The founders of ProGreen – Santhosh, Deepak, Anita and Saravanan, were students of business at Bharathidasan Institute of Management (BIM), Trichy.
The BIM campus, although state-of-the-art, was still located far from the hustle and bustle of the city, so as to provide an environment for the students to reflect and learn.
The four of them had little in common. Given a choice they would avoid each other! But as they were learning about the fundamentals of business and economics, all four of them shared a common passion of making a difference in this world. They also realized that India’s rapid economic growth had made little difference in the lives of people in rural communities.
Over a plate of Masala Dosa and Filter Coffee at Saravana Bhavan, Thiruverumbur (the local food joint near BIM campus) the founders realized that the only way to empower rural communities and bring them to the economic mainstream was by identifying ‘smart’ sustainable business ideas and putting those to work.
Earlier, Santhosh had heard about the manufacture biodegradable tableware – disposable cups & plates made of an agricultural by-product – sheath of the areca tree. They decided it was a good starting point.
One fine day, back in campus, they saw a poster, inviting entries for the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, conducted by University of Washington.
The founders thought it might be a good platform to tell the world about their idea, and put it to the acid test.
Little did they realize that University of Washington would shortlist ProGreen as one of the seven finalists among 100 odd entries and actually invite them to participate in the final round of the competition to be held at Seattle in February, 2005. In fact, Santhosh and Deepak, did not even posses a passport and it was to be their first ever plane ride!
But, they never imagined, even in their wildest dreams that ProGreen would actually go on to win the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition.
Back in Thiruverumbur, eating dosas at Saravana Bhavan again, the founders were in a dilemma. They know they had a feasible idea, endorsed even by folks in Seattle, but how are they going to put it to work?
(Dosas, the South Indian delicacy, have been central to the development of ProGreen. Santhosh remembers, one night at BIM, when Deepak refused to proceed with the projected financials, until he gets to have dosas. So, both went looking for dosas at 12 in the night. Soon, the projected balance-sheet of ProGreen was born!)
He was the man who saved ProGreen. Mr. Velmurugan hails from Samudram village in Salem, Tamil Nadu, India. His life-long dream has been to set up a business in his village, with 100 odd families, to provide employment for the youth in his village. He has been chasing his dream for the past ten years. One day he heard Deepak, Sara and Santhosh speaking on the Radio about ProGreen and their trip to Seattle. He went on call the radio station and manages to get hold of their phone numbers.
The founders, only eager to get help, took a train to Salem. It took little time to decide that the pilot unit of ProGreen will be set-up at Samudram Village. Couple of more dosas later, Deepak, the finance whiz, figured out that they needed Rs 80,000 to fund the pilot unit.
Meantime, founders however believed that ProGreen has to identify many such ideas to have a large-scale impact.
One of those days campus, they saw one more poster, this time for Imagine Cup 2005, sponsored by Microsoft. They were already mulling over the idea setting up a BPO cooperative, which will provide outsourced data entry and processing services. ProGreen emerged as the winner in the Technology Business Plan competition at Imagine Cup 2005.
The founders had some money left-over (after what was spent on Dosas), from the cash prize in these competitions. This was to become the seed capital for ProGreen.
The pilot unit at Samudram village, Salem is expected to go live in May 2006.