An education system for a country of entrepreneurs4 min read . Updated: 17 Sep 2020, 08:55 PM IST
Academic life in India has begun to foster the development of entrepreneurial attitudes and expertise
French emperor Napoleon is believed to have referred to England, somewhat contemptuously, as “a nation of shopkeepers", a phrase also attributed to economist Adam Smith. If either of them were to stereotype India today, they would arguably refer to us as “a nation of entrepreneurs".
More than 80% of Indians find livelihood in the informal sector, which excludes formal jobs in companies, government or other organizations. The agriculture sector, which accounts for nearly half the workforce, is made up almost entirely of entrepreneur-farmers and daily-wage earners. The industrial and services sectors too largely comprise informal jobs, which are inherently fraught with risk.
Managing risk is at the heart of entrepreneurship, regardless of context. For example, a fruit seller on the street assumes an inordinate risk of perishable stock, unpredictable markets and price points, in return for a modest reward. In the corporate world, a seasoned executive may leave her stable job at a large firm to raise angel and venture capital funding for her new business idea.
In either case, the entrepreneur’s role is to minimize, control or manage risk. This requires a certain set of inherent attributes, such as dealing with high levels of stress. But it also requires a number of learnable skills and attributes. These could include innovation or jugaad, as we say in India, thinking out-of-the-box, and limitless persistence. Further, studies have established that contextual factors such as societal acceptance of failure can increase entrepreneurial success.
Clearly, entrepreneurship is key to Indian livelihoods, and entrepreneurial success is an influence-able outcome. One would then expect the education system to be aligned towards preparing students and society for entrepreneurial success. However, the system today is largely geared towards preparing students for linear careers and jobs. Even to succeed at such jobs, the ethos of entrepreneurship is essential.
Moreover, education is no longer the realm of just school- and college-going students; it is expanding to include learners of all ages, who must periodically update their capabilities to stay relevant in a changing world. For example, helping a street-side fruit-vendor understand mobile payments or last-mile delivery could enhance her livelihood. A number of encouraging initiatives have been undertaken in recent years to develop entrepreneurial skills in learners, which should gather steam with the support of India’s new National Education Policy.
For example, the Atal Innovation Mission of Niti Aayog has been working to launch start-up incubators across the country. One such centre, focused on the fintech space at the grassroots level, will be launched this month (in partnership with Krea University). Poornatha, a Madurai-based organization, provides basic business and finance management skills to micro and small entrepreneurs. To date, they have impacted businesses with a combined revenue of over ₹1,000 crore. Efforts like Villgro, Unltd India and Bharat Inclusion Initiative have supported grassroot- level entrepreneurship to solve tough problems in sectors like agriculture, health, the environment and rural supply chains.
University campuses are wonderful ecosystems for creating disruptive ideas. Indian students today have access to global opportunities. A student of Krea recently competed with teams from 32 countries and won a global covid solution challenge, judged by Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc. Or take the case of Pixxel, a space-tech company started by college students, which will launch a series of satellites to gather high-quality data. From space to health, education, agriculture and supply chains, young entrepreneurs are taking challenges head on and creating sustainable, profitable businesses in the process.
Universities in India have begun to respond by creating incubators and entrepreneurship cells where students get access to the right resources and guidance from faculty as well as mentors from the business world. In addition, student-run organizations promote peer learning, creating a vibrant community. Student-managed funds like The Dorm Room Fund in the US, The Creator Fund from Europe and The Campus Capital from the UK, backed by well-known venture capitalists, provide a platform for students to execute their ideas. For example, Dorm Room Fund has invested in more than 200 start-ups and raised $400 million. Incubators such as Antler have also set up operations in India.
Student entrepreneurship on campus is central to the learning experience too. The experience as a student-founder could be highly rewarding early in one’s career. As most investors and entrepreneurs will attest, technical skills and domain knowledge are not enough to succeed. Most early-stage investors bet on the founding team’s passion and attitude, rather than just the business plan. A founder needs to have empathy, humility and resilience to traverse the rough road of entrepreneurship. Universities that focus on developing these traits will produce the leaders of tomorrow.
We must re-orient our education system towards developing good student citizens—of all ages and across all sections of society—for our nation of entrepreneurs. This journey has begun, and with the new National Education Policy, we hope to stay the course over the years to come.
Kapil Viswanathan and Paula Mariwala are respectively, vice-chairman of Krea University, and president of Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs India. These are the authors’ personal views