Lessons learnt from running a virtual incubator for startups during a pandemic
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
By Youth Co:Lab
During the best of times, kick starting or running a business is an uphill battle. Now, COVID-19 has added a host of challenges for young social entrepreneurs. According to a survey conducted by Youth Co:Lab in March this year, 9 out of 10 youth led social enterprises in Asia and the Pacific have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, 1 in 4 reported that business had ceased entirely.
Yet despite the year’s difficulties, young social entrepreneurs in the Youth Co:Lab movement have found innovative solutions to pivot, upskill, and grow their businesses, while making a positive impact in their communities. Many have achieved incredible success. Himalayan Innovations adapted to manufacture and distribute much needed personal protective equipment for hospitals and people living in rural areas of Nepal; while Bangladesh’s Moner Bondhu is providing video counseling services to support their community's mental health. Many others played their part in innovative ways.
These young social entrepreneurs are part of Youth Co:Lab’s Springboard Programme, a business incubation platform for young entrepreneurs to turn Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) solutions into innovative businesses. The Springboard Programme has built startup support infrastructure with our Youth Empowerment Alliance Partners that aims to help young social entrepreneurs succeed in scaling their impact, with the goal to ensure that no one is left behind. We work with partners and young founders to best understand their challenges, and provide practical learning materials, mentorships and bridge opportunities for them to thrive.
Springboard's online platform. Picture: supplied
This year, the Springboard Programme is working with 133 youth-led businesses committed to achieving the SDGs across 23 countries in Asia and the Pacific. These startup teams have collectively dedicated over 2,400 hours to learning tools and modules and have submitted 630 exercise outputs. Beyond the learning journey, Springboard has also facilitated over 260 opportunities for enterprises to mobilize resources to expand their businesses; supported and nominated more than 150 founder's applications to top accelerators, awards and mentorship rogrammes in the region; and bridged connections with more than 50 online volunteers and mentors. Throughout the programme, we have had tremendous collaborations with our co-lead Citi Foundation and our partners, Accelerating Asia, Business Call to Action (BCtA), and AVPN on knowledge, talent and opportunities sharing.
All of this was possible amidst a pandemic. It has been challenging for all involved, but as a community we set out to help each other navigate the unique challenges of 2020. We, like our young entrepreneurs, have had to adapt during a period when the already difficult task of managing a startup is made harder.
This is what we have we learnt:
1. The Power of Networks - Tackling youth unemployment is a global effort, and no one can do it alone. Every young founder takes an ecosystem to nurture, and even more so in a challenging economic crisis. Young founders in our programme can tap into the valuable resources from our alliance partners, leveraging their expertise to advance their impact. We have piloted mentoring programmes with Citi corporate volunteers to share their business and management knowledge, and young founders have been able to obtain valuable insight to improve their social enterprises.
2. Empathy is Key When Supporting Founders on the Frontline - Many of our young entrepreneurs are on the front line responding to the pandemic, especially in emerging markets and countries deeply affected by serious economic and healthcare issues. Most are faced with making crucial decisions about their businesses, products, customers and teams, and have been compelled to improvise, adapt and survive, so they can serve their communities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have prioritized providing founders with psychological, moral, and practical support. Through our dedicated team of Springboard Startup Support Coordinators, founders can be assured of constant assistance and encouragement through the crisis and beyond.
"Youth Co:Lab has been an important part of DOCHAA’s journey. Ever since Youth Co:lab’s involvement with DOCHAA, we have been able to take informed decisions, whether it be to gain brand visibility, marketing, amplifying our impact in society, or in devising our business strategy. We just can’t thank Youth Co:Lab enough for bringing this platform to help us connect with like-minded people constantly striving to make this world a better place. Youth Co:Lab is a huge motivating force and our experience with the team has been amazing and truly inspiring."
- Dikesh Prajapati – DOCHAA (Nepal) Springboard Alumni
3. Action Over Advice When in Crisis – Youth Co:Lab is committed to provide practical solutions to address challenges faced by young entrepreneurs in their businesses, related to service, delivery, capital and employment. We curated opportunities for financing, reviewed repurposed business models for products and services, and provided mentorship and workshops on leadership and team management. For example, we structured Shuttle’s B2B business line development by working with the founder to generate leads, segment pricing packages, and conceptualize organizational development changes.
"Ladakh Basket is grateful to the UNDP Youth Co:Lab and Citi Foundation for helping and guiding us in building and growing our venture. Ladakh Basket is a community driven enterprise which aims to share the unique narrative of its people and land through indigenous products. The Youth Co:Lab team has helped us tremendously in achieving our goals. We are looking forward to continuing working with them in the future."
- Jordan Stanzin – Ladakh Basket India
4. Emphasize on Digital Learning – With lockdowns and social distancing rules across the world, quickly adapting to the online world is imperative. Turning adversity into opportunity, we have expanded our digital learning platform, where young entrepreneurs can pick and choose from more than 15 short courses at their own pace, at a time that is most appropriate in their journey. We have curated the short courses with partners and alumni to best showcase their learning and expertise, as well as making the materials relatable for founders at different stages. We have courses that are suitable for entrepreneurs which are at their ideation, prototyping and operational stage. For example, when a founder is looking to raise capital, they can take the Springboard [SB302] ‘Access to Capital’ course and implement that knowledge to take the next steps. Startup founders have affirmed that these action-oriented courses have helped them anticipate and prepare for the hurdles they faced in their businesses.
As we reflect on the challenges this year has thrown at us, we are impressed and inspired by the passion, courage and tenacity of our young social entrepreneurs. We are constantly looking for innovative ways to support many more young changemakers, expand and improve our support system, and collaborate with more partners in the region. Our goal is to help young entrepreneurs develop the skills and confidence to be well prepared for any crisis in the future.
To get involved with Youth Co:Lab Springboard Programme, as a curriculum partner, supporter or young entrepreneur, click here.
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.