New Delhi: The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, (IIMA) is the holy grail of business schools in India, a status that is reinforced during the placement season every year as newspapers report breathlessly about steadily rising salary packages offered to IIM graduates.

But Deep Kalra remembers a time when companies and eye-popping pay cheques were not the norm on B-school campuses. Institutes like IIMA did command a great deal of respect but, even so, “education was a privilege, and you had to go to the best institute," says Kalra.

Kalra is the chief executive of online travel portal MakeMyTrip Inc. Sitting in the spacious conference room of MakeMyTrip’s sprawling office in Gurgaon, Kalra is talking about India of the 1970s and 1980s and the opportunities a “service class" background bestowed. The right degree from the right university matters today too, but there are plenty of other options if you don’t have either (or both).

This really wasn’t the case when Kalra graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and made his way to IIMA in the early 90s.

In many ways, Kalra’s journey parallels that of India since the economic reforms of 1991. By the time he graduated from IIMA in 1992, the placement scene had changed completely.

When Sanjeev Bhikchandani, founder and executive vice-chairman of Info Edge (India) Ltd which owns the jobs portal Naukri.com, graduated from IIMA in 1989, he told Kalra there weren’t too many companies who came recruiting.

“But by 1992, we had FMCGs (fast moving consumer goods companies), we had consulting firms. McKinsey came and hired two guys and, symbolically, it was huge," says Kalra.

Entrepreneurship has come of age in India over the past decade-and-a-half with more and more people taking the plunge and starting their own businesses. When Kalra started his own corporate journey, it was not even an option that he had in mind —although, all around him, he could sense the first stirrings of change. “For me, liberalization meant the hegemony of old business houses was over," he says.

It was also a time when businesses launched by what Kalra calls the “first generation" were coming of age—firms like Infosys Ltd, Bharti Airtel Ltd and Indigo. He doesn’t include himself in the list though MakeMyTrip, started in 2000, is considered one of India’s best travel portals. In 2010 its shares started trading on NASDAQ.

Travel portals hold the lion’s share of India’s e-commerce market. A 2013 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) estimated it to be at 70% of a market worth upwards of $10 billion.

Kalra knows why.

“Most people in their early 20s are now travelling abroad. Their first few salaries might be on material things like clothes and mobiles but then they go abroad. For young married couples, their honeymoon has to be overseas. It’s a done deal. In our times, we had to think twice—in spite of me working in a bank—for making the trip," he says.

Reforms have lived up to the economic promises they made, but in spite of the successes, there are plenty of roadblocks—infrastructure being the biggest. “From power to floor plates to commuting, we are always solving administration issues. In Silicon Valley, people are not worrying about how their employees are coming to work or whether rats have chewed up the phone lines. We deal with such issues on a daily basis here and it’s not what entrepreneurs should have to do."

Kalra compares the India’s support system with that of China. “Everything here is 3X with X being the amount of time other places take."

And while these factors shouldn’t —and don’t—deter entrepreneurs, Kalra does offer a piece of advice for those just starting out: “Try and do it with one other person or two, so that you can focus on different aspects."

This is the 19th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

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