Feature story

Trained to thrive

Seeding small businesses and bolstering budding entrepreneurs — that’s the winning way adopted by an initiative spread across six states

Tushar Donde, a commerce graduate from Mumbai University, left the big city and returned to his village in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region during the Covid pandemic. He had come back with an idea in mind: the prices of vegetables and fruits were so much higher in Mumbai than in his native neighbourhood. There surely was a profit to be made from the difference, Mr Donde reckoned.

Mr Donde began sourcing produce from nearby villages and supplying it to markets in Mumbai and other cities. Around that time he started working with a local company called Carver Farms, where he learned the science of extracting cold-pressed oils from sunflower and mustard seeds. The big boost for Mr Donde’s small business was yet to materialise, though.

That happened in 2021, when Mr Donde enrolled in a 10-day entrepreneurship development programme (EDP) conducted by Tata STRIVE, a skill development initiative supported by the Tata Trusts. Armed with a loan of 40,000, he launched Healthroot, his very own cold-pressed oils unit. The Tata STRIVE team has backed Mr Donde all the way and continues to do so. “I still get calls from them; they encourage me and give me a heads up on business opportunities,” he says (most recently that Healthroot had caught the attention of a venture capitalist).

Mr Donde is one of more than 1,300 people who have been educated in building their small businesses through the EDP initiative. This is but one part of Tata STRIVE’s greater mandate — to help provide gainful livelihoods for the aspiring. This effort has reached in excess of 1 million youth since 2014.

Tata STRIVE got going with EDP on a small scale in Odisha in 2017. Branded a ‘Nano Unicorn’, the programme was set up in collaboration with the Odisha Skill Development Authority to provide structured entrepreneurship training to youngsters graduating out from the state’s Industrial Training Institutes (ITI).

EDP concentrates on enabling youth with potential. Candidates have to submit a two-page business plan before going through an assessment that includes a written test, a game-themed group activity and a personal interview.

While knowledge of business is not considered in the appraisal, background and awareness are important; what also counts is entrepreneurial bent and ideas. Candidates have to create a business proposal at the end of their training period. “It's a journey from idea to plan,” says Shiladitya Samaddar, principal lead (operations) at Tata STRIVE.

Beyond jobs

The EDP programme has expanded over the years from Odisha to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and it now includes non-ITI participants as well. “Our goal is to empower ambitious youth to become job providers rather than job seekers and to boost the local economy,” adds Mr Samaddar.

A successful example is 27-year-old Naresh Behera, who has launched a profitable business with a social cause (see Buzz in the biz). Mr Behera stands out and there are many like him who have benefitted from EDP. An internal survey of 228 budding entrepreneurs from the programme, conducted by Tata STRIVE in October 2023, is illuminating: the respondents’ mean monthly income grew from 7,566 to 86,433 per month, with monthly profits averaging 17,859. The jump is remarkable given that a third of the participants had no income source when they joined EDP.

The survey also found that the fledgling enterprises were sturdy on the whole, with a failure rate of just 2%. Moreover, nearly every entrepreneur in the programme has invested more funds in his or her enterprise (an average of 100,000-plus).

What makes EDP shine is the quality of the training it delivers. There is a dedicated team of about 30 professionals from diverse organisations, active and retired bankers, established entrepreneurs, academicians and professionals from the corporate and development sectors.

The pedagogy pool offers expertise in banking, government schemes, marketing and scale-up strategies, and domain-specific subjects, not to mention motivation and emotional support.

The wider support base for the programme includes the Maharashtra State Skill Development Society, SKF India, Crompton Greaves, Owens Corning, Tata Steel Foundation, Tata Capital, Tata Communications, Sahyadri Farms and the Odisha Skill Development Authority.

Buzz in the biz

Naresh Behera

Armed with a diploma in mechanical engineering, Naresh Behera (now 27) was able to work for two years in Bhubaneswar in Odisha. Then Covid struck in 2020, he lost his job and had to return to his hometown Rourkela. That’s when Mr Behera turned to a skill he had been familiar with since age 13: repairing mobile phones.

With time on his hands and an idea in his head, Mr Behera enrolled in Tata STRIVE’s entrepreneurship development programme (EDP). He thought there was business potential in his social-cause idea: reducing e-waste by reviving old gadgets.

At the end of the 10-day EDP course, Mr Behera mooted his business plan. He soon secured a grant of 100,000 for Gadget Reviver, a name that he calls himself as well as his company. Mr Behera had a big vision for his business. “How many gadgets could I revive on my own? I knew I had to train others,” he says.

Mr Behera now has 55 students he has trained in a network that retrieves ‘trash’ — old devices and useable parts — from e-dumps and warehouses. There are two revenue streams in his business: training youth and mobile phone repairs; and sales and services for institutions such as banks (this pulls in a steady income through contracts).

Mr Behera has repaid his EDP grant, extended his network to the neighbouring state of Jharkhand and today makes a profit of about 80,000 a month from his twin businesses. “The programme taught me about business analysis, marketing and creating value, and it encouraged me to think about solving local issues in a sustainable yet profitable way,” he says.

Mr Behera believes “entrepreneurs can solve any problem”, and he is an example. With his passion for reducing waste, he has started an NGO called Climate Warrior Network in Odisha and has led and funded a clean-up drive of Rourkela’s Koel river.

“I realised that starting the training straightaway with topics of finance or marketing would not work,” says Abhijit Giri, a professor and director at Adamas University who has mentored aspiring entrepreneurs from Uttar Pradesh. “We had an interactive first session where they shared their hopes and fears and I told them real-life success stories. It’s amazing what a little passion and community spirit can achieve.”

Gaurav Gupta, who leads EDP at Tata STRIVE, finds satisfaction in how participants evolve through the programme: “With each post-training follow-up we see more and more of them troubleshooting and finding solutions in funding, growth, risk mitigation, government schemes, etc. And as they move ahead, we know we are on the right path.”

A key facet of the EDP story has been teaching financial discipline. Having a current account with a bank helps, for instance. It ensures that the entrepreneur has completed his or her business registration and governmental and legal compliances. “A current account requires entrepreneurs to be more systematic about filing returns, while it also makes it possible to apply for loans under various government schemes,” says Mr Samaddar.

Loan support

Tata STRIVE provides loans of up to 200,000 for these budding business talents, many of whom have specific skill sets — as a beautician, tailor, mechanic or electrician — that make them better placed to find success and, thereby, repay their loans and grants. An example is 33-year-old Firoza Shaikh, who lives with her husband and 15-year-old son in Ambedkar Nagar colony in Pune in Maharashtra.

Ms Shaikh used to run a beauty service from home and she wanted to turn this into a full-fledged beauty salon. EDP provided her with training and a 20,000 grant to kickstart her business. “Enrolling for the course was the best thing that happened to me; it gave me much-needed confidence,” she says. Following her training, Ms Shaikh got a diploma in beauty and hair treatment, rented a small space in her neighbourhood and invested in good-quality equipment. With business getting better, she is now looking to employ a few hands to keep up with demand.

That’s vindication for Tata STRIVE and what it has tried to effect through the entrepreneurship programme, which gives dreamers with the drive a solid foundation for business liftoff.

Tushar Donde with his Healthroot range of products and Firoza Shaikh at her beauty salon in Pune