CSI Facebook Takeover: Anshu Gupta, Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year

26 Sep 2023

This is another installment from our series of articles in the CSI Facebook Takeover Week. In this piece, SSE’s Director of Learning, Renee Devereaux reflects on her recent trip to Delhi where SSE is opening a new school.

Renee Devereaux Unselfie

Renee Devereaux Unselfie

SSE students visit social enterprises to get an on-the-ground picture of how they operate.  A month ago, I had the chance to step into the role of student for a while, visiting an Indian social enterprise called Goonj (literally “echo” in Hindi).  I knew Goonj made use of discarded clothing and goods and expected to see an Indian version of Canadian organizations that do similar work.  What I saw instead is difficult to capture in words.

The tour began in a room where women sat quietly on the floor, sorting clothing into bins labelled by item.  “B grade” cloth needing repaired or cleaning was separated out, and a couple of women worked at sewing machines.  “C grade,” unwearable cloth, was separated out as well.  I suspected we’d learn the fate of the C grade cloth, and be impressed by how this “garbage” was put to use.  Looking back, I can see how limited my imagination was.

As we walked from room to room, and from building to building, I experienced the unfolding of an idea; each room a different chapter in the story of an organization that has taken a simple concept – transforming discarded goods into currency – and turned it into something truly extraordinary.  Goonj is clear their work is not about collecting and distributing old clothes.  It’s about using material “as a tool to bring ignored issues to light, to talk about basic needs, to bring communities together, to make them aware of their own power, to increase people’s participation, to change mind sets, and change the present rural infrastructure.”

In practice, this means Goonj uses the materials they collect as a future payment.  Working with partner organizations in rural areas, Goonj enlists rural Indians living in poor areas to undertake projects like building bridges and constructing roads. Payment comes in the form of kits made from the materials Goonj collects – clothing, blankets, household items, even kits containing supplies to host a wedding.

Goonj MY Pads Initiative

Goonj MY Pads Initiative

That C grade cloth?  The cotton is separated out and made into washable and eco-friendly sanitary napkins and undergarments for women in rural Indian villages.  Goonj’s “Not Just a Piece of Cloth” and “MY Pads” initiatives open up discussion about the taboo subject of menstruation, and address issues of women’s basic health and dignity.  The attention to detail, to ensuring Goonj values are expressed at every stage of the process, are what I will remember most.

As we moved through the tour and began to grasp the depth of Goonj’s work, our group grew quiet.  At times I needed to blink back tears and avoid the eyes of our tour guide, Ayushi. She led us back through dusty streets to the Goonj office, where we waited in the meeting room to speak with the founder, Anshu Gupta, named Schwab’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.

Our tour group cradled cups of delicious chai, and our easy chatter turned far more reflective.  I thought about what I would ask Mr. Gupta in the limited time we’d have. If I could learn anything from this man who has achieved such a feat of human compassion and innovation, what would it be?

Mr. Gupta entered the room, sat with us, and began patiently to answer our questions.  He was humble and easygoing, and spoke from a place of deep commitment.  He described wanting Goonj to grow as an idea, not as an organization.  He spoke about social entrepreneurs defining the limits of what they won’t do, and after that staying open to where an idea might take them.

SSE visit with Anshu Gupta

SSE visit with Anshu Gupta

When it was my turn to ask a question, I explained how SSE works with many early stage social entrepreneurs, and looks for the best possible ways to support them.  I asked Mr. Gupta what he would have valued most when he was just starting out.  He put his hand on the back of the person next to him and said “You can do this.  This is going to work.  That’s what I needed.”

We have many goals at SSE, but for now this is what I want to be.  An encouraging hand on the backs of people with enormous potential, saying “you can do this.”

SSE is an international network of schools operating out of the UK, Canada, Ireland, and soon, India. The School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) Ontario is a member of the Centre for Social Innovation.