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Monday, May 17, 2010

Indian-preneurship – An Indian's Insight into social entrepreneurship

For an Indian born after Independence, there has always been a relative who has bucked the trend and struck out on his own (quite gender discriminatory, our childhood memories!) and made good – the BIZZNISSMAN.

THAT uncle and his flashy life, if not his easy money have always been an interesting memory of our childhood days. For many, if not all, such childhood memories often trigger the drive towards emulation. Despite the cautionary tales and advice from most seniors (often in secure government jobs), the BIZNISSMAN’s image always sticks to your mind – unless you are the child of the said uncle, in which case this article is not for you. And as life goes on, the memory fades as the harsh realities of life make themselves aware and familial pressure, if not our own mind compromises safety with a reliable income as compared to the flashy lifestyle and the inherent risks involved.

We look at businessmen, most of us and see only the flashy lifestyle at worst or the disposable income at best and heave a sigh. Most of us envy that ability to be your own boss and not have to answer to anyone. We, often as not, work for those very businessmen, one way or the other. This is true of a vast majority, even today.

The one thing that just cannot be denied is that starting a business and even more so, sustaining one is a tremendous task. An uphill task, constantly at odds with the dominant systems and prevailing situations in the country. Going out, striking out, making a bid - by yourself and none else is a case study in courage. No reliable cheque coming in every month, no compartmentalization of work hours, constant self-doubt if not society’s questions. Often as not, familial nagging, disbelief, and pessimism are part and parcel of the initial years and continue till quite a long time. If you’re the insecure sort, it can become a beast on your back that refuses to let go. Scared yet?

And we still have the BIZNISSMAN – from the corner store owner to the industrialist, everyone wants to be one and sees themselves with the rose-tinted glasses of childhood memories. The businessman is written about, fantasized about, talked about – hell, he simply sells by being in existence!!

In America, “land of the brave”, the businessman is the acme of individual ability and enterprise, valued far above that of anyone else. You are defined by the chances you take to make yourself better. Possibly, a left over strain of frontier-bred imperialistic genes, this wish to make your destiny, to rule, to be the path-breaker into uncharted territory. You build the ballpark and run it as you see fit – you’re society’s role model for having made IT. You make it and everyone envies your car, your gadgets, your mansion and the peripherals. If you can contribute to the marginalized sections, well, you’ve just attained god-head in your lifetime.

And the truth? The endless hours fighting the inner demons and fighting off the world to achieve the next target, the next client, the lack of a social life – are these considered? It’s a brilliant film when those brutal years of building are compressed into a few screenshots over in seconds, with the dramatic turns of vaulting ambition and achievement crackling with impossibly elegant and dynamic dialogues. You clap and wish you were the guy on the screen. But its not usually that easy – you know it. Which is why YOU wisely don’t consider the idea of BIZNISS and the risks involved.

But its not so….or at least does not have to be so. It does not have to be the image of the dusty streets you trudge through, carrying your products to sell and find a customer base. It does NOT have to be you stuck in your room and computer, working without end without even having the foreknowledge of success or failure.

It does NOT need to be a gamble…

Edward De Bono once very wisely categorized vertical and lateral thinking and this became such a prevalent term that the 90’s resounded to the slogans of “lateral thinking”, “out of the box thinking” and so on so forth. Whatever we claim or say, our hierarchy’s DID become flatter and horizontal over the years. Business activity in the same way has also changed definition. Risk factors have changed as much as valuation systems and achievement ends.

Before we go forward, we – you and I, should take a minute to consider the massive efforts of those people who have changed the very concepts of business activity and development to come to this stage where we can actually talk of enterprise without risk, without fear, with hope of achievement and yet retaining security and structure. It IS possible to create positions within an existing structure and lead, have vision and become a corporate entity. Maybe even that latest model S-class merc convertible (not that we can pull down the roof considering our weather) – but it is possible.

Yes, we are not necessarily BIZNISSMEN, but we can become the Indian-preneur.

India is no longer a call sign, much less its earlier image (whatever that was!!) but is more a call to arms today. It has outstripped economic expectations with its massive and surging growth model and yet, we are still a land of family run enterprises. From the local kirana store to quite a large section of the major Indian brands, India is still the land of family enterprises. Most of them, started by BIZNISSMEN with hardly much formal education or structured learning. Funnily enough, the country that India most wishes to emulate observed a similar form of growth structure in its initial decades with educational institutes being considered useful for “clerks & priests”. A man ran the business, in the west, like a private fiefdom or country and the bean-counters, the pen-pushers were lackeys who would jump to his bidding because he had the raw courage to take the risk and they did not, despite their education.

Coming back to the present, the generation we live in is as much opposed to risk as our forefathers. Education, the mantra Indian parents mutter whether awake or asleep, has become expensive. It’s a simple equation – the cost of education needs stability of assured income at one point or the other. To take a risk on such a balance is not foolhardy on the face of it, but suicidal for most families. And Indians still don’t decide for themselves usually, it’s a family decision where the votes have it for the reliable pay cheque every month with no contest.

Introduce into this already troubled equation, the idea of social accounting or even philanthropy of sorts through business and the parents, usually egged on by relatives, rue the day they had children!!! Being well off is a perspective and social entrepreneurship dies a death before it even takes its first breath.

Security comes in many forms, the most prevalent one being the MNC tag that a child acquires. No Indian mother wants to say, “My son is a social activist or (god forbid) a social worker”. She would rather say, “My son is a lawyer/engineer/MBA working with XYZ Co. for their India offices” This is a basic truth of our existence today.

Where and how do we find an answer to such a conundrum? They tell us, in order not to make mistakes, we must have experience and in order to have experience, we must make mistakes. So, how do we progress as a people, considering human development, without sacrificing the primary needs that assail us from every direction?

This inconsistency, this instability creates the brilliant paradox of a nation sitting atop a gold mine and starving still for food. We have half a billion resources that have no linkage with growth. We have education without direction and intense frustration of intellectual and bodily desire stuck upon the cross-roads of inactivity and lack of direction.

Sun T’zu, in his famous treatise, The Art of War, counsels that problems do not exist on a singular plane and the wise general considers various approaches through various eyes, before actually committing themselves to any one route. We cannot ALL be businessmen, that much is brutal reality. At least not in the condition that India is in, at present – but our sons might be able to.

I believe in sustainable structures – of men as much as of entities, or organizations and of cultures even. As I consider this issue, over and over again, from a variety of minds and eyes, I find the answer reflected in our own selves, in our specific Indian-ness. The answer HAS to lie within our structures of profit and loss. The solution has to be one that assuages not merely bank balances but also hungry minds and bellies.

The most common BIZNISSMAN we have all observed has been the contractor, the developer – real estate, roads, construction et al. Granny used to say, “Invest in land, the earth’s not getting bigger, but the families on it are”. These men, to my mind had tapped an essential reality - infrastructure.

I see with a defiant wick glowing in my heart that a few have understood that lesson and taken it to the next dimension. I see those same smart BIZNISSMEN turning their eyes towards the people and their needs and aggressively pushing the envelope. Progress beckons and so does Laxmi !!!

TATA Motors launched the Nano for the cheaper segments and made it a success and then TATA Chemicals took on the issue of affordable drinking water!!! Was there a relation – YES, there was. The oldest, family owned businessmen were finally turning towards the basic requirements for development of a society – with a bill attached, to be sure, but it IS development no doubt. It’s not social entrepreneurship – its INDIAN-preneurship !!!

And are we still looking inwards? Then consider Nokia and its Life Tools Programme - up-to-date local information on agriculture, education, and so much more. A Finnish company helping India move upwards and onwards – talk about the benefits of liberalization, even the foreigners are getting into Indian-preneurship!

If we are to consider these few examples, these baby steps which lead into giant strides, why can our mothers not say with pride, “My son is an Indian-preneur”?

Why can we not forge the future of BIZNISS and give it the new twist of development?

Will we be able to look our families in the eye and more importantly, our own selves and decide where we are headed?