Stanford's SEED programme training entrepreneurs to end global poverty

Stanford Graduate Business School
African cashews and macadamia nuts are popular the world over but are often unaffordable to many as prices tend to be steep. Ten Senses Africa managing director Frank Omondi had worked for over a decade in the tourism sector, travelled extensively and could see an opportunity here. 

If he could cut out the middlemen, offer the small farmers a fair price and export a good product, he would have a good thing going.

He set up his business and was growing gradually. However, in 2016, Omondi enrolled for Stanford’s SEED programme in Kenya, a comprehensive programme that includes 12 months of immersive management training in East Africa, designed specifically for business owners and their teams. 

The programme is led by Stanford Graduate School of Business (GBS) faculty, other practitioners, and supported by trained local facilitators. The goal is to create and activate a detailed action plan to help people grow and scale up their company. SEED helped Omondi reorganise his affairs at Ten Senses. He began to provide cashew seedlings to support small farmers and decided to set up his own large farms in Tanzania and Ethiopia. 

Since then, sales have doubled, a Dutch private equity firm has taken a stake and his staff count rose from 38 to 600 in five years. Omondi feels SEED was like a full-time MBA done in a shorter period, the learnings from which have helped him organise and scale up his enterprise many times over.

That in a nutshell is the goal of the SEED programme. It is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to attend a year-long training conducted by the GBS staff but on their own home ground to help them pause, reflect and plan the next 10x growth in their businesses. 

The entrepreneurs may not make it to Silicon Valley to figure it out but the SEED programme brings all Silicon Valley lessons and insights into one’s doorstep. Barring the cost, anyone running a business usually cannot afford the luxury of a year off and disappear to do a course far away.

After Africa, the SEED programme — after a few key adjustments — made a quiet entry into India, which is now working with its third cohort of 62, beginning this December. The first cohort had 44 entrepreneurs followed by 57 in the second. The enterprises usually have a turnover of between Rs 1 crore and Rs 100 crore, with the median revenue at Rs 25-30 crore. These firms have a management team of at least 3-4 key people and are in business for at least three years. The enterprises are from Mumbai to Guwahati and encompass diverse sectors from cyber security to selling nuts. Above all, the programme seeks founders with a “hunger for growth”. 

Participants are required to pay a heavily subsidised fee (Rs 5 lakh for a programme that costs four times that amount to deliver). For women-led and social enterprises — two segments the programme is keen to encourage — the fee can be lowered even further.

The programme has four weeks of classroom sessions, focused on the big picture. These are followed by workshops that look at the nuts and bolts of the business and then follow the leadership labs that help see the growth strategy with a fresh perspective.

India has been offered a new improved version of Africa. The lessons learnt from Africa have been incorporated here. Consequently, the programme length has been increased from six months to a year as the African experience showed that six months was not enough. Also, the African experience showed that while it was easy to train the founder and expect him to lead the change, it was equally critical to have the senior management on board. Workshops are now conducted in the company by locally sourced and trained facilitators to bring the entire leadership team on board. 

This makes the entire top management take a fresh look at the business and redefine goals, making the new vision more inclusive and implementable. “For any change to succeed, it needs to have everyone on board. The new vision and plan adopted by a company had to be more inclusive”, says P R Ganapathy, aka Guns. 

Prior to SEED, Ganpathy, who now leads the Stanford SEED programme in Chennai, helped shape Villgro, one of India’s leading social impact incubators. A third aspect that is appreciated by entrepreneurs is the leadership labs. Small groups of entrepreneurs, who have completed the programme, meet at an offsite location and present the challenges each of them are facing with their enterprises and growth plans.

Brainstorming and inputs from each other’s experience often help resolve issues while bringing the group much closer. Entrepreneurship can often be a lonely journey and this helps develop networks and friendships for life. “You realise you are not alone; others are struggling too,” explains Guns, who usually accompanies the cohort to the offsite locations.

He says he finds that many of the entrepreneurs keep in touch with each other well after the programme.

The programme is already bearing fruit for entrepreneurs. Cygnus Hospitals founder Shuchin Bajaj, who completed the programme last year, says that the management is so stuck in the “nitty-gritties of every day” that the bigger picture is often missed by many.  What he liked about the SEED programme is how the facilitators, who conduct the workshops for the management, came “into the company to help push the transformation from within,” something few would do.

Cygnus currently has 12 hospitals in four states of North India and is hoping to reach 20 hospitals in the next three years. It plans to provide high-quality tertiary health care at affordable rates to Tier-2 and 3 cities where it is currently not available.

Naandi Water founder Divya Yachamaneni, from the 2018 batch, says that strategy means “nothing” without a team aligned and inspired to execute. Her safe and clean drinking water solution has touched 700 villages across seven states in India, impacting 700,000 lives so far. The for-profit social enterprise has an ambitious plan to scale up in view of India’s ranking of 120 out of 122 countries in terms of water quality.

Guns reels off many other examples. A traditionally family-owned enterprise, Hyderabad-based Almond House, post SEED, redefined itself and added new product lines.  A chain of boutique hotels based out of Mumbai has designed a transformative growth strategy after the programme. 

Mumbai-headquartered Pocket Aces Pictures, a creator of digital content that helps brands connect to millennials, has rejigged its strategy, scaled up operations, raised more rounds of funding and drawn up a very ambitious plan for the future.  “I see many baby Infosys in the IT companies that have attended our programme” says Guns, who has also been executive assistant to Narayana Murthy in Infosys early days. He adds that “like we saw with Infosys, the sky is the limit once companies embark on their journey with enough hunger to power them ahead.” 

Some of the African companies have listed on NASDAQ and other stock exchanges after their SEED transformations. The numerous examples, both in Africa and India, would gladden the heart of Robert (Bob) King, a 1960 alumnus of Stanford GBS, who is the force behind SEED. Some years ago, King came back to his alma mater and donated $150 million to be used to end the cycle of global poverty by helping entrepreneurs in developing countries scale up, an audacious but noble goal.

How far it succeeds in its lofty ambitions is not yet known but the seed of the idea has certainly been sown.

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