Nurturing the entrepreneurial ecosystem!

Archanna Das, Head, ASCENT Foundation, a not-for-profit expression of Harsh Mariwala (Chairman, Marico Ltd.) that aims to identify high-potential growth-stage entrepreneurs and enable them to grow, shares her journey, her learnings from interacting with entrepreneurs and plans for the organisation going forward.

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 supports an entrepreneur as they add value to all the stakeholders – economy, supply chain and so on. “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 journey. 

Launched in 2012 and active across Mumbai, Pune and more recently, in 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 with sales and marketing, then moved on to corporation communication. She moved industries and functions and finally, went on a sabbatical. When she returned, this opportunity at ASCENT  helped her reinvest herself as a professional. In this freewheeling conversation, Das, a sustainability, brand and communication management professional, who is the Head of Ascent Foundation, shares her journey, her learnings from interacting with entrepreneurs and plans for the organisation going forward. 

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

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 we didn’t charge anything as the foundation is independently run by Mr. Mariwala.  In the last two to three years, we started organising knowledge sessions in event format and hence, started collecting an annual fee of Rs. 10,000.

To become a member, a service oriented company needs to have a minimum 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 and organising events.

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 partnership with Stanford Seed SPJIMP. We have mentoring program with best experts in 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.com, a Ronnie Screwvala’s e-learning platform for the same.

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 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. 

We want to get the content curation better and hence, work with each speaker and make them share their stories, even failure stories. 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 over and importance of grit and perseverance to go after your goal. However, most important was for me to realise that it was not my lived experience. I need to create a robust ecosystem and everyone will benefit from it and make it a co-creation which is not a 3-member 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 set up 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 trend, there are 65 diverse industries in our member base. There is a lot of innovation happening in manufacturing and even the service sector. Lot of manufacturing companies are disrupting their own brick and mortar setup to start technology companies.  

Learnings that you’d like to share: 

  • 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.

Ascent’s achievement and future

Member base increasing from 100 to 500 in the last 3 years is an achievement. 

Our members have given us three things that have changed their entrepreneurial journey which is also an achievement for us. One, leadership outlook, two, processes and systems they are bringing in and three, growth, which is happening in businesses as the have realised that they are enabler to the organisation or they are their bottleneck.  

Conclave is a big achievement for us.As far as the future goes, we plan to reach 1000 members over the next two years and aim to start another chapter next year.    

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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