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Monday, December 28, 2009

Change the world from Bandra,Mumbai: the new changemakers have arrived

All you need is a good cause—an innovative start-up will provide you with dirt-cheap office space and unlimited resources.

When one is young, restless and desperate to change the ruthless ways of the world, trustworthy companions usually include poky cybercafes, cutting chai and a jhola. But thanks to two individuals, social entrepreneurs in the city can look forward to upgrading to a more tony environment, complete with an espresso machine and unlimited access to resources like the internet and printing.

Welcome to the Hub—modelled on the Hub, London, and the first of its kind in Asia—where socially inclined start-ups can rent space for a song. An initiative of Unltd India founded by 29-year-old TISS graduate Pooja Warier and Londoner
Richard Alderson, it provides seed funding and incubation support besides the aforementioned co-working space at bargain basement rates.

Perched on the top floor of an old residential building near the Mount Mary steps in Bandra, the Hub looks like the workstation of a moody advertising guru. There are bandanasporting heads, half-full cups of coffee, straw curtains and Oshos parked at the entrance. The traditional sterile office space has been replaced by tanned wooden tables to hot-desk, Bombay Fornicators for inspiration, a pile of pillows to accommodate a power nap and a cosy pantry to take a break.

Entrepreneurs who work out of here don’t pay a fraction of the rent they would have had to dole out for prime property in Mumbai. In fact, keeping in mind the egalitarian sentiment, there’s a grading system of the social enterprise. So while lowbudget start-ups (under Rs 1 lakh per annum) get space for as little as
Rs 200 for five hours a month and Rs 3,000 for unlimited access, established businesses (above Rs 25 lakh per annum) pay Rs 600 for five hours a month and Rs 27,000 for unlimited access.

“It’s an ecosystem to allow social entrepreneurs to thrive and create sustainable organisations that can be scaled,” says Anderson. “This way, we are doing what we want to do and are also creating a steady income for Unltd India.”

The Hub started in July and since then has gathered 28 members, “peo
ple who simply want to change things for a radically better world’’. There are individuals working against child sexual abuse, for sanitation in slums and night schools as well as freelance writers trying to tackle issues like environmental degradation. But the interesting mix also includes a recruiter and fashion designer, leading one to wonder: how does a recruiter, whose primary job is to fuel the corporate machinery, help create a just society? And will a fashion designer’s contribution be to dress up the underprivileged?

Recruiter Francis D’Costa and designer Meera Mittal, however, are not stereotypes. Thirty-five-year-old D’Costa’s payback is to help recruit people for not-for-profit organisations. “NGOs need good people and volunteers think that NGOs don’t pay,’’ he says. “They just need to be connected to each other and that’s what I do.’’

When Mittal approached the “hub hosts’’ for membership after she stumbled upon it on a Yahoo group, they decided to call her in for a personal interview to see what
plans she had to make a difference. “We realised that she had a deep interest in therapeutic dance and yoga therapy, and she offered to conduct sessions for NGO volunteers. Then we were sold on the idea,’’ says hub host Raheen Jummani, a clinical psychologist who manages the space with Hub co-host Alex Baine.

How does the Hub make sure that entrepreneurs fulfil their promises and don’t take advantage of the low rent? “Our hub hosts are here round the clock, making sure people are genuinely interested,’’ says Alderson.

One of the first few members at the Hub was Sailesh Mishra, founder of Silver Inning Foundation, an organisation that works for the elderly. “There’s such a huge lack of space in Mumbai and the rent is sky-high. I earlier worked out of
Mira Road but now working out of Bandra gives me a different kind of credibility,’’ he confesses. The best part, he says, is that when in need of guidance, all one has to do is take a trip to the pantry and introduce oneself. “I get to meet so many different people. This way we have built a network. We also have an online community where we share google documents and try to take each other’s ideas forward,’’ he says.

That really is the idea behind the hub, emphasises Jummani. It hosts weekly events, film screenings and talks to encourage the Hub members to get to know one another. “And in the process spark off new ideas,’’ she says.

By Mansi Choksi for The Sunday Times of India ,Mumbai ,27th Dec 2009

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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