The arrival of a new year is a time for reflection, resolution-making and renewal. As India enters 2014, it is hard to not think of the oft-quoted opening lines from Charles Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” He could have just as easily been talking about the state of our economy, the evolving political scenario or entrepreneurship—a matter close to so many of our hearts.
At the heart of entrepreneurship lies the desire to take on problems that others have failed to see or refused to take on. When this desire is matched by knowledge and skills and a supportive environment, then entrepreneurs and their companies survive, grow and thrive.
Over the last decade this has been the focus for us at the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) and Wadhwani Foundation—to create entrepreneurship educators, mentors and networks that help entrepreneurs gain the knowledge, skills and access to funding they require.
Additionally, entrepreneurship creation requires inspiration, engagement in experiential learning and practice in the real world. The best way to do this at scale is to start early and do it often, no different than acquiring any other skill or capability. NEN has been working to educate, inspire and kindle exactly this entrepreneurial spirit in students across more than 600 campuses.
A critical component our strategy is the national platform, TATA First Dot powered by NEN, that celebrates student entrepreneurs across the nation by showcasing their start-ups and successes. As Eshwar Vikas, co-founder of Mukunda Foods and a finalist last year, put it, “(When) you are running a start-up in your college and face some problems, at First Dot you come across people who have been working on their start-ups in the similar kind of environment. So it’s a good feeling to know that you have people with whom you can connect and share ideas. From First Dot, you can get a lot of lessons for your personal growth too. It really helped us a lot, especially in ... coverage and exposure by media houses.”
Now in its third year, the platform provides a clear measure of the growing strength of student entrepreneurship. In the latest edition, student start-ups over from 64 individual cities and towns are participating, up from 22 in its first year. Six start-ups, from Srinagar and other towns in Kashmir, from a Urdu paper to Web service firms, show this is a phenomenon by no means confined to the metros.
Certainly Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore are hotbeds of student entrepreneurship, but so are Durgapur, Indore, Jaipur and Mysore, towns in which there are active NEN member institutions.
From Agra, Bhopal and Nagpur in the heart of India; Kochi, Erode in the south, to Kulgam in Kashmir, Kolkata and Warangal in the east; to Ujjain and Vasco da Gama in the west, students are starting up businesses while still on campus.
An interesting trend among these start-ups is that younger students, many in just their second year of college, and more women are becoming entrepreneurs. An additional benefit of student start-ups and platforms such as the First Dot is that more students are willing to consider interning and taking jobs up at start-ups.
Yes, many of these student businesses still are low-entry barrier businesses in retail or trading, Web design or programming and food and beverage, with low capitalization and often local focus. However, in these acorns lie the kernels of future oaks. For every 10 retail or Web companies, we are seeing one clean tech, biotech or engineering start-up—from drug discovery and stem cell banking to low-cost concentrated solar power to indigenous 3D printers.
More importantly, just from the last First Dot, we are seeing more student enterprises achieve critical milestones from customer acquisition to fund raising, all the way to even an exit through an acquisition. BuyHatke, a comparison shopping portal started by IIT-Khargapur students, has grown from a few thousand to over a million monthly visitors. Mukunda Foods, founded by SRM University students, makes an automatic dosa machine (a dosa printer as they like to call it), and Beta Glide, a crowdsourced mobile app testing service, raised angel funding. Innovese, founded by BITS Pilani students, whose technology allowed the insertion of advertisements in Captchas (those online input challenges that make sure you are not a bot) got acquired by NetworkPlay, a division of German firm Gruner+Jahr.
Is everything perfect? Far from it. There aren’t enough exits, there are too many me-too companies, early stage funding is still a problem, government or public sector undertakings can’t or won’t buy from start-ups, it still takes too long to set up a company.
The list can seem endless at times. These challenges that entrepreneurs and the ecosystem face today, while a drag are not holding back people—young or experienced, urban or rural, tech or otherwise—from starting up. The most important thing we need to focus on is enhancing the nature and quality of student start-ups and continuing to build an ecosystem that will help them grow.
The first step each of us can take is by talking about, encouraging and supporting a student enterprise.
Do your bit today!
K. Srikrishna is executive director of the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). Mint has a strategic partnership with NEN, which hosts the TATA First Dot.