The Global Social Impact Practicum is a new course led by Chicago Booth's Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) and supported by the Tata Trusts, India’s largest philanthropic organization. Beginning with a trip to India and culminating at the end of Winter Quarter, students will work with the Trusts on a consulting project aimed at making bamboo a crop of choice for clean energy and as a potential driver of employment in rural India.

Here, Evening MBA Program student Denyse Skipper shares recommendations from GSIP for the Tata Trusts.

It’s hard to believe 12 weeks ago I was departing for Mumbai with 10 fellow Booth students, our professor Caroline Grossman, and coach Michael Gurin. The weeklong trip to a country full of contrasts was more than just a visit to our client Tata Trusts’ Indian headquarters. For me, it represented the beginning of a deeply personal learning adventure. I learned as much about myself and the skills and values I hold as I did about Indian culture, renewable energy, and the challenges India faces in raising the living standards of a billion people.

Fast forward to the midterm: we were finally comprehending the scale and factors implicit in our project scope. At the start of GSIP, we were tasked with developing a business model and framework for a social enterprise related to bamboo-based power. Yet the implementation of any pilot and the long-term scalability of the framework require the business model to be aligned with unique geographic characteristics, such as proximity to roads, water, and dispersion of villages. No single formula would achieve our mission.

The project required a balancing act between a framework that is relevant for the pilot site, but also flexible enough that it allows the enterprise to be scaled across very different villages. To help guide these conversations in the future, we created a "decision tree"-like formula for determining the necessary business model components needed to implement in various locations.

A fundamental characteristic of longer term success is the effect on local villagers, and in particular, any increases in income. In our plan, there were numerous opportunities for villagers to generate income. Potential areas where bamboo-based power could generate income ranged from inputs to the generation process (e.g. harvesting bamboo) to indirect income (electricity to power irrigation and production of handicrafts).

Our team debated how to engage villagers so they could benefit from being involved in the supply chain, but could also leverage the electricity in the longer-term for potentially greater sources of income and education. We determined with the Trusts that focusing on indirect income opportunities would be more impactful in the longer term. In other words, we felt that villagers would benefit more from a structure that helped them think about how to use the electricity to maximize the efficiency of existing ventures or to start new businesses.

In addition, our team also worked to pinpoint a geographic district and cluster of villages for the pilot project. After considering other regions, we decided Assam, a state in Northeast India would be the most promising. The state offered a high volume of relatively untapped bamboo resources, coupled with low average household income and absence of electric grid connectivity. In other words, we felt the potential was there for villagers to benefit immensely from electricity created with local resources.

Personally, and I’m sure members of the team would agree, the learnings from this Global Social Impact Practicum course are almost too diverse to list. Of course, I believe each one of us has a clearer picture of the challenges faced by India in the next decade. Also, I feel a greater appreciation for the opportunities for social enterprise on the Indian sub-continent.

The bamboo-based power social enterprise project was a large part of our lives for 12 weeks; it is now to Tata Trusts to implement and, hopefully, improve villagers’ livelihood for years to come.

I’ll end with a quote I found by author Thomas Friedman; it articulates the mission of the class.

“One of the newest figures to emerge on the world stage in recent years is the social entrepreneur. This is usually someone who burns with desire to make a positive social impact on the world, but believes that the best way of doing it is, as the saying goes, not by giving poor people a fish and feeding them for a day, but by teaching them to fish, in hopes of feeding them for a lifetime. I have come to know several social entrepreneurs in recent years, and most combine a business school brain with a social worker's heart….Those who get it and are adapting to it have begun launching some very innovative projects.”― Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century