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Celebrating my social entrepreneurship journey in a networked world

Almost four years ago, I made the biggest decision of my life and certainly one of the riskiest. I quit my corporate job in the aviation industry where I had worked for close to two decades. Why? I decided to pursue a dream of giving back to society. I wanted to empower women and girls to achieve their potential and to have access to opportunities, to grow and thrive like I did.

I didn't know where to start and I certainly didn't know what to do or how I was going to do it. But I was determined. I felt the time was right and I took the plunge.

What helped me was to apply the skills I had picked up in my corporate career, the willingness to learn without inhibition and build a network in a field I knew nothing about. I turned to the Internet to help me and reached out to several people to brainstorm ideas. My passion and persistence seems to have forced the Universe to make it happen.

For the benefit of those planning to switch careers, especially into the social and development sector, I wish to share some part of my journey.

It began when I was selected to participate in the Swedish Institute Management Program for India as a participant in 2012. It was a particularly trying time for me as the airline I was working with went through a financial downturn and ultimately closed. The circumstances forced me to think about my future, my options, my goals for myself and my purpose in life. The program itself focused on leadership in a globalised world, with a special focus on Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability in Business. It introduced me to a world of strategy and innovation in the social sector. I was intrigued and it gave me the platform to take the risk and try out new things.

The cohort was comprised of Indian business leaders and entrepreneurs from diverse fields. The program had three modules over a six month period in both Sweden and India. It required us to do a project that could be implemented in our own company -- but by then my airline had ceased functioning. I decided I did not want to do a “paper project” and convinced some of my cohort to join me in developing an online mentoring program for women to achieve their career potential.

However, soon after returning from the program, a horrific gang rape took place in Delhi. This particular incident was extremely brutal and forced the conversation of sexual violence into mainstream conversations in India. I decided that the mentoring of women could wait because the need of the hour was to work on the safety and security of women. Two of my peers cofounded Safecity with me. The aim of our organization is to make public spaces safer and equally accessible to all, especially women and children, through crowdsourced data, community engagement and institutional accountability.

I found my cohort to be extremely supportive and some of them even collaborated with me giving a vital start to the organisation that was to form later.

Soon after the launch of Safecity, we were still struggling to figure out if we should register the organisation and formalise it. The Fast FWD Accelerator in Philadelphia for Public Safety helped us think through our options and crystallise our initial idea. After returning from the three month program, we registered the organisation as a not-for-profit company in India and worked on creating a revenue model for sustainability. Though we are a not-for-profit, it was important that we become self-sustaining and less dependent on grants and donations. As a result, we have created a menu of workshops on sexual abuse awareness for corporations, schools and colleges which can be sponsored by corporates, individuals or organisations.

At that point, I seriously lacked a network of likeminded people. So I immersed myself in meeting new people from diverse backgrounds in Mumbai and abroad. I participated in the local Google Business Group and met entrepreneurs who came to learn new technologies to improve their business. It was there that I learned about the GBG Success Story Challenge, we applied and were one of the three finalists in the Small & Medium Business category worldwide. It gave us a lot of publicity and encouragement.

I was also selected to be a Vital Voices Lead Fellow which gave me access to hundreds of women entrepreneurs who were making a difference in the lives of women and girls. I have collaborated with many of the women and Jane Anyango in Kenya and Samjhana Phuyal in Nepal have taken Safecity to their cities. Vital Voices has been extremely supportive throughout my journey and has provided me with an extended network, contacts and opportunities to showcase my work.

Aspen New Voices Fellowship is another powerful group of which I am part. It gave me a public voice and a global stage to share my work. I have penned articles for CNN, Huffington Post, and the WIP, amongst others. In 2015, I spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival and at TEDx MidAtlantic. The fellowship continues to be a major source of support for my work.

Last year, two-and-a-half years into the Safecity journey I had the opportunity to return to Sweden and be part of the SE Outreach Accelerator. It was a chance to step back, assess progress made, re-evaluate strategies, learn new skills and plan to accelerate the business. Being an entrepreneur, especially a social one, is not easy and it is important to take the time to reflect and learn.

Having moved from the corporate sector to a completely new field, I felt that I didn't have any academic background that would support my work. So I enrolled and was selected for the Rotary Peace Fellowship earlier this year at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. The course centred on the core themes of conflict analysis and mapping, conflict tracking, conflict transformation and peacebuilding. It gave me confidence that the work we are doing at Safecity is in line with broader principles of peace building and “Do No Harm”.

Recently, I returned from the United States Department of State’s Fortune Mentoring Program. It matches emerging women leaders with mentors from Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s list. The entire experience is to forge strong ties between women, share experiences of challenges and success and create opportunities to pay it forward for empowering other women and girls. I found the program very reassuring and it gave me a lot of visibility for my work. Candid conversations with women leaders from different fields was very inspiring.

All of the above programs and fellowships have helped me establish myself as a social entrepreneur, grow my organisation, find support systems and create opportunities for collaboration. The journey is not easy, but if you look hard enough you will find the loving and supportive environment that you need to thrive. And best of all, they are all for free with some of them paying a per diem. So go out there, explore, don't feel shy, ask for help and pay it forward.

ElsaMarie D’Silva is the CoFounder & Managing Director of Safecity that crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces, and is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow & an alumni of the US State Department Exchange Programs. You can follow her on twitter @elsamariedsilva

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