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'We Are Playing A Role Of Catalyst'

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Entrepreneurship is never a smooth journey and it wasn't so for Harsh Mariwala whose enterprise Marico, has grown in revenues from Rs 40 Lakh in 1971 to Rs 4,000+ crore today. As part of his personal goal in life he started Ascent Foundation, a non-profit organisation which is a unique and peer-to-peer platform for ambitious entrepreneurs. 

Founded in 2012, Ascent Foundation is based on the concept of 'Be Alone No More'. Ascent offers a platform to scale not only businesses from start-ups to a multi-national corporation, but also the entrepreneur by leveraging the power of Trust Groups.

Ascenters benefit from the 'power of the collective' through the wisdom and experiences of their group members; interactions and ideas sharing with members across other Trust Group. This format helps growing entrepreneurs learn from each other through exchange of ideas, experiences and insights, in a confidential yet liberal environment. Recently, he visited Delhi to launch Ascent Foundation's Delhi chapter. During his visit to Delhi, he met with BW Online's Poonam Kumar and gave inside information on how Ascent works. Excerpts:

What inspired you to start Ascent Foundation?
Every person at some stage in his/her life has realised that he has to give something back to the society. It has to occur at some stage. I have been thinking about this for the last four-five years. I am not the kind of the person who believes in writing a cheque book and giving money to some charitable institute or hospitals and so. I want to be actively involved in whatever I do. That was the key trigger in my mind. And secondly, if I have to be actively involved it has to be a subject you are passionate about. I believe that entrepreneurs add lot of value to the society. Though, they run a business they make profit out of that business. And in the journey they create lots of jobs and they give something back in form of taxes. They provide other associates with work as well. So, it is good for the society. If the entrepreneur serves the society, GDP also grows. I keep this in my mind, I realised in my journey lthat scaling up posed a challenge. Many entrepreneurs find that they are not able to scale up. They don't know how to delegate, how to recruit good talent, how to manage with the partners. So I kept all these things in my mind for accelerating and scaling up the entrepreneur when we started Ascent Foundation. So our object is to help enterprises scale up. So in that journey we also have a vision of appealing and asking many entrepreneurs to join us.

How do you scale up entrepreneurs? How different are you from Venture Capitalists?
Venture capitalists are very different from what we are doing here. We are the catalyst, we do not provide funds. It's a completely different thing. We basically create an echo system where entrepreneurs are chosen very very carefully and put into groups of ten where they learn from each others. We create these trusting group where no one competes with each other. And we facilitate in an environment where they learn from each other. A group of 10 entrepreneurs can actually identify an issue, a problem and give advice/give solution to the particular sector to other entrepreneurs.

How do you select people to be a part of that group? What is the criterion for becoming a member?
One has to meet a certain criteria. If you are in a manufacturing/products business you have to have a Rs 2.5 crore or more turnover and in services business the minimum amount has to be Rs 50 lakh and above. So you have to have a certain scale. Second, You should not have been making big losses. We invite applications after short listing applications. We call them for a group interaction where they talk about their passion or growth. They talk about how willing they are to learn and how they can give something back to others. Interaction involves: a presentation by each entrepreneur about their entrepreneurial journey and their views on their growth potential to a group of entrepreneurs and the selection panel.

Based on a cumulative assessment, the selection panel will select entrepreneurs as Ascent members. Currenty, we have around 300 members in our team in Mumbai. They meet every month in trust group of 10, Ascent has 26 trust groups. And we have launched it in Delhi.

In our network we have network of bankers, venture capitalists and coaches. My big dream is to cover 10,000 entrepreneurs.

Who can join Ascent?
He/she has to be willing to learn, willing to give something back to the society. Also, there is a certain time commitment. He/she should spend three hours once in a month with the group.

Does Ascent accept entrepreneurs from a particular sector/area?
No, we want actually diversity, if you look at the proile of our 300 entrepreneur (10 per cent are women), you can feel the diversity. Currently, we have Rs 14,000-crore combined turnover and  age groups starting from 23 years to 57-years-olds. We have representatives from 65 industries such as manufacturing, services, family businesses and more. Diversity can help in a way to grow and learn different pit-falls from the different industries so it cannot repeat. 

What is the fee does for becoming a member of Ascent Foundation?
There is no joining or membership fee. Ascent is an expression of my personal social responsibility and is bearing all set-up costs.

Each Trust Group though bears its own running costs. Members of Trust Groups, collectively and unanimously decide the budget of their own group, thus creating ownership.

Ascent will periodically organise exciting member mixers, workshops, seminars, etc. Some borne by Ascent, co-hosted by partners or by members/trust groups.

What is the role of Ascent in shaping up a journey of an entrepreneur?
We create an echo system where they learn from each others, where entrepreneurs benefit from the 'power of the collective' through - the wisdom and experiences of their group members; interactions and ideas sharing with members across other trust groups. This format helps growing entrepreneurs learn from each other through exchange of ideas, experiences and insights, in a confidential yet liberal environment.

What are your future plans?
Since inception, 350 entrepreneurs (aggregate turnover of Rs 14,000 crore) have been selected and 26 trust groups are actively engaging every month. Our next milestone is Ascent 1000 entrepreneurs (100 Trust Groups). Future is to grow and make this 350 into 10,000. 

If someone needs money, how does Ascent help the member out?

There will be sessions, advance sessions where we call one venture capitalist, one SEED fund and one bank. QUestions like when do you need to go to venture capitalist, what your business should look like gets addressed through these events. These educational events help you in terms of making decisions but we do not provide funds. Over a period of time we create eco systems and we say '10 entrepreneurs want to raise money'. We get a whole host of venture capitalists saying that these are the 10 entrepreneurs, you evaluate. We are only acting as a catalyst. If somebody can invest in business and wants to join us, we play the catalyst's role for them.

Do you have any tie-up with any one such as bank, VC, etc?
We need at least 1,000 members in our team to do all tie-ups.