From San Francisco to Mumbai: Six lessons learned from a Wharton undergrad’s social entrepreneurial journey

rePurpose core team on University of Pennsylvania campus

As part of our commitment to growing the talent pipeline, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative launched the Turner Social Impact Society (TSIS) in 2014 with the generous support of K. Robert “Bobby” Turner (W’84) and Lauren Golub Turner (W’85). TSIS is a community of Wharton and Penn undergraduate students who prioritize social impact in their years at Penn, and to whom we provide a variety of resources, including mentoring and funding to pursue social impact opportunities.  We asked Peter, one of our graduating TSIS members, to reflect on the past two years he’s spent pursuing his venture, and share with you some useful tips from a student entrepreneur.

 It was 1:30 am on a chilly November night in 2015. Laying in bed after a busy Monday, I scrolled through my inbox on my phone as usual, hoping to clear the unread pile before bed. As my eyes were closing, I opened the last unchecked email from the day. “Can we build sustainable and scalable social enterprises by 2020 that can double the income of 10 million people residing in urban slums by better connecting People, Goods, Services, and Capital?” This headline jostled me out of my near-sleep state.

It was a problem posed by Hult Prize, a $1M student social entrepreneurship competition and the biggest movement of its kind in the world. As a sophomore who was just starting to explore the field of social impact, I was truly intrigued by this ambitious challenge. Next morning, I texted three fellow sophomores about the opportunity and convinced them to join me.

In order to find problems that allow for large-scale impact in a short timeframe, we took a closer look at sources of employment that were common across slums in different parts of the world. It wasn’t long before we zeroed in on waste picking, the act of scavenging and collecting recyclable waste in landfills across the world. As we dug deeper, we realized that waste pickers are a part of a vibrant informal recycling industry that exists in almost every metropolis in emerging markets: Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo, Mexico City, you name it. This industry was especially vibrant in India, but despite turning over billions of dollars every year, it was incredibly unfair towards workers at the base of the pyramid. Hundreds of thousands of street-side sorters and waste pickers make only $3-$9 on a daily basis, barely enough to support themselves and their families.

Hult Prize selected us as Regional Finalists, and with support from Turner Social Impact Society (TSIS) and Wharton Social Impact Initiative (WSII), we travelled to San Francisco to compete. After a sleepless stretch of 48 hours in an Airbnb, we created and pitched the concept of rePurpose, an entrepreneurial incubator that creates waste-picker cooperatives and empowers them to become central players in India’s recycling industry.

Svanika demonstrating the rePurpose app to Lalit, a kabadiwala in Mumbai

Fast-forward two years, it’s March 2018, and after countless number of pivots from a crude vision born during the early dawn in a San Francisco basement, we have stayed true to our mission to empower the urban poor. Today, rePurpose is a non-profit social venture that aims to create an ethical and efficient supply chain of waste recycling in India. Svanika, Aditya, and I have developed a digital recyclable waste marketplace for marginalized street-side sorters (kabadiwalas) in the informal recycling industry of Mumbai, a city where its 21 million residents generate 9000 tons of waste every day. Again with the help of TSIS and WSII, we piloted our model with 15 kabadiwalas in Mumbai in January 2018, proving our ability to divert waste from landfills as well as double the income for our beneficiaries. We are hoping to take this venture forward through the President’s Engagement Prize, a $200K prize for Penn seniors to pursue their non-profit projects after graduation.

Over the past two years, I have experienced many moments of epiphany and joy, but also countless number of mistakes and setbacks. I have learned things the hard way, and here are 6 tips distilled from my mistakes for those who are just starting to explore entrepreneurship and social impact:

  1. It’s never too late to start: Unlike what people think, starting up is actually the easiest part. There are many ways to brainstorm a social issue to solve: watch a documentary, take a class, intern for a NGO, volunteer in your local community, participate in a pitch competition…the list goes on.
  2. Learn from successful models: Very few innovations are 100% novel, and whatever your million-dollar social entrepreneurial idea is, chances are that it has been done in some corner of the world. Don’t let that discourage you: learn from it, build upon it, and tailor your idea to other parts of the world.
  3. Avoid too many moving parts: this was something Professor Ian MacMillan said to me during my Hult Prize pitch my freshman year. Doing one thing really really well for one core group of beneficiaries is often much more effective than trying to tackle many things at once in a solution.

    Peter with Arvind, a kabadiwala in Mumbai, during the rePurpose pilot
  4. Stay committed to the problem but be flexible on the solution: Coming up with an idea is easy, but persevering on it is hard. Chances are that your first solution is not going to work in the market, but as long as you are committed to the problem you have set out to solve, you can bring on-board fresh talent, take on a relevant experience that makes you think about the sector from a different light, and ultimately pivot.
  5. Balanced personalities trump complementary skillsets when building the core team: It doesn’t matter how comprehensive your team skillset is if you can’t communicate well, laugh together, approach crises calmly, or step up for each other. The core team needs humor, patience, energy, vision, and attention to detail, and specialized skills can always be found later in the process.
  6. Fail fast and fail often: This lesson is repeated often by the entrepreneurial community, but it is the best advice one can give. Have an idea? Spend as little time on the whiteboard, and learn from your failures in the field.
Peter Wang Hjemdahl is a Wharton senior from Shanghai, China and Kristiansand, Norway. He is concentrating in Finance and Business Analytic while minoring in International Relations and Economics in the College. Peter is a Fellow of Turner Social Impact Society, a Joseph Wharton Scholar, and a student consultant for Penn Social Entrepreneurship Movement. In his free time, he enjoys experiencing nature in different parts of the world, watching The Office & Vice documentaries, and cooking/eating Middle Eastern and Asian food.