Vertical mobility, a thing of the past

Santosh R. Shetty, co-founder of Neev Technologies, on why opportunities aren't that democratic as earlier

Growing up, Santosh R. Shetty, 39, had just four career options. “Engineer, doctor, CA (chartered accountant) or loser. There was no fifth choice," says the engineer turned entrepreneur.

One of the co-founders of Neev Technologies that makes software-based products and applications, Shetty belongs to the generation that was born in socialist India. Though by the time they came of age, India had opened up to the world, for Shetty and his peers, success in life had meant academic achievement.

“Both my mother and father did not have access to a lot of education. So it was important for them that all their three kids do well," he says. His father ran a family restaurant in Mumbai. For Shetty, it was a learning experience on how education and experience led to greater understanding when it comes to running one’s own business. “Most of my peers were first-generation, high academic achievers, first engineer or doctor in the family," he says.

These degrees, Shetty says, were generally seen as a ticket to a better life in a world where there was still queuing up required for milk and Horlicks was available in the ration shop.

“My friends and I used to take a bus to the affluent parts of south Mumbai, Linking Road, etc., to see the flagship stores of brands. We had one friend who had a pair of Levis jeans and he had spent the princely amount of 950 in those days to buy it."

But with the Indian economy opening up, the information technology (IT) sector saw phenomenal growth and it spawned many entrepreneurs, too. Ventures such as Naukri.com that launched in March 1997 and MakeMyTrip,com that launched in 2000 were the trail blazers.

Technological advances, more capital, tax breaks, a robust economy—all of these factors led to more and more people to quit their jobs and start their own ventures, particularly in the software world.

Today, India has the third largest start-up ecosystem in the world. Shetty was one of the first past the post when he ditched his cushy job in 2005 at the age of 29. It was a sort of leap of faith. But the source of his faith, Shetty admits, was his engineering and MBA degrees that he acquired over the years.

“When we were growing up, ambition was bountiful, but not resources. But, by 2005, the atmosphere changed drastically. If you had a solid work ethic, then there were opportunities for you," he says.

Shetty’s Neev Technologies was acquired by a French multinational in 2013 and today he is an investor in a few other start-ups. But his lifestyle remains the same as it was. “Affluence to me is about being financially independent and having the ability to own your calendar," he says. Most of his friends are scattered across the world. The locality in Delhi where he stays is mostly populated with retired couples whose children live abroad or in other Indian cities.

“In my youth, even someone who had studied in a local language school could get into a good college and have the same career trajectory as a public school educated contemporary. I am not sure if the opportunities are that democratic anymore. Most new generation entrepreneurs come from fairly secure economic backgrounds, thanks to their parents; and it is that, rather than education, that makes it possible for them to make the leap," he says. The kind of vertical mobility liberalization afforded Shetty’s entire generation, he worries, might already be a thing of the past.

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

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