The Entrepreneur Life

Category: Wall Street Journal

India Journal column for the Wall Street Journal

4 Degrees of Separation – The Indian Network

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

As with many profound discoveries it began innocuously enough.

“I don’t believe that there are truly a billion Indians,” my friend Marcel has remarked more than once to me. Of course, when he first made this statement as a graduate student, maybe because it was after a late night party at Ms. Chan’s, I didn’t take him seriously. However, the events of the past few years, particularly each time I meet someone new, have convinced me that he’s probably on to something: There don’t seem to be a billion of us.

“Please meet my partner Habib, he’s coming down to the entrepreneur’s meet next week in Bangalore.”

Jaideep, a classmate who now was living in the U.S., and I had reconnected last Christmas at our 25th reunion. Despite, or more likely because of, the amount of libations consumed, he figured I must know a thing or two and asked me to share it with his Mumbai-based business partner.

Habib and I did connect over the phone soon after at a startup event and agreed to meet outside the auditorium just before lunch. When I made my way out of the hall a few minutes before midday, I found small clumps of people discussing the morning presentations and their own businesses. After several “Hail-fellow-well-met” intercepts, I heard my phone ring. It was Habib. As we exchanged “Where are you ats?” I spotted a bearded gentleman with a phone to his ear, standing next to my friend Dhruv just outside the gate.

“Habib?” I asked tentatively and the gentleman stuck out his hand

“You are Srikrishna?”

Inevitably, the discussion of “How do you know…” ensued between Dhruv (with whom Habib had worked for several years at an ad agency) and me. The longer we spoke, the more folks we found we knew in common.

Scientists in the U.S. as many as 50 years ago began exploring what they then termed “chains of acquaintances.” In fact, Stanley Milgram, then a young social psychologist (apparently you can study practically anything at Harvard) did his famous package-mailing experiment to see how short these chains of acquaintances were.

He mailed packages to 296 people asking them to post them on to a “final recipient.” None of them was told where the final recipient actually lived; just his name, occupation and some personal details (these were pre-Internet and pre-Google days, of course).

The folks who received the package were supposed get it delivered by passing it on to someone with whom they were on a first-name basis and who might have a better chance of finding the final recipient. Astonishingly, even without any Indians or Chinese being involved, the packages made it to their destinations in less than five hops.

Hollywood got in on the act with “Six Degrees of Separation,” based on the play of the same name by John Guare.

Before you know it, folks studying crickets and how diseases spread started working on this “Small World” theory. While the folks at the University of Virginia, in an urge to create something useful, released the Kevin Bacon game (look it up), Duncan Watts at Cornell published the first compendium of all key Small World theories.

What however was missing in all these studies is what my friend Dr. Sluiter, keen scientist that he is, formulated as Sluiter’s Lemma on Indian Connectedness or SLIC. I feel like Harrison Ford finding the Ark of the Covenant when I present these lemmas. If only these other folks had stumbled upon it sooner, the Small World theory would have made a whole lot more progress much earlier. But as the old saw goes: Better late than never.

Lemma 1: Any two Indians went to school with each other. Given the average Delhi Public School class has probably 300 kids in five sections, and every kid raised by a self-respecting, card-carrying Indian parent needs to become a doctor or an engineer, it’s almost inevitable that between 12 years of schooling and at least three years of college a good many of us have gone to school with one another. And this does not even count graduate school where a few more links can be forged. I can hear the mathematicians among you stating that the average IIT had only a class size of 400 to 600 and medical schools even less and that those are pretty small numbers. Fear not, Lemma 2 comes to the rescue.

Lemma 2: Or their siblings/friends went to school with each other. Regardless of what you may have read in this paper or other publications about the rise of nuclear families in urban India, we are blessed with a large number of siblings and cousins. When you now factor in all the other kids with whom we played on the street with marbles, tops, gilli-danda, cricket and numerous other sports, it quickly adds up.

Lemma 3: They are related to each other. In the unlikely event two Indians or their siblings or friends did not go to school together, they are usually related. “Oh, he’s my mother’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s son.” (In my case this person also happened to be my classmate in college.) In my brother-in-law’s case, he has found a good part of Tamil Nadu is related by blood — not that surprising when grandparents on either side have 12 siblings.

Lemma 4: If all of the above fail, they are married to each other. Drum roll on this one. Just when you felt that you’ve actually met a couple of Indians who are not connected, you’ll find, as Dr. Sluiter did, that they are married, either to each other or into each other’s families. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference in India, but that’s a story for another day.

This article first appeared in the India Real Time of the Wall Street Journal.

Giving this Diwali

The diwali diyas at Diwali Celebrations at Ban...

Admiration, respect, possibly adulation or envy are the emotions that pop to mind when people talk of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who are not just among the world’s richest men but among the most philanthropic.

Yet fear or trepidation seems to have been the emotion stirred, if we are to believe the media, by these two men when they took their message of giving to China and are rumored to be bringing it to India.

Even before the Joy of Giving week rolled out at the end of September, newspapers in India and elsewhere were talking about “…concern among some of China’s wealthy that they would be pressured into contributions” and of Gates and Buffett’s dinner plans in India.

Other Op-ed pieces discussed everything from the high-rise “apartment” that Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani is building to what philanthropy India’s wealthiest are doing, if at all, and how much.

It is nice that, despite the never-ending stream of scams (Mumbai high-rise, Commonwealth Games, iron-ore mining) the mainstream media is also discussing philanthropy, particularly in the private sector. However, their starry-eyed view of it as something solely the domain of uber-rich would be depressing but for the fact that a million “little men and women” are toiling away in India each day, giving well beyond their means.

As anyone who’s tried to support a charity knows, it is easy to give a little money of your own, harder to give your time and hardest to get others to give their money or time — and it is this giving that I’d like to celebrate this Diwali.

Certainly, the wealthy in India have contributed enormously to philanthropy, be it the Tatas with their charities and institution building or Azim Premji’s eponymous foundation. Their giving, even when they’ve sought to keep it quiet, has gotten the rightful recognition and coverage.

However, most Indians who are giving each day — disproportionate amounts of their time and money — rarely have their story told. Their story needs to be told, if only to inspire others to celebrate them by following in their footsteps. I share the story of two such unheralded givers, so that giving becomes as much a second nature to all of us, as taking seems to be to a large swath of our politicians and bureaucrats.

“Why me?” is a question I hear often as the father of two teens. It is hard to explain even seemingly simple life lessons to kids. So when the “Why me?” question is posed by a teen, both orphaned and HIV positive, it is particularly hard.

Krishnagiri is a town on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border just an hour outside Bangalore. Its location on the cross roads of four national highways and as a main trucking route connecting Chennai, Hosur and Bangalore make it a hotspot for HIV/AIDS infections.

This has led to a number of children within the Krishnagiri district being orphaned and many are HIV-infected at birth. Many children were taken in by grandparents, relatives and in some cases by neighbors. Most of these foster parents are themselves poor and face economic challenges even before having to care for these orphaned or infected children.

The Association for Rural Community Development is an NGO that has taken up the cause of these children. Founded in 1998, ARCOD is focused on the empowerment of rural poor, particularly women and children. From the initial days of helping rural poor women form self-help groups in one district, they have grown to four districts of Tamil Nadu and their initiatives span micro-finance, rural housing, and health with emphasis on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Their most recent initiative has been to ensure that these orphaned or HIV-infected children get the nutrition that can ensure them a reasonable quality of life — and so, too, the foster families.

As in any human situation, the numbers rarely paint as clear a picture as individual stories. One 13-year-old girl’s father died of AIDS and even while her mother tries to earn a living as a day laborer, the teenager has to take care of her three younger siblings. Another girl is 11 and HIV positive; she has lost both her parents and is being raised by her grandmother who works as a coolie.

A contribution of 500 rupees a month per child enables the provision of such nutrition. With their volunteer teams on the ground, their counseling and training services for families, ARCOD is directly impacting the lives of hundreds of children. All this with little or no fanfare and even lower overhead.

Pasha is a gifted painter and, like many kids his age, likes playing computer games. However, growing up with muscular dystrophy in a family that lived in the slums of South Bangalore, he’d have never been able to pursue his dreams but for the Foundation for Action, Motivation and Empowerment India.

Founded in 2001, FAME is a Bangalore-based NGO that supports rehabilitation and empowerment of children and young adults with neuro-muscular and intellectual development disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, mental retardation and muscular dystrophy.

“Most poor parents who work had to leave their mentally or physically challenged children locked at home,” says Janaki Vishwanath, managing trustee of FAME India. “They could not put their kids in regular schools nor necessarily afford the special education or schooling.”

It is this gap that FAME India has stepped in to bridge. While admitting students of every economic group, the fees it charges for the school is based solely on parents’ ability to pay. The school bus service at FAME is as important as the special education teachers, the dedicated volunteers, the wheelchair friendly building and in-school lunches as it allows both the children and their parents to pursue an empowering course.

Now, as some of their students approach or cross into adulthood, FAME has stepped up to face the challenge of helping them seek gainful employment that offers a modicum of income and immeasurable confidence to face the world. Opportunities they have created include those in their in-house production facility for cloth and paper gift bags, paper cups, painted clay lamps or diyas for festivals or through mail room or copying and courier jobs with local companies.

Although in a relatively nascent stage from a job creation standpoint and constantly challenged by the financial needs of a growing student body, FAME India is yet another instance of unsung heroes who are changing lives each day one child at a time.

There are yet more organizations such as Gift-a-Future, who are attempting to remove economic impediments that come in the way of education, particularly for high school students. Even if we featured one a week, or better yet one a day, our lives would be that much the richer. Join me in getting their stories told.

This story first appeared online at the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal.

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Are you a pushy Asian parent?

“How can I help you?”

The principal was polite, but somewhat reserved. This was our first meeting with her. Contrary to what my wife and I had heard from other parents, she was neither fire-breathing nor scary. Sure, with her hair in a tight bun, a somewhat conservative raised-collar white shirt and severely cut skirt, she looked more like an up-and-coming corporate marketing executive than the principal of an elementary school. Her reputation was as a no-nonsense disciplinarian.

Report Card

Photo Credit: pjern via Compfight cc

Sometime early in our meeting, the atmosphere turned from the formal and somewhat frigid start to a whole lot warmer and practically collegial. We realized this had happened once the principal knew we were not there to discuss our older daughter who was already in the school but that we’d had asked for the meeting as a prelude to admitting our younger one. In fact things got comfortable enough that somewhere in there she alluded to the fact that she always gets tremendous pressure from “Asian” parents.

Of course, in California and much of the U.S., the word Asian, particularly in an educational context, is used to refer to the arc of peoples from Japan through Indo-China to China itself. Rarely are South Asians, including Indians or West Asians, referred to as Asians.

In this instance, the principal referred to the preponderance of Indian and Chinese parents who wanted their kids to start earlier at school, get more homework, have even more activities for their kids — in other words these parents were COMPETITIVE. Her relief was palpable that we’d merely come to discuss our child’s admission.

I could certainly empathize with her and did not want to be in her shoes at a parent teacher meeting. Hah, but little did I know that I’d soon be stepping into the proverbial fire from the frying pan when my family and I relocated to Bangalore.

“Excuse me, excuse me!” the lady was persistent. About 40 of us, all parents of tenth-graders were in a meeting with the principal, this time at a school in Bangalore. The family and I have been back in India for nearly five years and our older child is in the 10th grade. The principal, this time in a starched saree but just as businesslike and no-nonsense as her Californian counterpart, was trying to address all the questions the parents had — and they had a few!

The Central Board of Secondary Education earlier this year announced its most significant reforms since the current “10 plus 2″ system of secondary education was rolled out in 1977. They were doing away with the “Board Exams.”

Across 11,500-plus schools in India each year, nearly 1.5 millions students appear for these examinations. For three decades, this single exam, taken at the end of the 10th grade, has determined what educational streams Indian kids can pursue in grades 10 and 11. Science, Commerce or the Arts are the most common choices. This choice, in turn, determines what college majors they can apply for.

No prizes for guessing the two popular choices — medicine or engineering, both of which require science and math in 10th and 11th grades.

Our children’s school was one of the few CBSE “senior secondary” schools in our city, meaning they offered 11th and 12th grades while most others only went to tenth. So if you wanted your kid to stay in high school for 11th and 12th grades, they had to compete with not just their classmates, but kids graduating from tenth grade in other schools.

“What if my child does not get admission in the science stream in 11th class at your school?” said the persistent parent. I could feel the collective nods of nearly every other parent in the room as they strained to hear the principal’s answer.

“Shouldn’t you give preference for your own students first?” pressed another parent before the principal could respond.

Like an angry town hall or shareholder meeting, the mood in the room was tense as parents tried to determine if their kid would get into the Science section.

“As long as your kids score A grade or better (80% or more) in science and math, they will be given admission in our own school,” the principal tried to assure the gathering.

“And if we are transferred or have to move, would other schools accept the grades the school gives out?” a couple from the front row asked in tandem.

“Let me speak plainly,” piped in a dad. “Your school exams have been a lot tougher than the Board exams in the past. Wouldn’t it be better if our children took the Boards? Wouldn’t that allow them to compete on a level playing field with kids from other schools?”

To her credit, the principal kept her cool as the parents continued to pepper her with questions.

While my wife, and at times one of my children, had regaled me with tales of moms who showed up at school wanting to know why a teacher had knocked off a mark or two from their child’s class test, I had not encountered this face of the anxious — at times angry — Indian school parent.

Even as the buzz of parents talking to one another grew, I put my hand up. Once I caught the principal’s eye, I asked: “Is the discussion so far pertaining only to admission for Science majors? What about Arts major?”

You could have cut the shocked silence with a knife.

“If 25 parents are prepared to commit in writing that they will send their child to an Arts major, I am prepared to offer one,” the principal said. “Otherwise anything other than Science doesn’t have enough takers.”

That evening, I took a poll of about 20 people — colleagues at work, neighbors and college mates — nearly all of whom had trained formally as engineers. Most hadn’t practiced engineering in two decades. One had become a restaurateur, several were real estate developers, others run businesses ranging from an adventure outfit to advertising agencies. Several were in teaching, general management and consulting. Many were still considering career changes. And these were the successful ones.

So why do we as parents expect our children to make up their minds at 15 or 16 and, worse yet, determine that they should all be mindlessly studying for professional courses? At the end of the eighth grade, many kids take a test to be admitted to a coaching class for taking engineering or medical entrance exams four years later!

From the ninth through 12th grades, their evenings and Saturdays are spent boning up for entrance exams. Each year, we read of ever more kids killing themselves after their 10th or 12th grade exams unable to take the pressure.

Only when we win an elusive gold at the Olympics (can we name two Indians in the last four years) or an even rarer Nobel Prize, as happened with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in 2009, do we as Indians seem to think that there are worthwhile pursuits outside of being a doctor or an engineer.

But I am rambling. I had better stop here and rush to get into the queue for admitting my child in the special prep class for her tenth grade exam!

This article first appeared online in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010.

Do you know more about your TV than about your doctor?”

Image“Are you a doctor?”

I am never sure how best to answer this question. My first, unvoiced response is a curt “no.” But I then settle for a more ambiguous, “No, I am not a medical doctor.”

In India, where politicians insist on being addressed as Dr. A or B, usually having been bestowed an honorary degree — deserved or not — by admiring vice-chancellors, it was not uncommon a generation ago to see folks append a BE or MA (English) as my grandfather did, after their name.

I have always assumed that this is a left-over from when the Brits ruled us — of having to wear one’s qualification on one’s name, if not on one’s sleeve exactly. Guess saying you are a summa cum laude from Harvard in your bio is not that different.

While a PhD does stand for Doctor of Philosophy (in my case, in materials science and engineering), I have always been uncomfortable being addressed as Dr. Srikrishna — somewhat misleading and a bit pompous, I felt. If I had any momentary doubts it was quickly cured after my travel agent booked me on a couple of flights as Dr. Srikrishna and I had to explain to the crew that I was not a medical doctor when they called upon me to attend to a unwell fellow flyer. Talk about truth in advertising!

Yet, I am asked this question each time I take someone to the hospital. For the record, I must admit that on more than one occasion, the word “assertive” has been used in conjunction with my public behavior.

For those of you who have not been in the emergency room of a major hospital in India, assertive is not necessarily bad, in fact it may be a necessary condition to get proper and timely care. Sure, emergency rooms (or as we insist on calling them in India, “casualty wards”) are filled with emergencies, small and large, but even when they are having the occasional slow night, doctors appear to work on a need-to-know basis.

More importantly, your need to know seems to be directly related to your social standing in the doctor’s eyes. Granted, the internet and Google have made every patient “an expert,” complicating an overworked doctor’s job.

For those of us who’d like to believe that class and other atavistic divisions are a thing of the past, experiencing an information triage in a seemingly uncaring doctor’s hands is the clearest indication of how class as a social arbiter not merely lives but thrives.

“You did what?” was the first reaction of my wife’s best friend when I recounted the story of the birth of my second child. The scene was the birthing room in a small nursing home that my wife’s obstetrician ran in South Bangalore.

The room had unfortunately been painted all too recently and the fumes were not helping matters, as the midwife encouraged my wife to push. The good wife was gritting her teeth and the doctor waltzed in to declare that she might give my wife a shot to move labor along.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

The question popped out of my mouth even as I gritted my teeth wondering where my wife got the power to squeeze my hand so. The doctor, to her credit, didn’t freeze in shock – nor did she ask me “And in which college did you get your medical degree?”

Instead she briefly tried to explain to my wife and me why she thought it was a good idea. The mid-wife and orderly were as bug-eyed as my wife’s best friend was upon hearing about my “questioning the doctor” and at that in the middle of child birth. Luckily our second child had other ideas and chose that very moment to put in her appearance without waiting for further inducement, chemical or otherwise.

I’ve found that this doctor, like many others, was prepared to listen and willing to explain her thought process, and therefore treatment options, patiently to me. But the very same doctors make snap judgments, often unfavorable in nature, about their patients’ educational and financial status — based on whether they spoke English, how they were attired (in western or traditional garb), how old they were. And they routinely choose to play God with little or no explanation.

As a scientist and engineer, I set out to test this hypothesis by appearing only in traditional white dhoti, speaking only in Tamil or Hindi, and my relatives and friends cooperated by having a variety of medical challenges with great regularity. Concussion from a fall for a 12-year old; appendicitis for a nine-year-old; dengue-like viral fever; clavicle fracture in an 80-year old; uterine fibroids for middle-aged cousin; possible tail bone compression soccer injury; all topped off with prostrate surgery and a urinary tract infection. The local nursing home, regular hospital and super-specialty hospitals – government- and private-owned — all figured in this multi-year experiment.

Repeatedly, whether it was an in-law having hip replacement done (“old”), a parent having a parathyroid surgery(“traditional”) or a chauffeur’s child being treated for inhaling toxic fumes (“blue-collar, uneducated”), the doctors’ explanation of the problem, prognosis and its treatment was governed by their perceptions of the patient.

So these folks and I as their “traditional” attendant got, at best, a sketchy overview. When my wife or I, dressed in our best, demanded in English that we be educated about the issues and choices, we were given the low down, usually starting with the “Are you a doctor?” question.

A close friend was a cardiac care nurse in California and I have heard my share of horror stories of how doctors talked down at and treated nurses shabbily. It almost seems an occupational hazard. So this doesn’t seem to be a problem uniquely confined to Indian doctors.

However patients, who are the paying customers, and especially those who require a detailed explanation of their situation and choices, seem to get the short end of the stick if they don’t speak the right language, wear the right clothes or otherwise belong to the “right” group even as doctors are making life-or-limb decisions on their behalf.

It’s disheartening when we are able to get more information and options about a 30,000-rupee flat screen LCD television from a high school-educated salesman than from a physician about to perform a procedure that not only costs more but needs to last a life time.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online on Jul 9, 2010

Don’t cheat yourself, by aiming too low!

You want us to pay you $120,000 and I have a quote here from your [much larger] competitor for $30,000!

3 Card Monte

Photo Credit: djfunny via Compfight

In our first startup, just as we had built up our reputation in a niche, we encountered competition from a larger Indian firm at one of our major customers.

The purchasing manager had become a good friend and didn’t mince any words. We did bag the deal, still at over three times what the competition had quoted but not without with some fancy footwork.

I am sure our competitor would have broken even, at their quoted price, but they could have both bagged the deal and made a very nice profit at half our bid. By bidding so low, they queered the pitch not just for us but intrinsically undermined the value of what they were delivering.

Their eagerness to win this account, while understandable, needlessly drove down the profitability of future deals for all of us. And this was with a technology firm! This was the first time that I realized how short-sighted it can be to lower value by charging far too little.

This experience brought to mind, how other visionary entrepreneurs – often self-made men brought a different perspective to building businesses.

I had three rupees in my pocket when I first landed in Madras.

It was hard for me to visualize my father arriving in the city as a penniless high school graduate and reconcile it with the globe-trotting CEO that I had grown up with. At least two other folks of his generation that I know well personally came to Madras with less than 10 rupees in their pockets — from Gujarat in one case and Kerala in another — and went on to build multi-million dollar business empires, in plastics and publishing.

I am certain that there are thousands of such unacclaimed, self-made men who started with little more than a dream and a great deal of determination, who through their hard work spanning decades, unwavering vision and a few lucky breaks have built successful businesses. A thousand mini-Reliances and Future Groups, as it were. This is the part of India and Indian businesses that makes my chest swell and gives rise to my unending optimism about India.

Yet our everyday experiences seem to bring us in contact not with these modern day Dick Whittingtons but with seemingly short-sighted tradesmen who are interested in making a quick buck, even it means burning bridges.

“The samples he sent were exquisite. My clients loved the color and quality of the granite — so distinct from the Italian stone they were used to.”

My friend, a mining engineer and consultant spoke of his experience helping buyers in Taiwan source stone from India.

“So you can imagine their shock when they received the first container load and most of it was second-grade and a good deal of it damaged. Having paid for the shipment with a letter of credit they had little recourse.”

My friend shook his head; the very recounting of the story was painful for him.

“And these were clients who were capable of moving hundreds of containers a month. The short-sightedness on the part of the seller to make a quick buck on the first container hurt not only his ability to sell again but set back the reputation of all Indian stone exporters.”

I wish I could claim this was one rogue trader. Alas, I have heard the story repeated – for leather goods, for handicrafts and pottery, bedsheets and linen, food grains. We seem to have honed the bait and switch to a fine art. Delivering good quality samples or first shipments and, once the buyer places a large order, shipping a lesser grade or worse to make a quick killing.

Of course this kills any chance of further business from that client or long term growth. And all too often damages the reputation of an entire segment or even the country as a whole. Why do we do this?

Lest we conclude that it’s just businesses that buy from Indian firms that face these challenges, consumers don’t have it a whole lot easier. Sure we’ve all read about how the Indian consumer is price conscious and finicky — businesses that don’t give them what they want are unlikely to survive, let alone thrive.

However, the demand-supply mismatch is so pronounced in favor of suppliers that most Indian businesses are able to get away with poor quality and all too often poor service.

As a reader of the Wall Street Journal recently put it “[their] focus [seems to be] on getting as many bucks as they can out of customers the first time they deal with them as opposed to cultivating repeat business. At least that is how I felt after paying 455 rupees for a beer at a pub in Khan market last week…”

The sort of behavior we are prepared to condone in our politicians — who after all may not be in power after the next elections — of making hay (or moola as may be the case) while they are in power, seems to infect many of our business folks, especially small businesses. This is particularly galling given our avowed belief in the concept of karma and a spiritual span of more than one life time.

This is why I have taken to hanging out at the railway station trying to spot the next Dhirubhai Ambani or someone like my dad so that my faith and belief in the visionary, long-term oriented Indian entrepreneur is restored.

A variant of this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online.

Are We Celebrating India’s 10,000 Entrepreneurs

“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.

Two years on, after I first wrote this article, NASSCOM launched their 10,000 startups program in March, 2013. NextBigWhat, organizers of Unpluggd have themselves partnered with NASSCOM.

Dedicated startup sites, including, NextBigWhat and startup-focused weekly coverage have arrived at all major business papers, including, Economic Times, Hindu Businessline, and Mint.

Getting rid of our Sir-ji culture

Kids salutin

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via cc

“Saif sir and Shah Rukh sir, I appreciate your question…”

I had turned on the television soon after getting home from work in the hope of wiping out a rough day. The FilmFare awards — Bollywood’s tribute to its own – were on. The speaker was Neil Nitin Mukesh, an up and coming heartthrob in Tinseltown. He was addressing superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the comperes for the awards ceremony.

The two Khans, in an attempt to inject humor into the proceedings, were posing questions to other actors in the audience. Those questioned, in turn, were expected to respond with creative insults, tongue-in-cheek, to the two Khans — all in good humor.

Shah Rukh is in his mid-forties and Saif, I suspect, just turned 40. Wikipedia tells me Neil Nitin Mukesh is 28. When I heard Neil speak, it made me stop and wonder why a grown man was addressing the two Khans as “Sir.”

My first thought was that it was the sheer inadequacy of the English language. In Spanish there is usted — a respectful form of you. And of course nearly every Indian language has the Hindi equivalent of aap — a pronoun reserved to demonstrate respect to someone senior, elderly or even, at times, a respected colleague. The use of these forms, from Bhojpur to Chettinad, is rarely about status or inequality but largely about courtesy and culture.

But there remained a niggling feeling: What if this is not a linguistic shortcoming but something deeper?

I shared my theory the next morning with my two business partners, who were actually working instead of wondering about Bollywood’s sociological makeup. I felt that the movie industry was far too hierarchical. Even Shah Rukh, at the same event, referred to Mani-sir (Mani Ratnam, the award-winning director). And, I asserted, this was emblematic of Indian society at large: far too much groveling and far too little respect.

To their credit, my partners argued in reasoned tones that it was language rather than any feudal attitudes or the need for social debasement that lead to the use of the word “Sir” when addressing an industry peer. They went on to propound their own theory — by which time you can be sure all pretense of work was done away with — that this is likely an urban phenomenon.

Did not most Tamil folks in Chennai use “Sir,” abandoning the more archaic (and potentially feudal) “ayya,” they argued. The Tamil movie industry, too, is rife with Rajni-sir and Kamal-sir, though I wasn’t sure if that bolstered their case or not. By that point anyway they had returned to doing real work.

What is my gripe with “Sir,” you ask? Yes, it is perfectly serviceable for class 8 students to use it when addressing their English or even their Hindi teacher. Possibly it works for the maitre d’ at a fancy Euro restaurant since his snooty attitude does away with any illusion of who’s the master.

Any other time, there’s far too much of the servile tone of a colonial job applicant imbued into “Sir,” which 60-odd years of Babudom have only cemented further.

Spend an afternoon sitting in a bank manager’s office, on a manufacturing shop floor or in a police or income tax commissioner’s office and you are likely to encounter “Sir” enunciated in every imaginable accent. If you have been in a hospital, you can’t but help see the doctors get their share of “Sir,” many a times as “Dr.-Sir.” Even within the information technology industry — despite its global exposure and purported performance-based culture -– deference, at times even subservience, follows the “Sir.”

I am by no means advocating the use of first names alone. When my good friend, college buddy and now nearly-50 year old university professor tells my 12-year-old to call him by his first name, I will be the first one to admit that I am not at all comfortable. I’d rather my daughter call him Uncle Jaap. Yet when 25-year-old engineers address me as “Sir,” I squirm. While I choose to think that half the mails I get addressing me as “Sir” have merely misspelled my first name, I know I am fighting a losing battle.

I’d like to imagine that borrowing the good old Hindi suffix “ji” — or for those of you opposed to Hindi dominance, the Japanese suffix “san” — would do away with “Sir.” And create a work culture that’s respectful without having to be deferential or, worse yet, servile. If the central government ran a contest for a Hinglish term to replace “Sir,” I suspect it would find more support and takers than trying to come up with an international symbol for the rupee. And, for sure, it’s likely to do far greater good – for a whole lot more people – than a rupee symbol will.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online as To Sir Without Love.

Are Marketers Leading us off a Precipice?

We’ve all heard the story of the boiled frog. The one that’s so comfortable in a pot of water, that’s being slowly heated, that it cooks to death. Wikipedia claims that the scientific evidence for such a boiled frog scenario is contradictory at best. But the metaphor’s worked well enough for innumerous editorial writers, from the Cold War to climate change. In keeping with this hoary tradition, I’m compelled to warn of an impending doom – my own personal amphibian aquatic tipping point – that is close upon us.

It is one, alas, that is perpetrated, aided, abetted by marketers.

I speak not of Lady Gaga or boy bands (though they are bad enough, I can tell you, as the parent of two teen girls) but of nothing less than the beginning of the end of Indian civilization. And if we fall, can the rest of the world be far behind?

I know that for at least several thousand years, since the start of the Kali Yug, we have been proclaiming the fall of Indian civilization. More recently, the tearing down of the Babri Masjid, the riots in Gujarat and weekly news of the Naxal attacks in middle India seem indicative of an imminent civilizational demise. And I am sure that between the Shiv Sena, the MNS, and the Telengana agitators – along with their lesser known brethren from Assam to Tamil Nadu — various people of dubious motives are busy chipping away at the edifice of what our ancestors have built.

Yet, as an optimist, I have not let any of this even bother me, let alone drag me down.

Not a bit. And here’s why. First, we now actually have an identity of being Indian rather than merely Madrasis or Gujaratis or Thakurs from Ballia! This is in itself worth celebrating. And more than Akbar or the British Raj, it is Bollywood, cricket and Pakistan that have been the primary contributors to the creation of this new pan-Indian identity.

Yes, we attack one another, at times kill a number of our fellow citizens gruesomely and get away with it as well. I’d argue, though, that we are doing this at much lower rates than we have historically.

Of course, the trucks plying our highways continue to kill far more people with far less provocation. We possess a unique ability to be rude to one another while driving or jostling in queues. The need to grease palms for nearly anything may even be growing. Our public spaces are littered with garbage and graffiti. Our parks, such as they are, are encroached on by politicians. Our rivers, despite the reverence we allegedly hold them in, are polluted.

But these are all problems that can be fixed. We still keep our homes clean, we continue to show respect to our elders in private and at times in public. We believe education is important as is saving for the future. We continue to volunteer to help the poor, the needy and the very many who are challenged one way or another. We have a newfound confidence in ourselves, in our identities as Indians. We are, in many ways, irrepressible.

All this had kept me hopeful about our continued growth and prosperity.

Repeat: Had.

The first time I saw six young lasses sitting in a circle at the local mall, each texting or talking to someone who was not in the circle, is when I glimpsed the beginning of the end. Soon it seemed that at no occasion were people, not merely youngsters, ever in the present. Be it at the movies (“Hello, I’m watching My Name is Khan…”), a classical music concert or even at dinner at a restaurant with their family.

Marketers, the same people who have caused the littering of every corner of our nation with the detritus of one rupee plastic sachets, have gotten the water boiling.

I realized it when I saw the invasion of flat panel advertising in every remaining social space. Be it the local Cafe Coffee Day, Chinese or Punjabi restaurant and, oh no, my local hole-in-the-wall tea stall. Finally, even eye contact, which was the only thing left after the cell phone onslaught, has been done away with.

So you have a family of four, the wife on a call with her friend, the boy busy with his iPhone, the girl watching Katrina Kaif slithering across the screen and Dad trying hard not to drool, even as he keeps an eye on his Blackberry.

The out-of-home advertising flatscreen. God help us all.

3 Steps to Improve Our Hiring Situation

now hiring drug free workplace (new berlin wis...“Can you please talk to my father? I had just finished explaining the offer of a full-time job we were extending to one of our contract engineers.

“Your father? Why?” I asked.

“That way I can honestly tell my friends, who want me to take another job, that my father insisted that I take this one.”

Despite the decade long boom, mini-busts and other bumps along the way, the Indian information technology job market and prospective employee behavior has remained as consistent and confounding as ever.

The recession helped managers find better candidates given the overall market slowdown. Now, the challenge of candidates who’ve accepted your offer actually showing up is likely to reappear. It almost seems as though we have a cultural inability to handle the simple matter of accepting a job or quitting one in a forthright manner.

A hundred years ago the nationalist poet Subramanya Bharati wrote of domestic help and the stories they’d make up for absenteeism: “It was the 12th day since my grandmother’s death” and “there was a scorpion in the rice bowl and it bit me with its teeth” were two of the more outrageous – some say creative – excuses.

Present day job seekers (and changers) have dwarfed Bharati’s imagination with their far greater range of reasons for quitting or not joining after negotiating — often hard — for a better deal.

“I want to work only on communication systems” (or Java or some other flavor of the month.) This from a boy who can barely spell his name. Or, “I plan to go to business or graduate school.” Those are among the most common (and rarely truthful) reasons I’ve heard.

Two of my perennial favorites, even when not true, resonate since they build on the cultural reality of the family’s still influential role in a candidate’s career decision.

“My (future) father-in-law wants to me to work for a multinational corporation” or
“My father wants me to join the family business.”

Of course, none of this can hold up a candle to the candidate who just plain disappears. Emails are not responded to, phone calls are not returned and old-fashioned registered mails are returned undelivered.

Talking with folks who work for us and with peers elsewhere helped identify a number of reasons for this behavior.

“I felt they’d pressure me and I wouldn’t be able to say no.”
Or, “I didn’t want to lie, which is why I didn’t return the calls.”
Or, “I had another offer and was just shopping.”
Or, “I was too embarrassed.”

A surprisingly large number of reasons seem to be about a prospective employer not losing face or potential dire consequences with their present employer. Which makes me wonder about our hiring practices!

As a reader of a previous column suggested, rather than merely wring our hands, here are three things I feel each of us can do to change this.

  • Talk about it with the folks you interview, with your employees and hiring managers in your company and with your peers in other companies. While all of us have moaned about it to others, moaning is not talking. Talking about it makes it easier for all to admit we have a problem and to begin discussing ways to solve it: through greater visibility for hiring managers and HR folks and greater comfort for prospective candidates or resigning staff.
    Having a simple script that emphasizes the need for honest and full disclosure and committing to your part of it, as an employer, is a great place to start.
  • Rope in colleges & recruiters The sooner we catch ’em the better. Sharing expectations and observed behavior with colleges and headhunters helps bring on board folks who have a stake in the outcome. They can influence the candidates a lot sooner. Much like interviewing or presentation skills, how to handle an offer or to decline one can be discussed with — if not taught to — job candidates who, all too often, rely on their peer group. In the Indian context, I’d extend it to building bridges with the families of your employees in a sensitive and non-patronizing manner.
  • Don’t contribute to it How often have you pressured a prospective employee to come on board right away? To buy out their notice period or even to renege on their commitments to a current employer or prospective alternate employers? Quit doing that and we’d have taken a small step towards a better – OK maybe not better — but more predictable and professional staffing scenario.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal as My Father-in-Law Wants Me to Work for a MNC & Other Fables online.

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Indian Standard Time Warp

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center - Nobility of Time

NYC: Dali at Time Warner Center – Nobility of Time (Photo credit: wallyg)

“I’ve already spent more time on this than this deal is worth to me.”

That’s what a prospective business partner said to me, complaining about the 45 minutes we had spent in a meeting together.

I was taken aback. I had just flown most of the previous 20 hours (from Bangalore to Chennai to Frankfurt then onward to Stockholm before taking my final transfer to get to Gothenburg, Sweden) to get to the meeting.

I had merely asked him to help me understand why I should pay $100,000 to represent his company in India (but that’s another story). While I did manage to keep my cool that day, it brought home to me how direct people can be in a business setting.

Having worked most of my adult life in the U.S. – most of that in California’s laid back Silicon Valley – I was used to plain speaking. However in the year I had been back in India before the Gothenburg trip, I had clearly lost the habit of being direct. I had acquired a more fluid sense of both time and speech.

The move to India opened my eyes to the way things are done in the Valley, sort of like watching an unflattering video of myself at a stag party.

While working in San Jose, I had never quite noticed how rude we were when we failed to return voice mails or in moved meetings at the last minute, even when people had flown in from overseas to attend them.

This was in stark contrast to Japan where a great deal of my business was coming from in the first years back in India. In my first business meeting in Japan, two managers from a $40 billion firm spent two hours with me (the marketing guy from a $5 million dollar Indian company) to understand why we were charging “so much more” than the competition.

Of course, many people have apocryphal stories of negotiating in Japan or China where indirection and opacity seem the norm. In one, two-day session I found out only at dinner that the guy that seemed to spend most his time taking pictures was actually the key decision maker and the two people we hadn’t been introduced to were competitors

India, in many ways, straddles these two very different business cultures. The almost unquestioning acceptance of seniority, the acute awareness of hierarchy and near-obsession with not losing face that Japanese businesses are known for can be found in Indian companies as well.

Still, the Japanese put much more importance on time schedules. In India you could never imagine a client instructing you to take the 7:52 express train to the transfer station where the client would join you at 8:24 to reach their office at 8:50 – the requisite ten minutes before your 9:00 a.m. meeting. I regularly get detailed directions like this from our Japanese clients.

In India “Let’s meet at 11” is generally a suggestion. It means “We should connect around that time and it’s likely that I’ll call you at 10:45 to tell you I am stuck in traffic and will be late by 30 minutes or more.”

This has been the biggest lesson for me about doing business in India. Time and communication (and even space if you try to drive here) take on a sponge-like quality here.

In my unending naiveté, I initially believed that the inability to stick to schedules was the fault of the sales and marketing folks or overburdened C-level executives. That illusion didn’t last long. I started to understand what really happens after sitting through a weekly customer call with my engineering team.

“How can the deliverable slip by a month when we were on schedule last week?” the customer asked. I could visualize the apoplectic look on the client’s face even without a webcam.

Our engineers, I found out, were well aware of the delay that was accumulating daily but had redoubled their efforts to crack the problem on time. They had been confident they’d solve the problem and recover the lost month and wanted to avoid causing anxiety to the poor client.

The most positive way I have found to look at this delivery dilemma is to figure we Indians are eternally optimistic. We are optimistic to a fault. We are certain that we will clutch victory from the jaws of defeat much like a Bollywood hero gets his girl at the end of the movie, just as the police drag away the dastardly villain. When we say the report will be done this evening or we’ll get there in 15 minutes, we believe it – the laws of physics be damned!

As with all understanding about India, there may be exceptions. You might meet an ex-military type or maybe a Bengali or Tamil gentleman who will confound you by always being on time. Worse still, they might expect you to be on time like the Japanese or direct and brash like the Valley types.

Fortunately India is so vast that such encounters are likely to be rare.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal

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