“What does Anand Mahindra winning the entrepreneur of the year award mean?”
I hadn’t realized the same question had also been lurking in my mind until my friend raised it. Before I could really wrap my arms around the issue, he continued.
“Does it make sense, that in a nation of a billion folks, and likely a million plus businesses, that the leader – even one as successful as Anand Mahindra – of a 65-year-old company wins the entrepreneur-of-the-year award?” he asked. “You would think they would be able to find a smaller, up and coming company.”
And this came from an ardent admirer of Anand Mahindra. It set me thinking – never a good thing on a Monday morning.
Mr. Mahindra has many firsts and successes to his credit, be it his magna cum laude from Harvard, his growing the family business into a global powerhouse in tractors or his leadership of corporate India whether at Davos or on twitter (@anandmahindra).
A little further digging into (yep, I Googled) the entrepreneur of the year award revealed that previous winners included Kumar Mangalam Birla and Ratan Tata, both leaders of multi-billion dollar businesses founded by their grandfathers.
To be fair, the judging criteria of this particular award included global impact and leadership in addition to the standard business metrics. Past winners also included first-generation entrepreneurs N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel. Yet some others stuck in my craw.
It was around this time, that I got a call inviting me to speak at an entrepreneurial event called “Unpluggd” (no, it did not involve any acoustic guitars). Unpluggd was billed as a different event, namely one featuring only practicing entrepreneurs sharing their experience with an audience of entrepreneurs.
I am glad that I let myself be persuaded to speak at the event. I learned more from the other speakers and the more than 200 attendees – most of whom were practicing entrepreneurs – than they likely got from anything I said.
The first and foremost takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship, not merely of the tech variety but of every kind imaginable, is thriving in India. And entrepreneurs are getting started at ever-younger ages. A majority of the attendees were under 30 (Yes, I asked).
It was the audience that made this event electric for me. A fair number of the attendees came from engineering backgrounds, though some graphic designers and finance folks were also present. Most were already running a business full time with a couple having even scaled to more than $1 million in revenues. If there was an area that could have been improved, it was that less than 15% of the attendees were women. Then again that’s probably higher than the percentage of women CXOs in the BSE 500.
The speakers included folks running businesses ranging from corporate hospitals, online bookstores, mobile phone apps, bus-line ticketing and even a restaurateur. All of them were first-time entrepreneurs that spanned the funding spectrum – from completely bootstrapped, through angel-funded all the way to venture capital-funded. Most of the other speakers were yet to hit forty (I was a notable exception) or even thirty-five. The stories – and dare I say wisdom – that some of these folks shared with total candor and very little jargon was refreshing. And this was just one Saturday in Bangalore.
With Open Coffee Clubs, Saturday Startups and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) events, there are signs of an entrepreneurial revolution brewing in India. And these are just the visible urban, mostly technical or professional group of startups. At the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), we’re helping thousands of students start businesses each year (full disclosure: I work at NEN), many of them in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.
Meanwhile in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in Panruti, Tamil Nadu, in Shillong, Meghalaya, in Wardha, Maharashtra and many such places, young people are pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. The story of these yet-to-become Karsanbhai Patels and Sunil Bharti Mittals, their experiences and journeys need to be heard, shared and re-told.
The mainstream media is far too busy celebrating the already arrived, regardless of how late they got there. As a mentor remarked, we should quit looking into the entrepreneurial rear-view mirror and look forward to the road ahead.
All too often we hear that only Bollywood and cricket sells in India. But there are other sports and stars – be it our chess champions, our women boxers, snooker kings or trap shooters, not to mention our hockey and football teams. It’s also important to recognize that there are a million entrepreneurs struggling and thriving, not only the billion-dollar barons who seem to hog the printing ink.
Nasscom’s product conclave and several other nascent entrepreneur forums are a small step in the right direction. India needs its own version of the Inc. 1000 to recognize, encourage and celebrate its toiling entrepreneurial masses. We could call it the “India 10,000.*”
I am sure Mr. Mahindra would agree with me.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in Wall Street Journal in May 2010.