India’s Innovation Front Lines, Part 5: The Emerging Entrepreneurial Class

12/22/08Follow @vinit44

Mumbai Friday December 19, 2008—The TiE Entrepreneurial Summit in Bangalore was a huge success–the sponsoring hotel was barely able to manage the large crowd. What struck me was how young the crowd was and how aggressive the entrepreneurs were in approaching anyone who looked like they had money to invest.

Speaker after speaker lauded the “demographic dividend” offered by all those young people and to be reaped by India. Implicit in this comment was that this group would be well educated. Everyone by now has heard about the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) and perhaps even the All India Institute of Medicine (AIIM). These fine institutions graduate just tens of thousands students annually. There are many other engineering colleges and management institutes, but the most are not graduating world-class talent. This is even more evident in high school. The elite private high schools (Cathedral, Campion in Mumbai, and Sriram, Modern in Delhi) are excellent, but most Indian teenagers in the metros get subpar education at public high schools. In smaller towns the options are even fewer.

Nonetheless, the kinetic energy of these young entrepreneurs is infectious. One young man bewitched our table with tales of a multitude of startup companies that had been selected by his cleantech non-profit for fundraising help. These varied from electric scooter companies to biodiesel producers. A couple of us were ready to start a company to import scooters to the U.S.! The unwritten story behind these eager entrepreneurs is the hard work they have put in to get to where they are. It starts in elementary school. Most students put in a full school day (including hours of commuting), and then take extra tutoring to prepare them for entry exams to the elite private high schools. To get entrance to an IIT or medical school, students have to study 5-6 hours per day for couple of years, in addition to attending regular school hours. Only one in a hundred applying get into these elite colleges. It is questionable that all this studying prepares Indian youth better than American youth for real world jobs, but it certainly instills a strong work ethic.

Traditionally, youth is celebrated in the U.S., but in India age (read wisdom) is respected. This seems to be changing, especially in the workforce. An executive search professional I was chatting with said that many executive jobs came with a stipulation that the candidate be younger than 45. With so many young people available, why pay extra for tired, old wisdom?! I don’t know if the average age of Indian companies is lower than that of U.S. companies, but the senior ranks certainly seem younger.
National Entrepreneurs Network finalists
TiE is launching a chapter in Tokyo, and I had a chance to discuss Japan’s new-found fascination with India with the founders. Apparently the Japanese were taken aback that many multinational companies in Japan suddenly began to have Indians as the managing head. Japan has always had a historical fascination with India, the home of Buddhism, but the country was always considered an industrial backwater. With the success of its IT and especially automobile parts companies (Toyota Kirlowsker’s plant in Bangalore produces as reliable parts as Toyota’s Japanese plants, or more so), aging Japan appears to have discovered talented India. There are hordes of Koreans and Japanese on all the elite golf courses in Delhi and Bangalore!

[Editor's note: This is Part 5 of a travelogue by Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan, who is in India visiting venture capitalists and startups with an eye to bridging the Boston and Indian startup ecosystems. We published Part 1 on December 5, Part 2 on December 8, Part 3 on December 10, and Part 4 on December 16.]

Vinit Nijhawan, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and former venture capitalist, is Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence in the Boston University School of Management. Follow @vinit44

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