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By Saumya

I was a social entrepreneur in India for three years prior to attending the Kellogg School of Management. After graduating from Kellogg’s Two-Year MBA Program, I am moving back to India to continue my journey as a social entrepreneur. My friends and family are often baffled to hear this short summary of my past five years. Their biggest question is: If you already knew that this is what you wanted to do, why spend the time and money on an MBA?

This is a question I have asked myself multiple times over the many quarters I have spent at Kellogg: Is a business school in the American Midwest the most conducive place to build a social enterprise that solves the problems of small-holder farmers halfway across the world in India? As I near the end of my two years at Kellogg, I can say without hesitation that the answer is yes.

Social Entrepreneurship at Kellogg: An Inside Look

To attend Kellogg, I had turned down an admission offer with scholarship from a competitive business school with a celebrated social-enterprise program. In my mind, running a social enterprise was no different than running any other mainstream for-profit business. A social enterprise needs to be sustainable and scalable in order to solve the deep-rooted challenges that exist in our world today. I wanted to acquire skills such as how to run a business, manage teams, liaise with different stakeholders, raise funding and so on. Joining a top-five business school made perfect sense from that perspective.

My introduction to social enterprise at Kellogg started with the Social Impact Days, an intense two-day workshop where student teams come together to create a business to pitch to a panel of judges. A few months prior to joining Kellogg, my friends and I had come up with a business idea in the agriculture space focused on helping small farmers get out of poverty. I was very excited when I found out that one of the sectors highlighted during Social Impact Days was Food and Agriculture. I was looking forward to finding classmates that were as passionate about solving the food crisis and helping farmers as I was.

Thankfully, I did find classmates interested in the sector, but “Food and Agriculture” meant something completely different to each one of them. At the end of two days, we ended up creating an app to help elderly people navigate through the millions of food choices in grocery stores in order to get the nutrition they need. We even won second prize for our idea! While I had a great time with my team (and I am still very close friends with some of them) it struck me that I was in a developed country now where people are struggling with a completely different set of problems.

When you think entrepreneurship, you may think of other schools at first. While awareness for the entrepreneurship initiative at Kellogg has been growing, the number of entrepreneurs is still relatively small, especially right when you are entering school. This means that you have a lot more resources per entrepreneur and you get a lot of personal attention from the administration and faculty. Additionally, you can actually customize a lot of the resources according to your own needs.

My biggest reason for getting over recruiting FOMO to focus on developing my idea (now known as Kheyti) was primarily due to Professor Mohanbir Sawhney. I met him in October 2015 after cold-emailing many professors at Kellogg who I thought could provide advice. I remember meeting Professor Sawhney at the Allen Center for about 15 minutes to introduce myself and share my idea. By the end of that meeting, he had offered to fund my summer internship with Kheyti through his Center for Research in Technology and Innovation! This was something I hadn’t even fathomed. He took me under his wing and pushed me to dive headfirst into building Kheyti at Kellogg.

Since Kheyti was just an idea for my first few quarters at Kellogg, I started by pitching Kheyti in multiple forums such as Northwestern University’s Pitch Night, the Kellogg Business Plan Competition, NUVC and others. Linda Darragh and Sunny Russell of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative were very helpful in letting me know about opportunities inside and outside of Northwestern. Thankfully, we won a handful of these competitions and had a decent seed fund to start prototyping in December 2015.

Around that same time, Megan Kashner, the current director of Social Impact, joined Kellogg. Megan has an outstanding background in the nonprofit space and is one of the most approachable people I have met at Kellogg. After she heard I wanted to pursue Kheyti over the summer, she connected connected with Jennifer Mayer, manager of the Project Impact program. I have worked with Jennifer over the past 1.5 years through Project Impact and then through Zell Fellows. She is the reason Kheyti became the inaugural recipient of the Resnick Family Social Impact Award given by ISEN. When Jennifer sent me the application for the award, and I saw it was focused on sustainability, my knee-jerk reaction was that Kheyti wouldn’t be eligible since we were an impact-focused company and sustainability was just a byproduct of our work. But Jennifer encouraged me to go for the first meeting, and, by the second meeting, ISEN decided to award us a $25,000 grant!

Trina Ntamere, the current senior program administrator for the Kellogg Public-Private Interface, has also played a big part in allowing me to stay connected with my team back in India through Project Impact. Over the past 1.5 years, I have been to India four times, which includes a three-month summer stint with Kheyti. All of these trips have been almost entirely funded through Project Impact, which has enabled me to stay in touch with ground operations. In addition to KPPI, KIEI has provided support in applying for business-plan competitions and pitching Kheyti at various forums. The vote of confidence the administration has had in my passion is a huge deal for me.

In my second year, I was selected as a Zell Fellow, which isn’t a “social impact” program per se, but has given me substantial funding for Kheyti and a set of excellent mentors such as David Schonthal and Gregg Latterman. Through Zell, I have met exceptionally inspiring entrepreneurs, including Sam Zell of EGII, Jai Shekhawat of SAP FieldGlass and Dhani Jones, a former NFL linebacker. I also met a cohort of fellow entrepreneurs at Kellogg who are daring to walk the path of entrepreneurship alongside me.

The best part about my experience of building Kheyti at Kellogg has been seeing so many doors open. All I had to do was ask and people made sure I had it, whether it was funding for going to India or traveling to pitch competitions or trying to increase potential loan forgiveness assistance. I remember in one of our first meetings Megan told me she knew that the financial resources for social entrepreneurs at the time were limited, but she also promised that she would do whatever it takes to make it better. A year later, I learned that Kellogg had increased their cap for the loan forgiveness program to up to $15,000 per year. I never expected this change would happen so soon, especially with the number of stakeholders involved in a massive institution like Kellogg.

The other thing that differentiates Kellogg from all other business schools is that they let students focus on their businesses while being at school. Most other programs believe that students are at school to study and not work. While ideation is welcomed, executing your idea during school is actually discouraged. At Kellogg, I have only felt supported from all sides, including professors who have gone out of their way to let me submit make-up assignments or even record classes when I was traveling to India.

Kellogg also has a generous Social Entrepreneurship Award of $70,000 startup funding and a newly introduced scholarship of $60,000 for students joining their social enterprises full-time after Kellogg. What impressed me is that these awards were continuously updated after listening to the needs of student entrepreneurs. The $60,000 scholarship was introduced after entrepreneurs such as Tiffany Smith (of Tiltas) and I talked to the administration about how challenging it could be to launch a nonprofit with significant debt burden. I was lucky enough to get $110,000 from both the award and the scholarship right before graduating and joining my startup full-time. This is something I haven’t seen in any other school.

Kellogg is still refining and improving its entrepreneurial offering but even in its early stages it has given me a wonderful experience. I would like to leave you with my advice, if you choose to take this route at Kellogg:

  1. Just ask. Anything is possible, so don’t assume things are set in stone. It is very important to work hard on your pitch and then make your needs known.
  2. Entrepreneurship is not about having things served on a platter. You need to open doors for yourself instead of waiting for others to do it for you.
  3. Know that you are your biggest strength. Investors and funders are looking to support you as an individual more than your idea. Make sure you show them your passion and enthusiasm to get them on board.
  4. Know the risks. Your startup, whether for- or nonprofit will require a lot of sacrifices, including family, relationships, social life, weekends, vacations and more. Evaluate the best and worst that could happen and see whether the small chance of success is worth risking all these things.

Saumya is a second-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.