Made in India

Corporate Dossier - August 1, 2008

A few weeks ago, the Centre for Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at IIM Ahmedabad organized a conference where alumni entrepreneurs were invited to share their experiences with the centre and with students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. Most of us would assume that very few people showed up on either side, since the popular perception of IIMA is that it is the bastion of straight-and-narrow corporate executives, and not the breeding ground for off-the-beaten-track entrepreneurs who march to the beat of his own drummer.

Factually, the audience comprised about 150 alumni entrepreneurs and over 250 eager beaver students who came to learn whatever they could and to ask questions like "Is 5-6 years of work experience in a company a good thing before striking out on your own" and "how do you know when you are ready to take the plunge". At the conference the CIIE also released a book written by an entrepreneur alumna, Rashmi Bansal, titled 'Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish', covering the story of 25 alumni entrepreneurs who she divided into Believers (those who always know what they wanted to do), Opportunists (who were hit by an entrepreneurship opportunity they couldn't refuse), and Alternate Vision (people who became social entrepreneurs or ran boutique businesses). The list of IIMA alumni entrepreneurs is very impressive and includes a heartening number of social entrepreneurs too - Naukri .com, Subhiksha, Edelweiss, Mastek, Mphasis, Educomp, Make my trip.com, India Infoline, IRIS, Gridstone, Orchid Pharmaceuticals, Give Foundation, Basix, Eklavya, to name a few. Some of them went straight into entrepreneurship on graduating. Others first worked for a few years gathering experience in other companies. Sanjeev Bikchandani worked for a few years with a company before quitting to set up naukri.com and R Subramaniam of Subhiksha spent 15 days with a large multinational bank and decided that dealing with money markets and bonds would not give him the life skills he needed and then moved to Enfield for two years before setting up his own shop. Vijay Mahajan of Basix opted out of placement to pursue his alternate vision, but worked first for another NGO before setting up Pradan. Some were late bloomers and some even were "second innings" entrepreneurs, having retired early form top corporate jobs. Rahul Bhasin did a buyout of the securities firm he was working with, and Jerry Rao started Mphasis after an entire career with Citibank.

On an average, over the years, 25-30% of every batch eventually ends up becoming entrepreneurs. The move was more gradual in the older batches but is accelerating in the batches of the 90s and 2000s. Last year, 11 students in a class of 200 or so did not seek placement and set off on their own entrepreneurship voyage - definitely a sign of the times, with easier funding and the comfort that today's corporate world will hire them at any time, on par with their classmates.

I asked a sample of these successful entrepreneurs to evaluate IIMA course content and teaching in the context of creating more people like themselves. There is a fair amount of consensus that the concepts or tools of business management being taught are equally relevant whether you are an entrepreneur or in an established corporate set up - because after all, running an organization, whether your own or someone else's is more or less the same. Also, in the early stages, entrepreneurs have to take on a variety of managerial roles themselves, since they can't afford to hire too many experts. That's why several of them support the view of R Subramaniam (RS) of Subhiksha that a 'work somewhere first' route is helpful.

However there is an equally emphatic agreement that the contexts / perspectives in which these tools get applied could be totally different in the world of entrepreneurship and more attention needs to be given to making that point.

The prescriptions on how to do this are varied. RS of Subhiksha feels that the way entrepreneurship is currently being portrayed in most B Schools is much too romantic, and there is a need for highlighting the classic pain - it takes 10 to 12 years of struggle to build anything of significance, in which period there are many complex environments and human relationships that need to be managed (employees, financiers, vendors etc). There is a real need to understand and control risk better and know what is foolhardy and romantic risk and what is well gauged risk. His prescription to do this is a ½ unit course "somewhere between OB and strategy" to sensitize would-be entrepreneurs to this.

Sanjeev Bikchandani of Naukri.com feels that B Schools need more case studies on start ups and entrepreneur driven organizations in order for students to see alternate contexts and alternate views of the world. There must also be more successful and failed entrepreneurs invited to talk to the students to provide different role models of managing businesses. Taking Sanjeev's thought further, I must say that having worked with both typically corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs, even the way management tools are applied are quite different. For example, market research to scope business opportunity done for an entrepreneur ends up revealing different things than that for a protocol driven "current market and its rules" obsessed corporate CEO. An entrepreneur once said scathingly to me in reply to my question on how much he had leveraged his balance sheet to grow, "only you B School types think that one must leverage ones own balance sheet to grow. There are several other balance sheets you can leverage to grow". And in fact he had done just that, all totally kosher and legal! Vaidy of Alchemy Capital says that the brain is meant for thinking, reasoning and memory. He feels that a lot of what he was taught at IIMA is more connected with reasoning than it is with thinking; and also that the memory bank built in student's heads of things that went wrong and right with entrepreneurial ventures is still quite lightweight compared to that of corporate behaviour. This again points to more exposure to people and case situations from the world of entrepreneurs.

There is near total agreement that courses which "help give courage", "strengthen resolve", "are inspirational", "accelerate the seed of entrepreneurship inside us" are very valuable. A blockbuster and twenty year old course at IIMA that does this, that most of our entrepreneurs remember fondly is LEM - Laboratory in Entrepreneurial Motivation. For the past six years it has been offered by alumnus visiting faculty Sunil Honda, a pharma-turned-education entrepreneur. His students say that it instills confidence, makes you interact with small shops in industrial estates who earn more than most corporate executives do, and it begs the question "why can't we, with more education and privileges of intellectual exposure, do it too"? In fact, in the bidding system that students at IIMA use to get a course of their choice, this one comes near the top of the list.

Venkat, a social entrepreneur and founder of GIVE India says that while LEM inspired him to pursue his dream, he also found that the system of IPs (2 Credit Independent Projects) also helped him progress his future business ideas in depth, while getting him the credits needed to graduate.

The CIIE at IIMA was set up six years ago, with the coming together of seven faculty members from different areas, interested in doing research in entrepreneurship. Its chairperson Prof. Rakesh Basant, explains the IIMA philosophy that research centers be integrated with other areas of activity of the institute. One arm of this integration has been the creation and offering of a wide range of entrepreneurship relevant courses ranging from private equity all the way to social entrepreneurship, supported by custom created case material and designed to include project work on the companies being incubated by the centre, on managing the seed fund, in mentoring start ups, vetting their business plans and so on.

The Centre has also worked with the placement office to enable summer internships with start up companies, for a permanent placement slot just before the main placement activity begins, for start ups who want to come and recruit, and for those who want to be entrepreneurs straight after they graduate, a safety net scheme by which they can participate two years later in the campus placement process. Clearly the mental, the environmental and the emotional aspects of becoming an entrepreneur are what B Schools ought to address. And even if concept learning stays the same, there is a necessity for context learning through greater exposure to entrepreneurs and start up case situations.

Ramâ Bijapurkar is a management consultant and visiting faculty at IIMA.