Entrepreneurs, made in India

Rajesh Nair’s Kerala-based EnCubeLabs wants to develop people, not companies.

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The 48-Hour Makerfest in Kuala Lumpur was designed to teach skills – and confidence – to young entrepreneurs.
Photo: Asia School of Business

The “Cockroach Buster,” a trap-door mechanism for insect control; a sensor-based cradle that automatically rocks a sleeping child; an air guitar that actually plays.

These were some of the gadgets created by students in a recent 48-Hour Makerfest event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, geared to teach and inspire students with virtually no experience as hands-on creators. That man behind it, Rajesh Nair, was one of the original cohort of Tata Fellows back in 2012. Today he is the Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Asia School of Business, Kuala Lumpur, and the founder of EnCubeLabs, an organization that is trying to sow the seeds of widespread entrepreneurial education in India.

These ventures are a continuation of Nair’s MIT research, in which he explored how an ecosystem of entrepreneurs could be catalyzed in countries like India, where they are badly needed to create jobs, solve persistent problems, and unsettle the status quo.

“A lot of smart people in India never see the light of day,” he says. “We’re missing the entrepreneurs to not just think of solutions, but take them to market.”

Nair noticed that engineering graduates in India, especially at thousands of small colleges across the nation, rarely pursue an entrepreneurial path, choosing instead to take low-risk jobs in their field, and he sees this as a missed opportunity.

“There are a huge number of engineering students in India. Why aren’t most of them creating startups? The primary factor is confidence.”

So, how to imbue these students with the confidence to try something new and potentially risky? Nair believes that if they have a safe space in which to build, experiment, and fail, they will begin to see new possibilities.

Nair says, “Students often tell me, ‘I have no idea if I can be an entrepreneur.’ That’s completely fine. We say, ‘Let’s go through the process and try.’ Failure is the primary learning method. They may realize that they were 80% successful the first time, which means they only need to figure out the last 20%.”

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Entrepreneurship students take a break on the nearby beach in Trivandrum, Kerala, India. Photo: EnCubeLabs.

EnCubeLabs is trying to facilitate this process by working with small engineering colleges around India, particularly in Nair’s native state of Kerala, to create Entrepreneurship Centers where students can learn basic skills, get some experience, and face their fear of failure.

Where most incubators and accelerators focus on creating companies, Nair says he is trying to “incubate entrepreneurs, who will then go on and start many companies.”

Usually it starts with training the faculty. “Most of the teachers have never started a company, either, but that’s okay.” EnCubeLabs runs faculty workshops as a stepping-stone to rolling out an Entrepreneurship Center at the college.

“We want to create an ecosystem at these colleges that holds up after we leave. You have to get a critical mass of professors and students who are excited about it, and they will keep it going.”

Nair has identified four stages in what he calls the “journey of an entrepreneur.” It begins with the uninitiated, those with little or no experience creating solutions and products independently. The next stage is to teach them to be “makers.” For Nair, the ability to work hands-on is key, which is why he has converted his family home in Kerala into a fabrication lab, and hosts groups of students for week-long camps where they can tinker, investigate, and ultimately create something workable.

Once they have some maker skills, Nair wants to convert them into innovators—people who look at the world with a mindset of proactively solving age-old problems. And lastly, he wants them to develop the business acumen to make their solution viable in the market.

A success story came out of his work with Shri Ram College in the industrial city of Muzaffarnagar in northern India, where students looked at opportunities to solve long-standing issues at the local sugar mills.

One group of students noticed that a key part of the sugarmaking process—crystallization—was overseen by a single person, who was simply “eyeballing” the crystals to see if they were about the right size.

Realizing that this unscientific approach was reducing the quality and consistency of the product, the students felt that if they could come up with a better solution, it might be the foundation of a startup.

So, back at school, they set about using the skills Nair had taught them. They made a simple, but effective, gadget involving a webcam, a laptop computer, and a backlight to take pictures of the sugar cystals, and using Matlab they wrote software to evaluate the formation of the crystals. Now their system augments the opinion of the mill worker with data. And because there are many more sugar mills using the same process, they believe there is a market.

“You don’t need an MBA to be an entrepreneur,” Nair says. “All you need is the right mindset, and that’s what we’re trying to instill in young students.”