Entrepreneurship lessons: From slums to Silicon Valley

Running away to live in a slum forced me to develop new ways of thinking that have shaped my decisions as a founder, CEO, investor and mentor


File photo of The Entrepreneurship Summit 2014.Today, India has embraced entrepreneurship and leaders who think outside of the box. Photo: Mint
File photo of The Entrepreneurship Summit 2014.Today, India has embraced entrepreneurship and leaders who think outside of the box. Photo: Mint

Twenty years ago, as a teenager growing up in India, I decided to run away from a comfortable middle-class home and live in the squalor of a New Delhi slum. It was a move motivated in equal parts by naivety and pride, but throughout my life I’ve always been able to point back to my experiences in New Delhi as the foundations for my success as an entrepreneur.

Learning and improving is rarely possible when you’re within your comfort zone—as many a founder or tech innovator knows. Running away to live in a slum forced me to develop new ways of thinking that have shaped my decisions as a founder, chief executive officer, investor and mentor.

A true entrepreneur is nimble, fearless and able to leave behind something he/she may deeply care about. Put in a different way, successful entrepreneurship means knowing how and when to pivot. While the word “pivot” has become trite start-up jargon, let’s not disregard the proven power of the concept. Silicon Valley and start-up communities around the world are full of success stories from founders who have started with one idea and ultimately arrived at something else entirely.

To pivot effectively, you must divest yourself of your emotions and separate your intrinsic sense of worth from circumstance or capital. In the slums, I had nothing, but I knew I was worth something.

If running away from home was my life’s first pivot, the ensuing failures taught me to learn, to create, to share, to put my imprint on the world for positive change.

Don’t waste time in a market that’s not ready for you

The culture of Indian industry at that time was not ready for the type of leader I wanted to be. India’s traditions of excellence in math and engineering, and dutiful obedience to a hierarchy resulted in a rigid environment that did not allow for the independent thinking and risk-taking I knew I had to embrace to be satisfied.

In a very real way, the market was not ready for the product I had (me). Today India has embraced entrepreneurship and leaders who think outside of the box, but in the late 1990s, I was different from my peers and that difference was not seen as positive. When this happens, you must forget the market.

A good idea that cannot monetize is not a great idea

Before I’d ever make it to London, of course, I’d needed to get out of the slums. For one-and-a-half years I lived in New Delhi, sleeping on the floor with six other people, before my opportunity came. Like many entrepreneurship success stories, luck combined with circumstance to provide me the chance. In between selling magazines and working at a restaurant, I found an ad for an online business competition and entered my idea—an online community for Indian women.

I won, and after raising some seed funding, Women Infoline became a business. At 18, I had started a company to drive my ambition and use technology to empower others, in this case women. I was passionate about the business and the philosophy behind it.

Yet, I knew it was not my future. I decided to leave and handed the product to Mudra Consultants which took it public as MWomeninfoline Ltd. I moved to London, once again forcing myself out of my comfort zone.

The fact was that while Women Infoline had a great mission (I will always believe in empowering women and anyone who is underprivileged through technology), the market was not ripe for it and the potential for revenues was weak as the Indian Internet ad market was in its infancy.

This lesson too served me well later in life, back in London when I was developing an app with fellow Blippar co-founder, Omar Tayeb, that again focused on social good. “Swap Shop”, later called “raslila”, was a social platform where one man’s junk is another man’s treasure for free, or via a barter system. But just as quickly I saw we were again focused on social good and not profitability.

Although I felt passionately about creating an app that brought social good to its forefront, I had to remember Women Infoline. A business that is designed to drive social good will not accomplish its goal unless it can make money and stay in business. Once again, I had to leave behind an idea I believed in.

Turning a corner always means dealing with the unexpected

After over a decade of facing failures, however, it was easier to pivot from this platform and focus on the future. Omar and I developed a theme of working to come up with a new idea every few months, and eventually inspiration would strike and Blippar was born. Blippar exists today because I refused to accept the status quo and accept the proof points for success others tried to define for me.

Getting to this point over the last 20 years has been no easy task. There have been moments when I felt like a failure and I had almost nothing to show for all my hard work. Ideas and businesses I’ve loved have turned to dust.

And yet. Throughout it all I’ve always believed that success has been just around the corner. Getting there has meant turning in different directions and facing the unknown head on.

It’s good to have business heroes, but idolizing them is a mistake. No two people’s combination of circumstances, attitudes, opportunities and market conditions are identical. Richard Branson, Jeffery Bezos, Bill Gates couldn’t be more different from one another.

Which one would you want to be? I’d say be yourself. You are the best version of you, and how you navigate circumstances, market conditions, attitudes and opportunities is what will finally make you succeed as an entrepreneur or anything else in professional life.

Each year the World Economic Forum undertakes an ambitious endeavour—to scour the world to select 100 young leaders, under the age of 40, who are tackling the world’s most complex challenges with innovative approaches.

Ambarish Mitra, CEO and co-founder of Blippar, is part of the 2017 class of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum

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