Real India: Social Entrepreneurship as a Family Affair

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Chhiber-Mathew family. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Neelam Chhiber met her husband Jacob Mathew in graduate school, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Today, with their 19-year-old son Nishant, they are giving me one family’s story of the improvisational networking and social entrepreneurship that are all the rage in digital India.

It’s not all monster business yet, and probably never will be. In the Chhiber-Mathew case, the family fix is on “impact investing” (with a social return against pollution, say, or exclusion) as much as on money profit. And it’s less about design in the sense of logos, letterheads and retail displays than about the evolving contours of markets, the flows of traffic in ideas as well as commerce, in India and the far beyond.

Neelam Chhiber’s company Industree made its name in “social business,” creating urban markets for rural producers in a chain of Mother Earth stores. Jacob Mathew’s design firm Idiom seeds and cultivates companies to serve what’s known as the “BOP” market — for “bottom of the pyramid.” The mission of their careers was clear from the start:

NC: The problem in India is the inequity. If today, the buzzword for the Indian government is “inclusive growth” — how does the growing 30% urban population take along its 70% rural poor population, and how will it do it without the Chinese revolution, without the Russian revolution, in a peaceful way?

CL: What does it say about India or about you that you are in this game as a family?

NC: One of the key distinctions that Indian society has vis-a-vis the US and China may be the strength of the family. Maybe because we are still not one-child families, I think the Chinese have lost a lot with that one-child policy. They may have done a great thing for the planet by having fewer people around, but it’s not good for society. Because I believe a lot of thinking can never be for the short term. I think a lot of the problems with your financial system in the US is that it’s about short term thinking — that you’re thinking just for the next two or three years, or to your next bonus. Now that kind of thinking is cultivated because as a society, maybe thoughts of longevity and the long term are lost. But when you have a family system, you think ahead constantly. You’re planning for your children and your grandchildren. And you are planning for your parents. I think as a family we grew a lot because we looked after elderly parents. And our parents looked after their parents. I think that’s going to be one of the key strengths of India in the future. Because I think that is what’s incubating better thinking, and more holistic thinking…

These are the important things about me being a Hindu and Jacob being a Christian – it’s not always easy, it’s difficult. His parents were opposed to the idea — why do you want to marry a Hindu? Because we arranged our marriage, ours was not a love marriage. We were classmates, and we never had an affair while we were in college, but after we graduated, we were looking for husbands and wives — our parents were — and so we said, we know each other, so why don’t we get married? So his mother said “look you’re arranging your marriage, why don’t you just arrange it with a Christian? Why have you chosen a Hindu?” He said: “Well, she’s my friend, she happens to be Hindu, so let’s not worry about it.” And then they adjusted. Now how did both families adjust? Because they had a history of families which adjusted. So a lot of future negotiations and things that happen on the planet, and when you work in global teams, is going to be all about how you adjust with everybody else. First of all you start adjusting in a family of four. Like my two sons find it very difficult to adjust with each other, but they’re learning. So that’s how you learn when you grow up. The whole family thing is key.

Neelam Chhiber, Jacob Mathew and Nishant Mathew in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India on Sunday, July 11, 2010

We are on the Open Source road in India through the mid-summer.

Next: Rain-forest gardener and guardian Suprabha Seshan.

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  • Really inspiring, the new world today’s youth globally are capable of designing.

  • Potter

    Beautiful Family! This interview reminded me of some of what was discussed in the Ghana interviews about the need to develop local economies.

    I hear such enthusiasm in the Matthew family and it warms me because I think they are on such a good path with Industree working to bridge rural and urban culture, especially to bring local craftspeople and artisans out of isolation, out of the past, to bring their products into urban market and urban consciousness, and, in turn grow an appreciation in urbanites for craftsmanship, love of materials, design, sophisticated design. This also, maybe even more so, reminds me of theMingei movement in Japan of about a century ago, influenced by the Englishmen Bernard Leach and William Morris ( The Arts and Crafts movement, a response to industrialization). Japan is, in a way, ahead, light years ahead on this score. The Matthews come a century later in India with social entrepreneurship, serious about taking on urgent global issues of conservation of our planet, promoting thoughtful consumerism, something our entrepreneurs here in the US with their multi-million dollar executive salaries and their politicians are having trouble with shamefully. The quest for money and power is so strong that it keeps us from focussing on very dire issues.

    The question about how to get entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs who go after and require millions to satisfy their personal needs, to embrace social responsibility I think is futile because it has to do entirely with how a person is educated, brought up, what our culture promotes, accepts and allows. We need to go back to a much higher tax rate for the upper levels of income.

    That foreign students, like Nishant, still come here to our institutions of higher learning to meet each other, to inspire, to get inspired, and that some go back home to do good work is a good part of the American Empire.

  • Potter

    Sorry, that link should have stopped at MIngei.

  • They are all very impressive! I do want to ask again— how do you meet these people? Being able to find great people like this is a skill I’d very much like to develop, it would make my own travels much more fruitful.

    It would be nice to see something like this in the Philippines. There are high quality products that come from here (largely unavailable to the people who actually make them here, I didn’t think anything of the Philippine projects labeled “export quality” when I was in Singapore, but seeing them here makes me realize how creepy it is. “Good enough for foreigners, too good for most of you.”), the country produces so many highly skilled people and there are still skilled artisans. But there is almost no sense of hope. I’ve encountered very few people who think the future could be different (I did talk to a seventeen-year-old that was hopeful about the Aquino election earlier this year, because were he not to be a good president, his family’s reputation would suffer. I’m skeptical.). It seems like the capable people who want a better future are working towards a better future for themselves and their families by getting work outside of the country.Around 10% of people born here work overseas, so their talents are helping the US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, but not the Philippines (it can be argued that remittence money, which accounts for more than 10% of the GDP here, is actually inhibiting the country’s development). So— in identification with my neighbors, listening to this makes me feel very envious. Just as an American admires forward-thinking, I’m envious!

  • Industree and Idiom both established and represent Crafts and Design from local to global.

    Being family as a key source for enterprises is something that should be highlighted more and more for cumulative motion.

  • Aanchal

    How beautiful! Feeling proud! yay!

  • Anuradha

    Nice to have read this. I liked the bit on evolving contours of markets, the flows of traffic in ideas as well as commerce, in India and the far beyond…

  • It is a wonderful interview. The views put forward both by diff generations and may be diff genders n castes (if i may say) all culminating in a way to exemplify how diversity can not only work harmoniously but progressively as well in this vast diverse country.

    ALso what was interesting is the concept of approximity as a part of culture. Social enterpreneurship in general, where sharing and making profit while working for society is not considered bad. This is probably is an ideal way to build a healthy society in general.

    Wonderful family! I have had the opportunity to work with Jacob, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

    Good to see you all, and esp looking forward to Nishants progress, his views are quite forthright and refreshing.

  • Would also like to add something:

    Any progressive society sustains on the base of a strong shared identity. Which we lack, as Nishant mentioned as well. Its one of the reasons why Humans survived and neanderthals didnt, in spite of them being a stronger species. So China may not be so quality concious, but they may go ahead coz of a strong sense of shared identity. Just a thought.