Everyone sees that India’s economy is doing well – if we measure success by international competitiveness rather than, say, the successful distribution of wealth within the country – and the prognosis for the immediate future is good. This buoyancy, coupled with the gaudy success of the Indian technology sector, leads many people to hail Indian entreprenuerism.
I see creative enterprise in India very differently.
At the outset, let me discard and disclaim the broad, literal definition of an entrepreneur as anyone who assumes the financial risk of operating a business. This has ceased to be an interesting or meaningful use of the word since the post-war industrial boom of the second half of the twentieth century, and the new patterns of consumption it inspired, unlocked a wild commercial ingenuity and compulsion to innovate. Today, entrepreneurship means more than running the family grocery for the third generation, it implies bringing something new to the party. It embraces the spirit of Bill Hewitt and Dave Packard, toiling in the wee hours in a small garage to develop new technology — even if it is usually found in substantially less dramatic and successful renderings. At the very least, it connotes starting something. To use entrepreneurship in its more encompassing denotation is to say very little about the commercial topography of almost any place, least of all a place like India where the number of small business is vast and tend to pass within the family. The interesting question is: to what extent are those businesses creating significant social change, if not true innovation? And more critical and interesting still: who has the guts to start such an enterprise?
Entreprenuerism in India is a very rare and courageous thing – at least for the middle class and upward. (Those lower in the economic pecking order display an astonishing economic self-reliance and initiative, if only as a matter of survival.) This is not to say that there are no entrepreneurs – in a country of one billion people and an enormous economy, the only thing of which there is nothing is nothing. But the shocking thing in India, particularly given the enormous success of tech, is how few entrepreneurs there are, not how many. This is true in every sector of the economy. For every Infosys or Airtel, there are a score of multinationals and a small handful of domestic corporate conglomerates driving the marketplace. Indian start-ups, where they exist, generally address proven solutions for proven markets, translating an international model within the Indian context. This is a far more cautious entrepreneurism, where the risks depend on the viability of the business model, not the birthing of an outside-the-box, revolutionary technology.
In the US, many of the best and most creative minds are willing to dedicate themselves to new and compelling ideas, and our finance systems have developed to back their enthusiasm with capital. The assessment of risk-and-reward is skewed by two social factors. First, there is adventure in starting a new venture. In American culture, entrpreneurism is high-spirited, optimistic, and fun-despite-the-hard-work. Second, failure (should it occur), is not the end of one’s professional road, much less the end of one’s life. It is simply the point at which one dusts themselves off, considers the lessons of the experience, and tries something else.
In India, these interrelated psychological factors are markedly absent. There is little joy in striking out on one’s own because the personal risks are so high. Failure in India is, as they say, not an option. Our good friend, Madhu Metha, designed a fascinating, brilliant program for young entrepreneurs at NirmaLabs, in Ahmedabad. Here’s how they describe the program:
At NirmaLabs, you are groomed to identify an idea, understand hi-tech markets and emerging technologies, gain insights of high-growth businesses, form a team and create a business plan, develop value proposition during incubation, interact with mentors and venture capitalists and spin-off to start your venture.
Each incubated project gets seed funding up to Rs.20 lakhs and each team member gets sustenance of
Rs. 8000/- per month.
It is part MBA program and part hot-house for innovative new businesses. In the U.S., a program like this would need riot police to stave off the waves of applicants; but Nirma Labs simply cannot attract the top students it seeks.
How can Indian start-ups garner the talent they need when the entire society conspires to thwart the fearlessness required for entrepreneurism? Very few of India’s best minds are able to resist the immense pressure of family and friends to play-it-safe with their careers; and they wind up taking stultifying jobs in established corporations. To apply one’s talents to a new venture always carries the possibility of failure, despite the brilliance of the idea and the excellence of the execution. Entrepreneurs the world over understand that this substantial risk carries with it the potential of great reward, both personal and financial. But in India, the personal doesn’t really matter, and the financial is too speculative. There is nothing that will doom one’s prospects in life faster here than being branded a “failure”. Indian “aunties” love nothing better to wag their tongues about this kind of thing; and Indian families invariably feel profound shame, rather than the appropriate dismissiveness, when the gossip machine kicks in.
It is pathetic that the inability to successfully launch a new business is seen as failure, while the joining the ranks of corporate automatons working for a paycheck is seen as success. The initiative and resources required to address the challenge of innovation and entrepreneurship are impressive; the ability to land a job at Infosys, Wipro, or Cisco Systems just is not. Until Indian kids are able to bring their parents and aunties around to the same point-of-view, entrepreneurism in India will remain elusive.