How to set up a socially responsible company?

How to set up a socially responsible company?

Mindtree Foundation’s leader, Abraham Moses says that the first step in this direction is for the top management to exhibit such qualities; more specifically, to internalise CSR and use the company’s area of expertise to give back to the society

POORNIMA KAVLEKAR

Most of us aim to be good citizens. We recognise the need to be socially responsible and strive to work towards it in our own small way. However, when a larger organisation takes up the role of a Good Samaritan, the benefit that the society reaps is much larger in magnitude. Mindtree, a global technology solutions company, is one such company that made social responsibility a part of its DNA, right from the time it was incorporated. During its 9th anniversary in 2007, it created Mindtree Foundation, a non-profit organisation, to work globally in the area of supporting primary education and people with disability, providing assistive technologies and software solutions.

Mindtree Foundation is designed to empower and motivate Mindtree Minds to actively contribute to social causes through its technology systems and solutions. In fact, it goes beyond the philanthropic interventions and engages with the communities that it helps. Mindtree Foundation’s head, Abraham Moses, who has been a part of Mindtree right from the beginning, believes in preaching what he practices and believes that being a socially responsible citizen is the first step towards building a company that can reflect this philosophy.

In this edition of Startup School, he shares his views with Poornima Kavlekar of The Smart CEO on what it takes to set up a socially responsible business.

Please share some must-dos that an entrepreneur should know before he establishes the company’s CSR initiative.

Being socially responsible does not mean that one needs to run a program and allocate funds for it. One must make it part of his or her life and exhibit these qualities in everything he or she does and create a positive energy so that people can be inspired.

From my experience in Mindtree, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is in the DNA of the organisation and it is evident in our business plan, value system, and in our vision and mission statements. To become a socially responsible organisation, the leader and the team that leads it should commit to being socially responsible and make it a way of their life. The team, which started Mindtree, had such in-built qualities and made CSR a part of their lifestyle.

For Mindtree, compliance systems were crucial and we were transparent with everything. In hindsight, we know that internal communication also helped in spreading our social mindset to our employees and customers.

In my previous role in administration and facility management, I used to interact with various vendors frequently. What guided me in having a successful vendor relationship were our chairman’s strong guidelines that every transaction has to be a win-win and how important it is to help our vendors grow along with us.

When a leader guides the team to work only towards a win-win transaction, that itself means being socially responsible.

Lesson: Top management should exhibit qualities of being socially responsible, internalise CSR, communicate it within the organisation and make it a part of their life.

During the early days of Mindtree, when it was not yet a large company, how did it approach CSR? 

In our early days, we were very careful in spending our investors’ money. To quote an example, I was asked to buy a non-AC Maruti 800 for Subroto Bagchi, the co-founder of Mindtree, for his use. During his tenure with Wipro, Subroto used to drive a Sedan. However, when he started this company, he said that a start-up should have simplicity and until he proves himself, he is not eligible for such luxuries. For me, simplicity is a very important trait, which he exhibited.

It is a good idea to give back to society by using you technical skills and expertise; all CSR does not have to be about giving funds.

Lesson: Practice what you preach genuinely. 

Please talk about some of the projects that Mindtree worked on in the early phase. What lessons did you learn from these early efforts on giving back to society? 

As far as Mindtree is concerned, there is a story about our support to Somanahalli in Dharmapuri district. Within six months of incorporating Mindtree, our chairman received a letter from a villager who worked as a driver for an executive in a private company. The driver had highlighted the poor state of his village, especially the lack of a proper school, which is the reason why people like him migrate to the city to earn their livelihood. He read about our company and our aim to do something in the education space as part of our CSR project and urged us to do something for his village. Our chairman took this note seriously and found out facts about this village. Subsequently, we created a strong bonding with the village. This was even before we established our business and we were not very cash rich then. Today, we have set up classrooms, computer laboratories, tailoring institute and a women’s help group in the village. We are also sponsoring higher education for around 16 children and 9 of them are doing their engineering.

Lesson: Take every cause seriously. Do your due diligence before you lend your support.

What is your advice to early stage entrepreneurs on getting their team to internalize CSR? Please explain with an anecdote from Mindtree 

Even as the entrepreneurs firm up their business plan, they should simultaneously create a platform for their employees to do something for the society by using their expertise. In Mindtree, I can choose social work as an objective for myself. This means, I have the option of doing something to the society in my own capacity and interest. If an organisation can create such freedom and give opportunity to its employees by involving them in any kind of CSR activity, that is a great way to begin. It could be any activity – volunteering, meeting people from disadvantaged backgrounds and spending time with them, teaching life skills to teenagers, and so on.

Let me give you an example from Mindtree. When Mindtree started a formal CSR initiative five years ago, we wanted to do something technology-related for the community, especially for children from spastic schools and people with cerebral palsy or musculo-skeletal disorders. To build awareness about the developments in the field of Assistive Technology, Mindtree Foundation joined hands with the Spastics Society of Karnataka. Through its initiative, ‘Affordable Assistive Technology Solutions for the Disabled’, Mindtree has utilised multiple technologies to address the needs of such individuals. We are collaborating with such NGOs and offering our solution to make the lives of these children more beautiful.

Lesson: Give freedom and opportunity to your employees by involving them in any kind of CSR activity. 

Can you share examples of two projects where Mindtree Foundation has had a reasonable impact without spending much? 

We did not spend much on the assistive technology project that I mentioned above. Instead, we chose to invest our intellectual and technical expertise in giving back to the society. Let me explain the technology a little more. We created a technology device called “ADITI”. This helps children with cerebral palsy and autism. IIT Madras developed a simple solution but they did not know how to take it forward. We added our engineering value, reduced costs, made it a full product and it is now under production. Aditi is a simple access switch for children with cerebral palsy to use computers easily. Through computer knowledge, they can later earn their livelihood. This made a huge impact on about 200 children in Chennai.

Another solution, “KAVI,” was developed for children with autism, especially kindergarten, children who did not know how to speak in English. This solution helps them to communicate with their teachers and parents. KAVI is being used in a special school called FAME.

We did not invest much in any of these solutions except for our expertise. Essentially, an organisation should use its core strength to create such gadgets in a cost effective manner.

Lesson: Invest your intellectual and technical expertise 

What is the process you follow to review your CSR projects? 

When any institution approaches us, first we check if it aligns with the Mindtree Foundation Charter, check their credibility, their balance sheet, their mission and achievements towards the cause.

Lesson: Evaluate and validate all the projects you support 

How does an early stage company integrate its social activity with the business strategy?

Start your business plan with good corporate governance in place. Ensure that you are sensitive towards social needs of differently abled, take up green initiatives, and so on. Also, ensure that your internal policies supporting all this is rightly stated and documented.

Lesson: Have your corporate governance in place, be sensitive towards social needs and as repeated often, internalise it.

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