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The Selfie-Starters

Armed with a good idea and raw talent, the youth are striking out on their own

The Selfie-Starters
Illustration by Saahil
The Selfie-Starters

Sumit Dutta Chowdhury is one hellava passionate evangelist. Last year, the 45-year-old entrepreneur with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon and a brilliant track record in industry wrote a book Rules of the Game aimed at helping college grads plan their professional careers better. And for his book launch, Chowdhury chose to hit the ground running, engaging with nearly 8,000 students across several colleges across the country. Everywhere he went, as part of his talk, he’d ask his young audience one simple question: how many of them wanted to start their own enterprise?

If you asked the same question ten years ago, the answer would most certainly have been in low single digits. To Chowdhury’s surprise, as many as 60 per cent of the audience said they wanted to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, and 40 per cent of those immediately after graduation.

It isn’t a freak occurrence. Across college campuses, a generational change is starting to play out. It is palpable. It is real. And you don’t need dry statistics to sense it. It is almost as if a dam has broken. For years, most generations of young Indians would aspire for a well-paying job. Till the 1980s, it would have either have been L&T or Siemens. In the 1990s, they would covet a job at Infosys and Wipro, and Google, in the first decade of the new millennium.

So what’s stoked the phenomenon of student entrepreneurship? This is a generation in a hurry, with very little patience to rise up the corporate hierarchy. They’re bursting to express themselves in creative ways. Running one’s own gig raises visions of independence, adrenaline pumping energy and passion, and, of course, as it has always done, an opportunity to change the world. And there are enough signs that even callow, young men (and a few women too) from small town India, armed with an idea—and loads of raw talent are bursting through. No wonder then that the tad eccentric Rahul Yadav of Housing and Ritesh Agarwal of Oyo Rooms are more likely to inspire today’s young generation, just as the seven founders of Infosys scripted their story through much of the nineties.

Lots has changed since Murthy & Co built a multi-billion-dollar software giant. A good idea now attracts funding. VCs who missed on the China e-com story have learnt better.

A lot has changed on the ground since Messrs Murthy and Nilekani built a multi-billion dollar software giant. Young people with a good idea now have a far better chance of being funded. Venture capitalists that’ve lost out on the e-commerce opportunity in China are willing to write large cheques for a disruptive idea. Entrepreneurship clubs are common across campuses as are business plan competitions. The emergence of the internet and the smartphone had, to a large extent, removed the information asymmetry. Which is why young people, with knowledge at their fingertips, are so much more confident (and some would say, a bit brash as well). What’s more, they’re more willing to ‘risk’ two to three years of their lives in starting up a new venture. After all, they believe they have a fall-back option. So if things don’t work out, they could always cut their losses and go back to a corporate job.

There are other enablers too. Media, on its part, has played an important part in mainstreaming entrepreneurship and made starting up a very cool thing. The stories of entrepreneurial success (and the accompanying wealth) has stirred the public imagination. Formal entrepreneurial networks like TiE, iSpirit and Nasscom have stepped up efforts to provide mentoring support to aspiring entrepreneurs. Internships at start-up ventures were now common.

However, it is easy to get carried away by the hype and the hoopla. A few months ago, I spoke to a seasoned entrepreneur, in his sixties in Kochi. He spoke about how scores of young people in his part of the country, bitten by the entrepreneurship bug, were picking up expensive loans to fund their own ventures. Many of them didn’t have access to good quality mentors who could help them chisel the idea into a sustainable venture. The incubators spread across the engineering colleges didn’t offer them anything more than token support, let alone help them make the right connections. And the young entrepreneurs didn’t have the maturity to attract talent and build an organisation. What would be the social consequences of this herd mentality, the entrepreneur wondered, if their dreams came crashing down?

He may well be right. After all, entrepreneurship is a choice. And it perhaps isn’t meant for everyone.

However, in India’s economic history, this is an important turning point. It is an opportunity to embed a new DNA in our culture: a can-do spirit, an appetite for sensible risk-taking and learning from failure, and culture of frugality that acts as a springboard for creative problem solving. Let’s nurture this movement. Let’s nourish it and allow it to take wing. It has the potential to change India in more ways that we can imagine.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

(The author is co-founder at Founding Fuel, a digitally-led media and learning platform aimed at the entrepreneurial community).

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