Silicon Valley is a testimony to the entrepreneurial spirit of Indians if they are given the right environment. About 30% of companies there are estimated to have been started by Indians. Many of them owe their success to their alma mater such as Stanford University, where every academic discipline is vibrant with entrepreneurial culture.
It’s indeed a challenge to bring that culture to our academic institutes so that our dormant entrepreneurial volcano erupts.
In the past few years, different organizations in India have tried different methods to cultivate entrepreneurship in our academic institutes. Most of such attempts have been a failure. One success story is National Entrepreneurship Network, or NEN, a not-for-profit organization founded by Romesh Wadhwani, a successful entrepreneur of Indian origin in Silicon Valley.
He started NEN in 2003 in collaboration with five institutions: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay; Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad; Birla Institute of Technology & Science, Pilani; SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai; and the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (Ibab), Bangalore. NEN is currently working with more than 280 academic institutes, including B-schools and engineering colleges across 27 cities and towns in India, reaching more than 300,000 students on their campuses.
Wadhwani’s story is inspiring. Coming from a middle- class background, his entrepreneurial traits were evident from his student days in IIT Bombay, where he along with his friends started a canteen. They floated shares of Rs10 each, and even had “annual board meeting”. Apparently, it was a great success until IIT “nationalized” it!
After IIT Bombay, Wadhwani got his master of science and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. He led the development of the Merlin family of industrial robots, which won the US industrial design award in 1984.
Over the last 30 years, he has been the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of three software companies, spending about 10 years at each before spinning them off as public companies or selling them to larger companies. This includes Aspect Development, which was sold to i2 Technologies for $9.8 billion in 2000 (about Rs43,120 crore then) in the largest merger in software history.
May be because he sensed it was time to pay something back, Wadhwani established the Wadhwani Foundation, the parent body of NEN, which spends more than $1 million annually to fight the risk averse attitude of Indian students. Before launching the NEN programme, Wadhwani Foundation had given $1.5 million for setting up a centre of entrepreneurial development at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. In 2001, the foundation also funded and established the Wadhwani Electronics Laboratory at IIT Bombay.
Last week, I met Laura Parkin, the dynamic executive director and co-founder of NEN. She herself is a serial entrepreneur having founded four companies. With the energy that comes with the success of a start-up, Laura explained NEN’s mission and activities. NEN’s ultimate goal is to help launch thousands of new entrepreneurs, who in turn will create hundreds of thousands of much-needed jobs for India. To achieve this goal, NEN works with India’s academic institutions to help them build world-class and high impact entrepreneurship programmes on their campuses.
These campus-based entrepreneurship programmes are both innovative and comprehensive. They are structured to motivate students to view entrepreneurship as a desirable career option in the early years after graduation and provide them with the knowledge, skills and networks to succeed.
NEN programmes include faculty development courses in collaboration with IIM Bangalore and Stanford University. This is to educate faculty on the concepts of and different teaching methods in entrepreneurship education. NEN also has a community portal providing every kind of resource on entrepreneurship. It also conducts workshops for the benefit of students, and helps them network with venture capital firms and other financial institutions. In addition, member institutes are part of a nationwide peer network and draw additional support from within this.
To become a member, the principals or directors of institutes have to sign an agreement with NEN that outlines their commitment to building entrepreneurship programme on their campus.
The positive results are palpable in the campus of the member institutes.
Laura says, “We monitor if NEN is helping to make a difference on the campuses of its member academic institutes by measuring activity levels and participation against a baseline. We are happy to see that by 18 months after joining NEN, on average, there is a sevenfold increase in entrepreneurship activity on campus.”
The prime factor holding people back in entrepreneurship tends to be a fear of failure —a fear of not achieving visible success by stepping off the normal track. Entrepreneurship education helps people get used to working in a situation where there are “no right answers”—where experimentation is the norm, and where failures can be stepping stones to success. We need more initiatives such as NEN.
Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting & Research (C-fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools. Comments are welcome at email@example.com