My path to winning the 2016 CommonBond Social Impact Award

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I co-founded Kheyti in May 2015 with the vision of helping smallholder farmers overcome poverty using the right combination of technology products and services. We designed a “Greenhouse-in-a-box”: an affordable, modular greenhouse bundled with services that can help farmers earn a steady weekly income.

By February 2016, the results of our fundraising efforts through competitions had been mixed. While we had some success with NU Pitch Night, Wharton India Startup Competition and Kellogg Business Plan Competition, we lost 20 other competitions in the previous six months. Kheyti straddled the fine line between social impact and business, making it too risky for pure business plan competitions and too for-profit for social impact competitions. Our team was seriously considering bootstrapping Khetyi until we gained enough traction to approach social impact investors. So when a classmate suggested that I apply for the CommonBond Social Impact Award, I added “apply to CommonBond” to my to-do list with mixed feelings.

However, when I started reading about the CommonBond Social Impact Award, I discovered that the competition was aligned to our team’s unique perspective. Like Khetyi, CommonBond believed for-profit businesses could be a positive force for change at the local and global levels. Upon learning this, I decided to apply for the competition.

CommonBond’s application was deceivingly simple: Make the case for our social impact endeavor using a 100-word description and two-minute video. While this type of application required less writing, it required us to produce a highly effective pitch in a very limited scope. I spent countless hours splicing our video footage and reworking the voiceover script. In total, I recorded my voiceover over 20 times before finally clicking the “submit” button.

Then came the worst part of any competition process: waiting. We waited while the CommonBond team poured through hundreds of applications to choose nine semifinalists. Considering our past competition experiences, I was cautious about not getting my hopes up too high.

Then we heard from the competition officials – we had made the semifinals! I looked at the other shortlisted companies and realized it wasn’t going to be easy. There were eight other brilliant social enterprises working on equally meaningful problems, such as making education affordable for impoverished families in Africa. It was certainly daunting to know that the three final startups would be selected by popular vote.

All of the communities that I was part of in India and at Kellogg really rallied their support around Khetyi. The Kellogg Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI) and Kellogg Public-Private Initiative (KPPI) helped spread the word by sharing with their network, and classmates and friends backed us. My parents played a great role as well by encouraging family members, friends and acquaintances to vote for us, making good use of the 1+ billion population of my home country. It was a close race, but by the close of the voting period, Kheyti was on top!

I spent three days perfecting our pitch deck for the competition. I wrote the script, rewrote it and then rewrote it again a few dozen times. I practiced in front of Kellogg professors (including Professor Karin O’Connor from my New Venture Launch course), my co-founders, classmates and mentors to make sure that I plugged every gap in the communication. I also received help from Professor Julie Hennessy, who helped me develop my storytelling skills and delivery. Last but not least, I created a 10-page Q&A document so that I would be prepared for any questions from competition judges.

When the day of the final pitch competition came, I couldn’t shake the butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t help but ask myself, how could anyone choose between a startup that helps refugees get employment in New York, a startup that makes two-wheeler taxis safer for Ugandan women and a startup that helps smallholder farmers in India? It was a seemingly impossible choice, and our success would depend on how well I presented us.

Upon arriving at the competition venue, I was told I would have 10 minutes to pitch my idea and eight minutes of Q&A. I met the two other finalists – Manal Kahi of Eat Offbeat and Blesson John of Nyweza – and we all realized that this would be a tough race. We went on stage with the understanding that no matter who won, we were in good company.

The pitch went well, but the Q&A session was admittedly difficult – I didn’t realize how long eight minutes could seem when judges are picking apart all the aspects of your business! The judges deliberated and announced the results 20 minutes later – and we won!

The Khetyi team is incredibly grateful to be awarded the CommonBond Social Impact Award. In addition to receiving $10,000 in funding, we will receive mentorship from CommonBond’s executive team and the immense amount of goodwill that CommonBond brings because of its social mission and unique brand. We have already been featured in Forbes Entrepreneurs, and CommonBond is planning all kinds of support activities for us.

The three biggest lessons I’ve learned from this unique competition experience is:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice: The passion you have for your idea will only take you so far when you’re constrained by a few minutes and have 100 people watching you. The story you tell has to be coherent, concise and compelling.
  2. Be ready for any and all questions: While you can control the pitch portion of a competition, you cannot control the Q&A – unless you prepare. Present your pitch to as many diverse people as you can, and encourage them to ask you questions. Write those questions down, and prepare concise and genuine answers for them.
  3. Involve yourself in strong communities and leverage their support: I relied on my strong group of friends, family, professors, classmates who believed in Kehtyi’s cause, and I was not afraid to ask these people for help. Had I not reached out to my connections and leveraged my connections’ support, I don’t think Khetyi would have ever made it this far and won an honor as significant as the CommonBond Social Impact Award.

Learn more about social impact at Kellogg.

Saumya is a first-year student in Kellogg’s Two-Year MBA Program. She is currently incubating her agri-tech social enterprise Kheyti and has been an entrepreneur in the Indian social enterprise space for the past four years. Prior to Kellogg, she was running her startup, YellowLeaf, which saved migrant blue-collar workers from exploitation.

Photo via CommonBond.co/blog

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