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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