Sheetal Mehta Walsh, on the Rise of Social Entrepreneurship

Sheetal Mehta Walsh, recently featured in our hugely popular article The 10 Upcoming Female Social Entrepreneurs of India, is the founder of Shanti Life, a unique microfinance platform serving the poor in Gujarat villages and slums so that they can create sustainable businesses. 

Shanti Life provides financial literacy training, mentoring, access to eco-sanitation facilities and a low interest rate of 12%. All funds are recycled into further loans.

Sheetal is about to create an online marketplace for recipients of microfinance so that they can sell their goods online globally. She is also a yoga teacher.

We spoke to Sheetal about the rise of social enterprise; the importance of child safety online; and the role that her parents, Ghandi and yoga play in her life.


TNW: It’s been over 3 years since we last had the pleasure of interviewing you.  What important changes/trends/developments have you seen on the social entrepreneurial landscape? 

SMW: Well it’s a pleasure to be invited back! Thank you.

I have seen the UK really open its arms to the notion of social enterprise and not only because it’s the right thing to do.

The UK is becoming a hot spot for social entrepreneurs around the globe. Not only are funds available but networking organizations are now popping up all over the UK. I have also noticed leading VCs around the world, especially in the Silicon Valley (for example, Catamount Ventures who are a dream team) investing in social impact businesses which are performing extremely well. I also see an important development in entrepreneurship. Unlike banking, entrepreneurs are thinking about how they can make money while making a difference. It seems it’s not only the right thing to do but the innovative and forward thinking way of entrepreneurship.

I am co-founder (with my husband Paul Walsh) of MetaCert, a for-profit company that provides products and services for family safety online. Protecting children from harmful content is not only important but key in how they exist online and interact with others through various devices. This for me is an example of how to make a difference in the world leveraging smart technology and making it accessible to those who need it.

TNW: Which businesses are you currently involved with?  

SMW: I am very focused on developing MetaCert on a global level and ensuring it is available across all devices in all schools. We have a chance to really impact youth in a positive way and to allow parents to make choices about how they want to browse the internet.

My role as Deal Maker for the UK Trade and Investment’s Global Entrepreneur Programme has evolved with me spending more time in the Silicon Valley. I am able to engage with a lot of innovative entrepreneurs who are choosing to go global from the UK.

My special focus is on developing Shanti Life (formerly called Shanti Microfinance) – this is our way of sharing our entrepreneurial skills and resources with the poor in slums and villages in India. We provide sizable loans to the poor so that they can develop sustainable businesses. Through mentoring and training the beneficiaries are learning about financial literacy, savings and how to go to market. All repayments and interest (capped at 12%) is recycled into further loans. Our goal is to alleviate communities out of poverty so that they can get out of the loan cycle. Some of the communities where we work have no access to sanitation facilities and clean drinking water. We have recently funded the building of eco-sanitation toilets and washing facilities and we are developing partnerships to ensure access to clean drinking water is accessible. This in turn will help decrease water related illness’s such as dengue fever and result in better work productivity.

TNW: How have things progressed with your own ventures?

SMW: The world of social entrepreneurship is exciting and challenging. We are progressing well and measuring not only revenues and technological advancement but also social impact, accessibility and life case examples of how our efforts are making a difference.

TNW: How exactly do you/your ventures encourage more women to become entrepreneurs? 

SMW:

I like to ensure that our ventures enable all genders, races and ages to engage.

On a day-to-day basis I do a lot of mentoring with young people with Berkeley Haas Business School, London School of Economics, University of Alberta and Start Up Edmonton.

TNW: Can you point to some real progress and cases where womens’ lives have been changed through your ventures?

Yes, one example is the Ahmedabad Sewing School in Vatva. The community in the Vatva area are the poorest of the poor who lost everything in fires during the 2002 riots. The area is heavily polluted with industrial waste and water is not drinkable. Illiteracy and lack of skills results in extreme poverty and poor living conditions. We are creating a sewing school and hiring a trainer so that women can own their own machines and start work immediately. Finished goods will be sold locally and through the Shanti Life online marketplace.

Another example is the rickshaw project in the slums in Ahmedabad and Baroda.

Microfinance is more easily made available to women, but their husbands also want to provide for their families.

Driving a rickshaw is a good way to do this. Though many families flock to cities where they hope they can get access to more funds they either encounter dangerous loan sharks and are left to beg. A lot of them want to work but do not have the basic funds to put a down-payment on a rickshaw and they have little or no vocational skills. We supply microfinance loans to the rickshaw drivers so that they can afford a down-payment and eventually own their own rickshaw. £250 will give a rickshaw driver freedom to work for himself, access all necessary and legal paperwork and provide for his family.

A couple we helped as part of this project, Apasana and Malek, lost everything in the 2002 riots in a fire. Their children were missing for 10 days and with no identity papers they were left with no hope. Apsana is training to learn microfinance accounting. Malek has his own rickshaw now and can make up to £8 per day as opposed to £4 per day when leasing. He is a positive role model for others in the community and by bringing his family together and supporting them, he has regained his dignity.

TNW: What kind of technology are you most enthusiastic about and why? 

SMW: There is so much out there.

I am excited about social networks and platforms that allow for open sharing, gathering awareness and building communities.

I really am enthusiastic about the iPad and iPhone – the availability of so many apps allow us to reach communities around the world, make purchases, donations and share knowledge.

Mobile technology is by far the way of the future not only for us in London or San Francisco but for people in villages in India who are able to access important information like the price of crops, or sell their goods via a global marketplace.

TNW: Have you come across any exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

SMW: I really think Give2Gether is going to be an exciting platform for crowdfunding for good causes.  Unexus.org are a cool platform for sharing ideas and generating value. Jaxtr.com is going to change the way people travel around the world and make calls.  Redeem and Get will provide nice competition for Groupon…there are so many cool start ups and dedicated entrepreneurs.

TNW: Do you have any role models/mentors?

SMW: My parents are really my mentors, they have worked against the grain from the day we became refugees (from Uganda). They started a whole new life for my sister and I in Canada and gave us so many opportunities. They took risks and taught us the discipline of hard work, maintaining values and giving back to the community. Without them, I don’t know where I would be – they are my best friends.

Gandhi is a role model who reminds me to think about the bigger picture to practice patience and to never give up.

His teachings and his actions impacted the world.  “Be the change you want to see” is a mantra I follow.

TNW: What does a day in the life of Ms Sheetal Walsh, look like?

SMW: Nowadays we are spending a lot of time in San Francisco and traveling back and forth to London and India. There are no normal days and I love it.  I do care about routine and generally wake up to respond to emails from around the world, then I practice yoga or TRX exercise which are my form of meditation.  I spend the afternoons meeting with entrepreneurs in the Valley, London or India – and all of them inspire me. We always end the day being thankful with a home cooked meal!

TNW: Do tell us more about your yoga teaching and Shanti Life.

SMW: I have been practicing yoga since 2005 and it has truly given me strength and grounding in ways I never imagined. From a physical perspective I have never felt so grounded and from a spiritual space

I really enjoy positive thinking, sharing and just being.

My practice is most meaningful when I take it off the mat out of the studio and into the real world. Maintaining good energy, thoughtfulness in speech and action, and making a difference is what enables me to strive to become a better person.  Shanti Life is the culmination of 17 years of working with finance, venture capital, entrepreneurs, and global philanthropy. It is my recipe to work with the poor to alleviate themselves out of poverty while contributing to their communities through the creation of sustainable businesses.

TNW: What plans for the future?

SMW: My plans are to build my family with my husband, enable safe browsing for kids around the world, impact villages and slums positively through responsible microfinance and do lots of yoga!

TNW: What quote would you like to leave us with until the next time we interview you?

SMW: Mahatma Gandhi’s of course – “Be the change you want to see”!

Click here to read our 2009 interview with Sheetal.

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