Archanna Das, Associate Director, ASCENT Foundation, a not-for-profit expression of Harsh Mariwala (Chairman, Marico), chats with Smart CEO about her experiences of running a peer-learning group for entrepreneurs.

Archanna Das, Head, ASCENT Foundation

Ascent Foundation, a not-for-profit expression of Harsh Mariwala (Chairman, Marico Ltd.) was launched in 2012 with a few important objectives. “An entrepreneur’s journey is a lonely one, especially when you are scaling up, your stakes are high. That is when you feel the need to have a peer learning platform,” says Archanna Das, Head of ASCENT Foundation. Apart from being a peer learning platform, the foundation aims to support an entrepreneur on various dimensions including helping them assess the external environment, the economy, network with prospective partners and suppliers and overall serve as a platform to enable growth.

“This also comes from Mr. Mariwala’s personal journey when he was setting up Marico 40 years back,” shares she. It was a family managed business and he was surrounded by family members. However, when there was a need to seek insight beyond family, he was unable to do so. This was his way of creating an ecosystem to aid entrepreneurs. Unlike other philanthropists, Mr. Mariwala does not believe in cutting cheques and giving. He believes in giving time and building good system,” adds she. Hence, through this foundation, Mariwala’s aim is to identify high-potential growth-stage entrepreneurs and enable them to grow their enterprise and enrich their entrepreneurial journeys.

Launched in 2012 and active across Mumbai, Pune and more recently, Chennai, ASCENT is designed as a unique, powerful peer-to-peer platform that leverages collective power through self-facilitated groups called ‘Trust Groups’ which enables entrepreneurs to share and exchange experiences, ideas, insights and create a healthy ecosystem to learn from each other. 

And to lead this, Archanna Das was brought in 2015. After her B-School, she started her career in sales and marketing, before moving to corporation communication. Her last corporate stint was an HSBC before coming on board ASCENT.

In this freewheeling conversation, Das, a sustainability, brand and communication management professional, who is the Associate Director of Ascent Foundation, shares her journey, her learnings from interacting with entrepreneurs and plans for the organisation going forward. 

About Ascent and the way it works
A small group (a trust group) of 10 to 12 diverse, non-conflicting business people is formed who meet on a monthly basis, as structured by ASCENT.  The most important part is to get the group composition right. After the orientation, first couple of meetings are organised by us and if they get it right, they become a self-facilitated group.  

As far as member fees goes, for the first six years after founding we didn’t charge anything as the foundation is independently run by Mr. Mariwala. However, over the last two to three years, we started organising knowledge sessions (events) and hence, started collecting an annual fee of Rs. 10,000 per member.

Collaboration is an important way forward. Everyone cannot know everything you need to find people who are better than you and join hands.

charge anything as the foundation is independently run by Mr. Mariwala. However, over the last two to three years, we started organising knowledge sessions (events) and hence, started collecting an annual fee of Rs. 10,000 per member.

To become a member, a service oriented company needs to have a minimum annual turnover of Rs.1 crore and a manufacturing company, Rs. 5 crore.

Talk to us about your role and how has it evolved since the time you started leading the foundation?

There were many selection challenges; like the types of entrepreneurs taken in, execution and so on. When I joined in 2015, it was a reset to the foundation. We collated all our mistakes and wanted to improve the way we were running the place. And just like any other startup, we clicked the reset button. This is where my journey began. We changed our value proposition and made it a co-creation process where our member entrepreneurs help me take the foundation forward in selection of members and in organising events as well.

While it is a peer learning platform, we realised that learning is core to what we do. We added a lot of value programs and forged academic partnerships with Stanford Seed and SPJIMP, for example. We have a mentoring program with the best experts from across the country. We also have funding program where we train the entrepreneurs before they meet their prospective investors.

We are connecting 500 entrepreneurs through a portal and have partnered with UpGrad as well, for some learning interventions.  

What are your top priorities?

The foundation always had a Mumbai chapter. Last year, we opened a new chapter in Chennai. We have already reached 16 members there. We have a good base and are building on it. In the next two years, we would like to open more chapters in metros, mostly, and increase the member base to 1000 from the current level of 500.

We also would like to build value for our members. And hence, we started the ASCENT Conclave in 2016. It is a platform for entrepreneurs to come together for experiential learning. We want to take that to next level by increasing the participants to 700 from 400 last year. 

Our goal is to get better at content curation and work closely with each of our speakers so we can get them to share deeper stories and learnings.

This year we are focussing on mental well-being of an entrepreneur. This is a priority in the ecosystem and we are coming out with a study which will be released at the conclave as well.   

Comment on the challenges that you have faced so far.

I was told that I will never understand what an entrepreneur goes through as am not one. I took that as a challenge and have reinvented myself. What I learnt from entrepreneurs is how to make difficult decisions and the importance of grit and perseverance to go after your goal. I need to create a robust ecosystem and everyone will benefit from it and make it a co-creation process, which is not a 3-people job but a 500-member job.

I cannot change things for them, I can only work along with them.  After I joined I realised that I need to have more influencers and that made me setup a Governing Council, a 15-member team. This council has established entrepreneurs who have seen immense value. Our meetings are held every quarter, chaired by Mr. Mariwala. 

Comment on some entrepreneurial trends?

There has been a lot of emphasis on Governance. Entrepreneurs have realised that they don’t have to reach Rs. 100 crore to set their Governance in place. This culture has to be brought in while they are small.

In terms of trends, there are 65 diverse industries in our member base. There is a lot of innovation happening in manufacturing and even in the service sector. Lot of manufacturing entrepreneurs are disrupting their own brick and mortar setup to start technology companies.  

Some Key Learnings you’d like to share with budding founders

  • Resilience! You may raise money or run your business in a bootstrapped manner, but resilience is most important to reach your goal. 
  • There is saying, “Make your weakness your strength.” The fact is that your weakness can never become your strength. Focus on your strength and make it bigger and stronger. 
  • Health, both mental and physical, is important if you want to reach your dreams.
  • Collaboration is an important way forward. Everyone cannot know everything you need to find people who are better than you and join hands. That has led us to collaborate with couple of similar organisations like us who are working in the entrepreneur ecosystem building space in Chennai.

Poornima Kavlekar has been associated with The Smart CEO since the time of launch and is the Consulting Editor of the magazine. She has been writing for almost 20 years on a cross section of topics including stocks and personal finance and now, on entrepreneurship and growth enterprises. She is a trained Yoga Teacher, an avid endurance Cyclist and a Veena player.

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