“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a riddle philosophers have posed to question reality and its relationship to observation. Much of the entrepreneurship in India is like trees falling (or growing) silently in an unobserved forest. The media rarely notices it and the public is hardly aware that its happening. Does this mean it is not happening?
The casual reader of the business pages could be forgiven if they reckoned that entrepreneurship in India happened only with technology or more recently Internet startups, often venture funded. Coverage outside the technology domain focuses on the hyper-successful and all to often on personalities. The stories of Dhirubhai Ambani, and his humble start in Aden, Karsenbhai Patel’s Nirma taking on the entrenched multinationals and more recently Kishore Biyani and his Future Group’s rise in retail have captivated the media and readers’ imaginations.
In many ways, the recent appointment of Infosys founder, Nandan Nilekani, as the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) marked a milestone in Indian entrepreneurship. In his own words [Infosys] “… was not a family-owned company. It was not a multinational. It was not a state-owned company. …It’s become a metaphor. If they can come from nowhere and create a world-class organization, then anyone can do it.” The grant of a Cabinet level post to someone who has cut his teeth as an entrepreneur and a professional manager is the most visible sign of mainstream acceptance of entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship in new light
However as we have learnt, having a woman prime minister or now a woman president, symbolic as it is, does not automatically solve all the issues plaguing Indian women. So too this recent interest and boosterism for all things entrepreneurial, while welcome, is merely a start. Even today, traders who likely constitute the lion’s share of Indian entrepreneurs are referred to in pejorative terms. Unlike the titans of technology or rajahs of retail, whom we read about on page 3, all of us encounter traders on a daily basis, but rarely recognize them as entrepreneurs. So there is much each of us as individuals, organizations and as a nation can do to encourage, nourish and grow the flame of entrepreneurship. This article is a small step in that direction.
Ram Charan, author and renowned management consultant, frequently points to his family’s shoe shop and to street vendors in India and elsewhere, and the lessons businesses can draw from them. Without romanticizing either the giant multi-billion dollar corporations he consults for, or the fruit seller on the street, he is able to highlight the commonalities that underpin businesses. It is such a balanced view of entrepreneurship – whether small or large, tech or non-tech, urban or rural – that we all need to develop to build an ever stronger ecosystem that will foster Indian entrepreneurship and innovation. The two books, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” published by the IIM Ahmedabad and “Inspiring Women to Start Innovative Enterprises” by the NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore, are a great start. Whilst still about college-educated entrepreneurs, both books highlight a wide variety of entrepreneurs across various stages of the business cycle. Without focusing solely on the large or “successful” but by including several still-at-an-early-stage businesses, they are a step in the right direction.
In this article I will share a few common but untold stories of entrepreneurial journey, along with my own experience as a first generation entrepreneur. Drawing on these and others’ experiences, I will stake a position on how we can influence the perception, coverage and the course of entrepreneurship in our own communities.
*The fine folks at Indira Institute of Management approached me to write an article for their quarterly magazine Tapasya. This article first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Tapasya.