnLtd UK was not planning to expand out of the country, she took the opportunity to launch UnLtd India. While they were inspired by UnLtd UK, both organisations are completely independent.
Nevertheless, the journey from there on was no walk in the park. Ironically, Warier had to face the same problems that are currently posing challenges to her fellows, the major one being finding investors. “At the start, if we accept ten start-ups, not all flourish; 3-4 tend to fail. This was a phenomenon that VC circles were accustomed to, while it was unheard of in the social sector. Funders preferred to put money behind people who had track records,” she remarks. The long-winding search for money ended with one of their first funders, CSO Partners, a non-profit organisation that supports civil society organisations and promotes responsible businesses in India.
“After our initial meeting, we got a mail from a well-respected major donor who had floated CSO back then, asking us how much money we wanted. We had been so caught up in the act of pitching that we didn’t have a quote ready for him,” she narrates with an infectious laugh. “When we gave them a quote, they said it wouldn’t suffice and gave us a higher amount; over Rs.1 crore. It was more than we could ever ask for,” she smiles.
Incidentally, it was the same donor who imbibed in her the value of placing the investee in the center — a value that is integral to UnLtd India’s current system. “He told me that I could either spend the next three years looking for money or spend it building an amazing organisation, and that he wanted me to do the latter,” she says. This conversation led to the company telling their fellows that ‘we believe in you, we’ve given what you need, now do it’. “More than the money, it is the faith that we place in our fellows that has worked wonders for us,” she says.
One could say this was a role reversal, considering UnLtd India’s first three fellows or guinea pigs, as Warier fondly calls them, were among the first few to believe in her. “We hadn’t even officially launched, when I had approached founders of Arpan, Toybank and Masoom,” she reminisces. While Arpan is a Mumbai-based NGO that works with children facing sexual abuse, Toybank is a toy aggregator platform where one can donate toys for those underprivileged children who cannot afford them. Masoom, on the other hand, works on improving the academic opportunities in the night schools of Mumbai. All she wanted to do was to follow them, to understand their work and their struggle. “At that time, I had nothing to offer and yet, they agreed. I think they were just happy that at least someone was listening,” she chuckles.
In 2014, Dalberg Global Development Advisors conducted an evaluation to rate UnLtd India’s efficiency and to assess the impact created by the organisation. Their report says that on an average, for every rupee UnLtd India provides through funding, their investee programs have raised Rs.14.5 of further funding. Even after this progress, getting funds for new things that the organisation wants to try still remains a task, remarks Warier.
Another challenge the incubator faces currently, is getting the right talent on board. “It is not due to dearth of suitable people. The candidates who come to us also go to investment firms and venture capital firms. We cannot offer the market rates that those firms offer and thus finding quality talent within our budget becomes tough,” she rues.
What takes Warier through everything is her perseverance or as she puts it, ‘stubbornness’, to see her ideas and ambition turn into reality. “People might call it determination but I prefer to call it stubbornness. When I want things to happen, I ensure that they do, no matter what it takes,” she reveals.
When asked if she ever felt like throwing in the towel, after a long pause, she says that there was just one time — when her co-founder, Alderson, transitioned out to become a board member. “Every other time was like a bad day, I dusted myself up and moved on, whenever we faced money issues or regulatory delays. When I had to do it all alone, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it,” she says. Nevertheless, her determination gave no room for such setbacks.
This steely resolve, Warier tells me, is something she acquired from her mother. A Malayali by lineage, Warier was raised in Chandigarh. Her childhood was like that of any other child, until her father left them when she was 12. Life changed unrecognisably for them after that. “It’s spectacular how my mother managed, being a single mother in a conservative city like Chandigarh — she was running a house with around Rs.6,000; she took care of me, made sure my education didn’t suffer,” she recalls. “She was a hustler. She figured out what she wanted and made sure she got it. That’s where I got the trait from,” she adds.
Apart from her mother, her husband, John Paul Hamilton, is a major calming influence in her life, Warier shares. “It is a rarity to find someone who can understand your strong side and weak side. After holding it together in front of your team, your board, your fellows, it is cathartic to come home and acknowledge that at times, I do not have everything under control. For me, JP is that person,” she explains.
Interestingly, Warier’s initial interest in college was criminology. “I was clearly smitten by CSI: Miami,” she laughs. However, during her days at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, her interest in the subject waned off. After college, she worked for multiple organisations that piqued her interest, including the World Social Forum and the MV Foundation. “It is ironic that the World Social Forum claimed to be the exact opposite of the World Economic Forum, of which I am a fellow now,” she quips.
Funnily enough, when Warier received the mail about her inclusion into the forum through the Young Global Leader award in 2013, she thought it was bogus. “I knew I had been nominated but since it is such a long process, I had forgotten about it,” she says. She flashes a wide grin saying, “When the mail came in, I thought it was a scam.”
Another such happy moment was her TEDx talk at Pelourinho in Salvador, Brazil in 2011. “I had taken a sabbatical to travel and ended up at this backpacker’s hostel in Pelourinho. Dalberg was conducting its external evaluation on UnLtd then, and I had to talk to them from there. In a lounge, early in the morning, that was filled with youngsters returning from parties, I was on a laptop speaking with Dalberg,” she reminisces. And that’s when Laticia, one of the TEDx talk organisers, noticed her and a conversation began. After knowing about Warier’s work, Laticia offered her the talk. Talking in front of an audience that does not understand the language was an interesting experience for Warier. “The talk was translated after I finished and a lot of people, including other speakers, came up to me to say that they resonated with my message,” she narrates.
While her gender was never a major hurdle, Warier recalls incidents where the differential treatment was apparent. “When we were initially scouting for funders, every single person addressed my co-founder, even when I was answering their questions,” she says. Similar scenarios unfolded at Income Tax offices, where most of her initial days were spent completing long drawn procedures. “I used to go with my CA’s assistant and even there, he was the one being addressed even though he wasn’t even a part of the organisation,” she adds.
Nevertheless, Warier shrugs these incidents off and strongly denies that she could have achieved more if she was a man. “I am right where I need to be. I wouldn’t blame anything I’ve not accomplished on that,” she says.
A network across the country that together will support 500 start-up social change makers — that’s the vision. UnLtd Tamil Nadu and UnLtd Hyderabad have already been launched in 2013. Together, they already support around 40 entrepreneurs.
Despite the highs and lows, Warier says two things give her the motivation to keep going forward. The first being the fellows at UnLtd India. “Every time I meet a fellow, I know exactly why they are doing this. I think the day that stops, we might question why we are doing this,” she says.
The second is acknowledging the existence of an external power. “Luck does play a role. Despite giving my best shot, there are days when nothing goes right. Over time, I have realised that my only duty is to turn up every day, do my best and not worry about results,” she says. For her, it is a simpler way of staying objective and prioritising her focus where it is the most productive — the road ahead. “Holding oneself solely responsible for both success and failure, tends to become a tad too much. This way, it is easier to remain objective and detached,” she signs off.