What our ACT Fellowship experience was like as the very 1st cohort!

On September 15th 2022, six of us walked into Sequoia Capital’s (now Peak XV Partners) office in New Delhi for our induction into ACT’s first-ever Fellowship program. After a two day deep-dive into ACT’s journey, their venture philanthropy model and their beliefs around collective action, we immersed ourselves into our work.

And it has been one INCREDIBLE journey. Over the past nine months, we have met inspiring social entrepreneurs who are hungry to create meaningful change; learned from VCs and industry experts on what it takes to build successful organisations that can create impact at scale; played a major role in several first-ever initiatives that ACT was building and most important of all – became invested in and committed to the larger purpose of our work here.

As our Fellowship comes to an end, we wanted to give everyone who is curious about what went behind the scenes a sneak peek into our experience!

What was the common expectation that we all had from the Fellowship?

Most of us were curious to witness how the venture philanthropy model works – how the grant-making process happens from behind the scenes – since it’s such a new and innovative way of approaching social impact. This experience exceeded our expectations for sure – we saw how grant proposals are evaluated, how due diligence is conducted, what we need to look for in social entrepreneurs but most importantly, how to leverage the ACT network for support and collaborate with the ecosystem at large.

What did a typical day for us, as ACT Fellows, look like?

A very typical day involved a fair mix of conversations between external stakeholders like social entrepreneurs and inspirational founders and brainstorms with the ACT team as well as due diligence/evaluation of tech/innovation led solutions being built by such social entrepreneurs. One key function that remained standard for all of us was staying abreast of the current trends in the sector along with sourcing working models of innovations that are solving problems at a large scale – which we recommended to the ACT team for further action.

What was the most enjoyable and exciting part of working at ACT as Fellows?

Being a part of the entire grant-making process – from initiating the initial interaction to guiding potential prospects through the Investment Committee discussions for funding approval. There is simply no greater joy than helping mission-driven social entrepreneurs in their transformative journey. We also enjoyed interacting with varied stakeholders ranging from founders, VCs, scientists, NGO leaders and other ecosystem partners. Moreover, it always helps to work with a purpose-driven team who are trying to solve the big social problems in our country.

What stood out to us while interacting with passionate social entrepreneurs?

The capacity to tackle intricate challenges amidst uncertainty, coupled with the ability to maintain a long-term perspective towards present actions – it has been inspiring to see the social entrepreneurial ecosystem for Bharat and it has been our privilege to meet and work with them. Another big learning for us has been that the pathway for innovation for social entrepreneurs needs a lot of support. For an innovation to create meaningful change, there is a lot of work that still to be done to create a conducive environment for social innovators and risk-takers.

Did the Fellowship give us any leadership opportunities?

ACT is built on the principle of collaboration which means that a lot of our work involves working with a diverse set of stakeholders and aligning all of them towards a common goal. As Fellows, we were able to take a lot of ownership of our work and we did get the opportunity to lead specific project initiatives – which has been a game changer.

What is one skill that we Fellows definitely gained during the Fellowship?

By evaluating tech solutions through primary and secondary research, we definitely picked up extensive industry knowledge and learnings, which are vital for any development professional. We also became more confident in our approach when dealing with senior experts (because we did so quite a lot!) and learnt the value of going into conversations well prepared. As we got to lead initiatives and work independently, we learnt to take risks, make course corrections, and grow through failures.

What was one new learning about the social impact sector after coming to ACT?

The complex nature of creating impact at scale requires one to be on top of their game and to be updated with the latest industry trends. For example, AI is revolutionising everything – this is exciting but also challenging and there’s something new to learn every day. Another key insight we’ve had is that inherent collaboration within the space and cross-learning among individuals is much needed and can lead to newer possibilities.

What is our understanding of the team culture at ACT?

Agility and a bias for action are fundamental tenets of the ACT culture. We say this because everyone is very action-oriented and always trying to leverage their networks to make progress. We have inherited this culture to keep things moving and are going forward with a keen emphasis on swift action and decision-making.

What are some attributes that we feel every Fellow should definitely have?

Fellows should be excited to take responsibility, curious to learn, and be ready to fail and grow through it.

How has our experience as ACT Fellows influenced our long-term career goals and aspirations?

At ACT, we’ve all experienced what the power of collective action could do. We will always look out for ways where aspects of collaboration and cross-learning can be incorporated. Our journey as Fellows has leveraged our common curiosity to know more about venture philanthropy and development financing, solidified our knowledge of the space and fuelled our interest to work deeper in the impact space.

While we may have concluded our Fellowship, we’ll always be a part of the ACT collective and will continue supporting the organisation. We all plan to continue working in the social development space in some way, shape or form while keeping impact at the centre of what we do.

Would we recommend the ACT Fellowship to young change-makers?

In short, YES! It is very different from other Fellowships and exposes you to how tech and innovation can create large-scale impact and how YOU can contribute to it. If you’re an aspiring social entrepreneur or someone who is keen to understand unique models of funding development, this is the place for you!

A note for the readers: all the responses are a culmination of the experiences of all Fellows. If you’d like to understand more, feel free to reach out to us on LinkedIn!

ACT Summit 2023: Leveraging the power of collective action to catalyse social impact at scale

We hosted the first edition of the ACT Summit in New Delhi, where a diverse set of stakeholders deliberated upon how technology, innovation and collaboration can help India address some of its most complex social issues across public healthcare, gender, education and environment.

Over 150 participants, including social entrepreneurs, impact investors, CSR professionals and sector experts, agreed that technology, data and platforms, when backed by patient and purpose-driven capital, can create sustainable social impact that can reach billions of people.

The day-long Summit featured multiple sessions designed to encourage dialogue, knowledge sharing, and collaboration among participants, some of whom included Ashish Dhawan (The Convergence Foundation), Rizwan Koita (Koita Foundation), Sandeep Singhal (Nexus Venture Partners), Mohit Bhatnagar (Sequoia Capital), Abhiraj Bhal (Co-Founder, Urban Company), Prachi Windlass (Michael & Susan Dell Foundation), Lathika Pai (Microsoft VC & PE), Supriya Paul (Josh Talks), Divya Jain (Seekho), Naghma Mulla (EdelGive Foundation), Aditya Shankar (Doubtnut), Mekin Maheshwari (Udhyam Learning Foundation), Mahesh Yagnaraman (Acumen), Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja (Central Square Foundation), Suman Gopalan (Freshworks) and Vishal Thakur (Nasscom Foundation), among others.

Across participants, a resounding theme that emerged was that the persistence of social entrepreneurs accompanied by committed capital and the use of technology could pave the way for sustainable social change. Investing in capacity building at an organizational level, challenging conventional wisdom with regards to funding and forming strategic Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are critical steps required to accelerate the deployment of homegrown innovations and give rise to India’s next generation of social unicorns.

Key Insights

• Social entrepreneurs are an important part of the social change value chain, given their agility, bias for action and focus on innovation. But that ability to create change can become exponential through collective action. There are lots of deep-rooted beliefs in India’s social sector and they won’t change in our lifetime if we take only the traditional routes of change. When we bring innovation, challenge conventional wisdom and collaborate with each other, it can be a powerful catalyst for change.
• Technology has immense potential to achieve scale for social impact; it is the only thing that will help us reach millions and billions. But it needs both patient capital and impatient social entrepreneurs to drive it forward. Having a strong mix of traditional as well as impact investors can bring the required amount of capital to enable technology to deliver meaningful social outcomes.
• The integration of generative AI into ed-tech is one of the more recent global developments. But while it presents multiple possibilities for the growth of quality, affordable ed-tech, tailoring solutions to the individual and socio-linguistic needs of students is the need of the hour. A robust Open Digital Learning infrastructure can power diverse use cases, translation, and multilingual transliteration.
• Peer-to-peer learning between social entrepreneurs building solutions for climate action and healthcare as well as funders supporting them is imperative, since there are many intersectionalities between the two domains – such collaboration can have exponential outcomes and foster more innovation. It is imperative for stakeholders to : a) align on what success or impact would mean for them, b) facilitate peer-to-peer collaboration to improve outcomes, c) take a long-term approach towards funding and technology development.
• Increasing India’s Female Labour Force Participation can be made possible only if gaps in the existing data collection landscape are addressed. Currently, data on 80% of SDG indicators on gender don’t have any sources and while gender-related data is collected in the private sector, it is not published or used. The availability of exhaustive and pertinent data can drive informed decision-making and higher levels of accountability. The presence of granular meta-data will inform the policy-making process as well.
• Continued dialogue between social entrepreneurs and funders as well as the harnessing of patient capital are important to de-risk investments that are critical for bolstering R&D in healthcare solutions. There is also scope for philanthropy to help address the existing gaps in the healthcare value chain, like diagnostic care.
• The time is ripe for India to build more Digital Public Goods due to the rapid adoption of sophisticated open-source technology.
• The role of first generation startup founders is critical to reshape the ‘giving culture’ in India into something that goes beyond just funding and can truly help build the nation. Since most such founders have just begun their philanthropic journeys, it’ll be valuable for them to build their vision of a shared purpose by exploring collaboration avenues with the public sector; such pathways can potentially flow both ways.

The Summit also catalysed purposeful 1:1 conversations between promising social entrepreneurs within the ACT portfolio and funders looking to connect with founders building impactful tech-led solutions.

That every individual can be a co-founder of social change was the resounding message in each of the sessions and for Team ACT, the Summit’s big highlight was the meeting of many minds and ideas across such a diverse set of stakeholders. We’re inspired by all the areas of collaboration that have emerged and look forward to building these pathways further in our quest to catalyse meaningful change for Bharat!

ACT kicks off Tech Advisors For Social Change 2.0

When we first launched the Tech Advisors For Social Change program in 2022, we hoped for it to address a big gap that we had observed in the tech capabilities of social enterprises. Through our engagement with multiple such organisations, both in and outside of our portfolio, we realised that they often didn’t have the deep expertise needed to build a scalable tech architecture – something that hindered their ability to grow.

As an organisation that’s rooted at the cusp of the venture capital and startup ecosystems and deeply believes in the power of collective action, we instinctively knew that leveraging external tech experts could not only give social enterprises the advisory they needed, but also give such volunteers an opportunity to contribute towards creating social impact in a meaningful way.

It all started as a tweet by Mekin Maheshwari, our ACT For Education investing committee member, that invited fellow techies from his network to apply for the Tech Advisors For Social Change program – that single tweet catalysed 80+ tech experts to raise their hands and our journey began in the most serendipitous of ways!

Our first cohort had 8 senior tech experts, each of whom we matched to a social impact organisation in the education space that had identified a very specific tech challenge statement. The 3-4 month engagement saw these advisors collaborate with their respective matched organisations on areas that ranged from restructuring backend operations to influence scale or creating effective data dashboards to gain user insights.

Saraswati Chandra was one such Tech Advisor who helped Rocket Learning, an ed-tech non-profit working on early childhood education, create a product testing framework that gamified their Whatsapp based solution and accelerated the participating children’s engagement!

“Building products and technologies that work at scale is hard. Through my startup journey, I have benefited from advisors who inspired me to pay it forward. It was great to apply product-building concepts to solutions that are designed for Bharat,” she says.

Our experience with the first cohort bolstered our conviction in our approach and we focused on fine-tuning the program structure to enable a better experience for both sides involved. Our biggest takeaway was the need to foster a growing community of tech experts that could go beyond short-term 1:1 relationships to become universally accessible to social enterprises when they encountered challenges and needed custom-focused mentorship.

So this year, as we get the 2nd cohort in gear, we’ve fine-tuned our approach to match a resident advisor to each participating organisation as well as match a visiting advisor for specific use cases. We have also expanded the program to organisations within the healthcare and climate action spaces and are working with the social enterprises to hyper-define their tech challenge in a way that it’s realistically solvable within a 3 month time period.

Tech Advisors For Social Change 2.0 has greatly benefited from a strategic collaboration with Vidyasagar Bedida, who has helped us evaluate the submissions by social impact organisations on product scope, urgency of the problem statement as well as the founder’s vision. We’ve shortlisted a diverse group of 10 organisations solving crucial issues through telemedicine solutions, personalised learning platforms and renewable fuel production etc. that need support with optimising data architecture, building data analytical capability and improving the UX/UI of the platform.

Simultaneously, we leveraged ACT’s community to invite seasoned tech experts from the for-profit/startup world and received 90+ signups from folks across companies like Groww, Amazon, Google etc. They were invited to join demo sessions by participating social enterprises to give them an opportunity to understand the challenge statement with the founder and gain insight into its complexity. Finally, we facilitated the final matches based on the skill requirements for the project and the preferences indicated by the advisors.

We’re excited for the 2nd cohort to deep dive into their 12 week engagement and hope to build this program into a thriving community that takes ACTion!

Jumping into ACTion!

ACT came into being during when the COVID crisis hit India – we worked tirelessly to find capital-efficient, scalable solutions that could fight the spread of the pandemic.

Here are some of the orgs we supported through the 1st and 2nd waves:

InnAccel: Developed SAANS PRO – a non-invasive ventilation system that provides respiratory support to moderately severe hypoxemic Covid patients and CPAP – a ventilation helmet which prevents the spread of infection from the patient’s exhalation, cough etc.

Qure.ai: Created an AI powered diagnostic solution for detecting COVID & worked with BMC to deal with testing volumes that exceeded the regular capacity of hospitals and testing centres.

Nocca Robotics: Designed, developed, tested and deployed the indigenous Noccarc V310 ICU ventilator in collaboration with SIIC IIT Kanpur – a user-friendly machine that proved to be very effective in treating COVID-19 patients at a moderate stage of hypoxia.

Haqdarshak: Digitally equipped citizens from low-income communities with facilities that would help them financially & get them the required essentials to tide through the lockdown period and thereafter.

HouseJoy: Launched Housejoy Care & worked with Bangalore’s local government to transform 4 KSRTC buses into mobile COVID healthcare clinics which provided subsidised blood, sugar, BP and COVID testing.

ImpactGuru: Launched COVID centric online fundraisers to support daily wagers, senior citizens, healthcare workers, animals etc. and matched 20% of all incoming donations.

DronaMaps: Created a digital dashboard for 5 state governments that included geofencing of quarantined patients, cluster analysis of the spread, location tracking with CDR & predictive analysis for spatial spread.

As the 2nd Delta wave hit with deadly force, ACT collaborated with several government bodies & organisations to aid oxygenation relief in real time for vulnerable communities.

These include Transforming Rural India Foundation (Jharkhand), Indian Air Force (Goa), Rightwalk Foundation (Uttar Pradesh), District Health Department (Nagaland), Hans Foundation (Uttarakhand), Sant Ishar Singh Ji Memorial Hospital (Punjab) & GSVM Medical College (Uttar Pradesh), Government Lawley Hospital (Tamil Nadu), CR Gardi Municipal Hospital (Madhya Pradesh) etc.

“The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as one of the greatest challenges that the state of Punjab has faced in recent times. Inspite of the efforts of the government, the containment of this scourge would not have been possible without the whole-hearted support of philanthropic organisations and the industry.

On behalf of the government and the people of Punjab, I would like to convey my heartfelt gratitude to ACT for the manner in which you came forward to support the state government during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Your contribution has helped augment the relief efforts of the state and its preparedness to manage the crisis.” – Capt. Amarinder Singh (CM, Punjab)

We also enabled affordable homecare by supporting training programs for ASHA workers and collaborating with orgs like Hanumaan (Bihar) for last mile delivery.

As hope dawned in the form of a vaccine, ACT jumped into enabling vaccinations for high-risk occupation groups in low-income communities by partnering with organisations like Swasti, Labournet, Teach For India, iTeach, CREDAI, Uplift, Akanksha Foundation, Robin Hood Army, Surendra Pathare Foundation, Pune Municipal Corporation & many more.

The onslaught of the pandemic may be receding but the recent rise in cases has made it imperative to boost prevention protocols.

And so we’ve continued to keep our eye on the ball by collaborating with Hanesbrands & Delhivery to distribute 2.5 Cr+ facemasks across 11 states for children, self help groups, frontline workers, police and army personnel, government offices, PHCs and taluka health centre staff.

“I extend my gratitude to ACT for their generous contribution. This act of benevolence and goodwill will impact the lives of millions – each mask will help safeguard a whole community!” – Mr. Jayant Sinha, MP – Hazaribagh (Jharkhand)

A little over 2 years later, we can only marvel at the power that collective action has to drive social impact at scale.

Our deepest gratitude for every single person who stood firmly by our side through it all and helped India fight the crisis in good stead!

ACT Capital Foundation For Social Impact is a not-for-profit company incorporated and registered under Section 8 of the Companies Act, 2013. All donations made to ACT Capital Foundation are eligible for income tax deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

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