Not every innovator is an entrepreneur. Likewise, not every entrepreneur is an innovator. It was this epiphany that inspired the creation of LetsEndorse, a self-described marketplace for social innovation, based in Bengaluru. “We understood that there were several community-based challenges for which people struggle to find solutions. These solutions have always existed. But some of them haven’t been designed keeping in mind the aspirations of the community. Others have the potential to make a difference but have never come off the shelf. No channel or platform that tied the needs of the community with the possible solutions,” says Founder Monika Shukla. LetsEndorse was founded to fill this lacuna.
Since 2015, LetsEndorse has functioned as a market network platform to bring together social innovations from across the world for discovery by those who need them. To date, it has successfully deployed over 325 social innovations across various sectors, chief among them being agriculture, education and livelihood empowerment, in association with over 1,500 NGOs, 500 social entrepreneurs and 30 corporate partners.
The evolution of an idea
Monika didn’t always aspire for an entrepreneurial career. As a child growing up in the township of Bhilai in Chattisgarh, she was raised with “utmost dedication to academics,” she remembers fondly. This dedication paid off as she eventually became an instrumentation engineering student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur. It was here that she got her first taste of entrepreneurship. “I was a member of the entrepreneurship cell in IIT Kharagpur, where we approached entrepreneurs, including some of the alumni, to speak to students on campus and inspire them. I was also a part of a lot of product design challenges and wrote grant applications for prototypes as well,” recalls Monika.
Following her graduation in 2010, she took up a role in the technology team of Goldman Sachs in Bengaluru. Here, she joined the environment committee of the firm. Her experiences at Goldman Sachs inspired her to enrol in the second batch of the Young India Fellowship in 2012, where she met several social scientists working across a variety of domains. “It was a big eye-opener for an engineer like me,” she notes.
It was also at the Young India Fellowship program that Monika met fellow LetsEndorse co-founder Varun Kashyap, who leads strategy, partnerships and finance at the startup. An alumnus of the famed Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh, Varun held extensive experience in the social sector. While still a student at SEC, he had formed several self-help groups for slum-dwellers that focused on pickle making, stationery and retail, among other sources of livelihood. It was also while they were Young India Fellows that Monika and Varun conceptualised LetsEndorse.
However, it would be years until LetsEndorse materialised. Monika joined another startup following her stint at YIF. During this time, however, both of them “aggressively” pursued the idea and pitched it to several players in the social innovation space. Eventually, in 2014, the Humboldt Foundation selected them as German Chancellor Fellows, during which time they developed their concept further.
Monika and Varun returned to India a year later and officially registered LetsEndorse in October 2015 in Bengaluru. They have currently completed two rounds of funding, the first of which came from Social Alpha, a Tata Trusts initiative. Within a year, the enterprise was generating revenue. The second round of funding followed from angel investors in India and Singapore. The enterprise broke even during the current financial year. As of March 2020, it employs a team of 17 with operations across Karnataka, Jharkhand, Orissa and Assam. For a month now, it has been incubated at T-Hub.
Enabling social solutions and tackling entrepreneurial challenges
How does LetsEndorse differentiate itself from other players in the field? While there are several individuals and enterprises that work in the social innovation space, or vertical players, LetsEndorse positions itself as an ecosystem enabler that allows these multiple players to come together. “We raise money only for social innovation on the ground. We also don’t invest in welfare-centric projects and focus on solution-centric projects. We hope to provide people with solutions that can make their problems disappear,” explains Monika.
Because LetsEndorse is an ecosystem player, it currently has no marketing budget, relying instead on organic reach and word-of-mouth marketing. “We work with different stakeholders, including government bodies, NGOs, social innovators, corporations and individual philanthropists. We have a different outreach mechanism for each of them,” says Monika.
Over the last four-and-a-half years, the company has seen its fair share of challenges. Hiring the right talent has been a perennial challenge for the founders. But Monika believes that as founders, they have gotten better at it. Additionally, she says, the impact investment landscape in India has a long way to go since not as many investors are willing to take the risk. “Raising funds was a challenge at one point. We were quite fortunate to have received early support from Social Alpha. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many big investors and risk-takers. But we are now focusing more on our balance sheet than our term sheet,” she adds.
Aside from the challenges faced by the company, the role of a founder has not been without hurdles. The responsibilities that come with being a founder mean that she has still not resolved the question of work-life balance. But she also adds, “Finding out how efficient you are as a manager is also part of the self-discovery process. We’ve made mistakes, and it calls for a lot of introspection. This is something both Varun and I are going through,” says Monika. Nevertheless, her entrepreneurial journey has been a transformative one. “I have changed quite a bit in this journey,” she notes.
As challenging as it has been to find the right talent, Monika counts the moment she hired the first employee at LetsEndorse among the high points in her journey. Over the last few years, they have also seen other notable accomplishments. In October last year, LetsEndorse received a work order from the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) to create 10,000 MSMEs across India from scratch under its Mission Swavalamban. In June the same year, the enterprise was the winner of the Start-up Grand Slam at the World Blockchain Summit organised by Trescon.
Reflecting on her journey, Monika says, “Back in college I was in the entrepreneurship cell. But I never thought I’d become an entrepreneur myself.” The journey has certainly been an eventful one.