Incubating Entrepreneurs: A conversation with Rajesh Nair

Why India is ready to support a boom in entrepreneurial activity–and can’t afford not to.

rajRajesh Nair has his sights set on an ambitious goal: Creating a thousand entrepreneurs in the next three years.

Nair, founder of TechTop, a non-profit innovation center in his native Kerala, has studied the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as a Tata Fellow and started multiple companies himself. He’s turning his attention to educating young people about entrepreneurship in the Indian context.

With a youthful population (half of all Indians are under the age of 27—that’s around 600 million people), the need for economic growth and diversification is pressing, he says. “They need to add about 1 million new jobs every month. India is nowhere close to creating that right now. If you want to create a million jobs, you need startups. Entrepreneurship is the only way.”

Changing the culture

Talent is plentiful, but systemic change has come slowly. “India has great innovators and problem solvers, but many times the solutions never reach the market. For implementing the solution, you need entrepreneurs. I believe you can create entrepreneurs,” he adds, “if you give them the right environment.”

His vision of that environment is being played out—to great success—in small, rural colleges across India. Working with students aged 17-24, Nair’s workshops are hands-on crash courses in how to identify a need and create a company that responds to that need. “We go out to the community, understand the problems, come back with our insights, and develop strategies to address these problems.”

Rajesh Nair, center bottom, with entrepreneurship students at the TechTop Centre in Kerala, India.
Rajesh Nair, center bottom, with entrepreneurship students at the TechTop Centre in Kerala, India.

Nair chooses schools with no prior innovation or entrepreneurship programs, where most of the students have never considered starting a company of their own. To these students, he explains, entrepreneurship is a foreign territory, a place “for somebody else.”

Nair’s initial goal was modest: He wanted to see if exposure to the basics of entrepreneurship could change that perception. “But after the first workshop,” he says, “it was not only attitudes that had changed. Half of these students started their first ventures after the workshop! It was way more than I was expecting.”

Of course, not every venture was an immediate success, but the excitement of the process was encouragement enough to continue. “Many of these startups broke up and reformed with different ideas and people. Some of them survived their first year and are going strong. The entrepreneurship culture took hold in a matter of months in a place that did not have it before.”

‘A virtuous loop’

Buoyed by that success, Nair has held numerous workshops at different colleges around the country, leaving behind at each one a critical mass of students who he hopes will pass their enthusiasm on to successive cohorts. He adds a crucial pedagogical distinction: “The idea is not to incubate companies, but to incubate entrepreneurs.”

This focus on catalyzing a sustainable shift toward enterprise means that overcoming cultural barriers has been as important as teaching business skills. “There are obviously social pressures. In India failure is seen as a bad thing, but failure is common for entrepreneurs. When they’re still in college, if they try something and fail, it’s okay. Ideally, I want my students to fail several times initially, and get over the fear of failure. Only then can they do really interesting things.”

Nair sees attitudes gradually changing as more and more Indian entrepreneurs find success. “Now, parents may think, ‘This is a possible path my kids can take.’ That in turn encourages more entrepreneurs. It is a virtuous loop, and it has started happening.”

Rajesh Nair is currently a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Tata Center and Director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur, a new school started by MIT Sloan school of management and Bank Negara, the central bank of Malaysia. His TechTop center offers live-in workshops on innovation, fabrication & entrepreneurship.

Top photo courtesy of Deccan Chronicle. Second photo courtesy of Raj Nair.