Monday, July 24, 2006


Enterprising Indians ?

While entrepreneurship/innovation is hailed as the panacea for poverty, I have always wondered how come India is so poor when we are so rich in innovation. (remember the proverbial 'jugaad' or 'j-tech'). We are great at finding alternative, innovative ways when the problem seems unsurmountable. I think indians are one of the most innovative people on this planet. And this is no chest-banging jingoism.

Entrepreneurship/innovation is a function of the social/economic context one is in. In india the reason people don't start companies from garages is because there is no "Social Security"...If you start a company and it fails, you're on your own, completely. No help, no support. There are no institutional ways of saving you from poverty. There is no safety net for the 'fallen'. In short, the 'risks of failure' are extremely high.
Any business, is fraught with risk. Even the best business plans go bust, despite the best intent, ideas and execution. (chaos theory ???). Anyways, once you fail, in India, you will have to start all-over again...and with no support whatsoever...This precisely makes Indians notoriously averse to starting something new; to entrepreneurship.

I think Maslow was absolutely right with his famous "hierarchy of needs" theory. Human beings first and foremost want to shun away "Economic Uncertainty". They want to eat, drink and sleep properly before they think of the world. Innovation comes when the belly is full, when survival is not a struggle and you dont have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. Paradoxically, in India innovation thrives as a forced choice. Sometimes innovation is required to fill the belly...But basically, people are so caught up in making ends meet (and not by the risky method of innovation) that there is no energy left to think beyond.

The only reason we Indians do not learn subjects we LOVE at schools or universities is...we are just accumulating degrees to get a job...Education is a mission to get a job; it is not for the love of learning or self-evolution (ever heard of a ground-breaking Indian anthropologist or geologist ?). Our famed higher education system is viewed through the lens of Employability by the average middle-class family. One is more worried about getting a job, and keeping it, rather than about following dreams. The risk is just too high. Consequently our education system keeps churning out the famous assembly line of clone engineers or MBAs...with little enterpreneural spark in them.

Also, India is at that stage of economic development where there is no intrinsic dignity of labour (as there are so many people available to do the low-skill, labour intensive jobs). In a developed country manual labour is valued. Even a burger-flipper/pizza delivery guy will not starve (they in fact do quite well). This acts as a quasi-social security. One can always fall back upon manual labour if your dream goes bust.
In india there is no dignity of labour. Not because of any socio-cultural reason but simply because of an over-supply of labour. This applies not only to low-level jobs but to even fairly advanced jobs like programming ('back-end grunt work', as it's put uncharitably). The fact remains – one is expendable, replaceable. If you don’t do the job, there are hundreds who will line up to do it...

Till such time as systemic issues like a "safety net" is not in place, Indian entrepreneurship will not bloom. Yes there will be individual geniuses, but we will not succeed as a society.

To ask a fundamental question -Why should one want to be an enterpreneur ?
1. Either it is something that one does AFTER other lower-level needs have been fulfilled (which takes a enormous effort in India) i.e. self-actualisation
2. Or I simply love my idea, for it's own sake (even here the fear of failure is too high. Does one want to risk almost everything?)

I do think that the 'back-end grunt work' that we are doing is only a stepping stone for the next 20-30 years. By that time general economic conditions would have (hopefully!!) improved so much in India that we maybe able to realistically talk about innovation at a national level…this is the "Asian Century" anyway.

We'll show them yet !

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