Do Indian lack a flair for entrepreneurship? When I first read that question on Trackin’s post I instinctively and vigorously did the Indian thing: shake my head in a strong no-no, that is not what I have uncovered. I think entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in India, but what is lacking is education, role models, access to information, a supportive environment…variables and factors that help nurture entrepreneurship. What are some unique variables that apply to entrepreneurs and startups in India? For instance, the role of parents and the diminishing returns in the marriage market for folks working in startups is a fairly significant factor.
Before we go any further first, a definition of entrepreneur. According to Wikipedia:
“An entrepreneur (a loanword from french introduced and first defined by the Irish economist Richard Cantillon) is a person who undertakes and operates a new enterprise or venture and assumes some accountability for the inherent risks.”
Who and where are these entrepreneurs of Indian origin and how did they get there are some of the questions I constantly explore in my blog, internet radio show and video clips. Through this primary field research (maybe I should enroll in a PhD program in some school) that I do via these interviews I see a pattern and that pattern is one of entrepreneurship in India and the Indian diaspora community. At the global level, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) is now the largest network of entrepreneurs in the world. Prof. Anna-Lee Saxenian has written extensively about the contribution of immigrants to Silicon Valley and has examined the role of Indian entrepreneurs.
In India there are countless, undocumented and untold stories about entrepreneurship. Some are a single owner business, while others may be a small, family-owned business and some are first time entrepreneurs. But they all do the same thing: take risks and create and operate their business.
Take Indu Sharma, the mallishwali in Bombay who has a fire in her belly to earn money and be successful. (Warning: this podcast interview with Indu is in Hindi.) Lack of education or access to information has not stopped her from her goals. Years ago when she did not know how, she simply persisted and opened a bank account for herself. A couple of years ago she got herself a cell phone and expanded her business and increased her revenue stream by a few hundred percent, an increase that any entrepreneur will die to achieve. Talk about being driven, motivated and looking at every obstacle as an opportunity to make more money. She certainly demonstrates a flair for entrepreneurship. Indu Sharma is a CFO’s dream, a micorpayment company’s ideal customer and the stuff CFO’s dream about.
What about the kirana store in Basvangudi, Bangalore that was founded by an enterprising female called Subamma in1940s? Subamma certainly saw an opportunity for home-made savories and in the process of created a unique food item with a fantastic and memorable brand name ”congress peanuts.” This family-owned store still continues to operate and has a thriving business as you can witness in this video. The store is an institution in Bangalore that has morphed to include IT terms in their food items. Talk about the success and ubiquity of the IT industry in Bangalore. (Warning: the clip has a liberal dose of Telugu.) The folks at Subamma don’t own a computer system or a CRM system to generate bills, instead their focus is on the quality of their product and listening to their customers, which are key takeaways from any entrepreneur or company.
Or, what about Thangavel, the fruit seller in Malleshwaram’s Hosa market in Bangalore? He has continued to operate from the same space for the past 30 odd years. His offering of fruits has gone from selling local fruits and Kashmir apples to kiwis from New Zealand, apples from Washington and pears from China. His store and profits have expanded over the years as he points out in this video. (Warning: this video has a liberal dose of Tamil.) How did Thangavel survive during the leans years of his operations especially when the inflation rates were high in the country? Buying fruits is probably not an option during times of inflation, when the price of your vegetables like onions and tomatoes are over Rs. 50 per kg!
Or, what about the veena maker, who painstakingly creates his veenas from scratch and has a backorder for them? This veena maker demonstrates in this video that what is needed is dedication, passion and a desire to succeed. (Warning: this video has a liberal dose of Tamil.) The veena maker is in a niche market and has built a loyal customer-base, again something that other entrepreneurs can emulate. When you build your service or product, who is your target audience?
Then there are entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have achieved success with no business background. Many of them belong to regular middle-class families and went on achieve success. Kittu Kolluri of NEA comes to mind, as does Alok Mittal of Canaan. Alok founded his business in India and not in Silicon Valley. There are many entrepreneurs like Kaval Kaur, Anu Shukla and others I have interviewed with similar stories and background. Many of them talk about failures too like Kaval and how she and her husband had to re-engineer their business plan when they hit a major speed bump on their road to success.
As Yogen Dalal of Mayfied Fund pointed out what Silicon Valley offers is a supportive and safety net that helps entrepreneurs. It is that safety and supportive net that is lacking in India, but that clearly has not deterred many people from starting and operating their own business. When that supportive and safety net is set in place you will suddenly find that quite a few Indians have that killer instinct and want to be entrepreneurs. Yogen also talks about failures and how to handle them. Failure is part of any entrepreneurship journey.
If you look at the Indian diaspora community around the world there are many entrepreneurs. Whether it is the bespoke tailor in Hong Kong or Thailand or the business person in East African nations like Uganda or Kenya or that business person in Mauritius or that owner of a high-end hotel chain in New Zealand or the curry king or steel king in UK…these are all instances of entrepreneurship. These people migrated to a new land to build their business without any safety or supportive net. Oh, I almost forgot…the Gujarti hotel and motel owners, who own 60 percent of the hospitality market in the USA.
Do you think Indians lack a flair for entrepreneurship? Or, do you think the right environment, knowledge, government policies and other factors come in the way of an Indian’s entrepreneurship? Or, is it a combination of both? Does your drive and flair drive you to do business, or do you need supporting environment to venture out and do business? What kind of an entrepreneur are you? Do you come from a business background? Who was your role model? Why did you start your company? Why did you become an entrepreneur? And are you enjoying the bumpy ride?
This is also cross-posted on my blog.