Entrepreneurship is the Only Way to Find Solutions to Problems Existing in India
Unless you live, breath with your customers, you cannot build companies, Says Dr. Deshpande
A humble upbringing in a simple and small town of Karnataka and having seen parents work at regular government organizations, entrepreneurship and venture capitalist skills were not something Dr. Gururaj Deshpande’s genes naturally contained. However, this did not prohibit him from carving an entrepreneurial career of over three decades and nurture a string of start-ups at his incubation centers.
Gururaj Deshpande is the President and Chairman of Sparta Group LLC, a family investment office, and is also the Chairman of Tejas Networks. He has been involved either as the founder, a founding investor or chairman of several companies including Cascade Communications, Sycamore Networks, Coral Networks, Tejas Networks, Cimaron, Webdialogs, Airvana, Sandstone Capital, A123 Systems and Curata. Dr. Deshpande, who lives in Boston, serves as a lifemember of the MIT Corporation, and his support has made possible MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Leveraging the experience gained at the MIT Center, the Deshpande Foundation has facilitated the set up of three other centers; Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship in India, Merrimack Valley Sandbox in Lowell/Lawrence Massachusetts and Pond-Deshpande Center at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
Starting from scratch
Dr. Deshpande said that like most entrepreneurial journeys, he too followed the naïve route of a young couple with a kid moving into a new city with an intention of starting a new company. His wife, Jaishree Deshpande, who is also the Treasurer of Sparta Group LLC, and a founder of the Deshpande Foundation, did not have a smooth start as well. They together saved enough so that they could survive a year without a regular salary and
lead a simple life. “Initially, our peers would not understand why we did all these things. Jaishree had her job and
we had two little kids to support. Those days venture capital was a very new concept and most of them would have $20 million or so in fund size. Before writing a cheque to a stranger, they made sure that the entrepreneur was really committed to his mission,” he said.
The need for sustainable start-ups in India
Talking about the necessity of having an entrepreneurial culture in India, Dr. Deshpande said that entrepreneurship is the only way to bring solutions. “Coming from the product side of the business, for me the big push was to use technology to solve problems in India. That’s a captive opportunity in India. A lot of international entrepreneurs are interested in solving these problems, but have not been successful,” he said. “Unless you live, breath with your customers, you can’t build companies. There is a big opportunity in using technology in solving problems within India for tier 2, tier 3 cities and rural areas,” he adds. Dr. Deshpande asserted on the fact that even though we have plenty of start-ups based in Bangalore, trying to find solutions to problems in rural and tier
2 and 3 towns, it’s important for these firms to stay closer to their actual customers.
Started as the Entrepreneur in Residences (EIR) Program in 2008, the business incubator later re-launched the program as the brand Sandbox Startups in 2014. Sandbox Startups creates an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, supporting ideas, mentoring and supporting over 50 start-ups so far. The program also provides networking opportunities, access to funding, a coworking space and incubation support to tier 2 and 3 city start-ups so that they can match up to the likes of start-ups belonging to bigger cities across India. Talking about the Sandbox initiative, Dr. Deshpande said that the idea of this program is to create a Silicon Valley atmosphere but focusing more on social entrepreneurs.
Located at the heart of his hometown Hubli, Sandbox takes five districts and hone local students to solve problems as entrepreneurs or take up professional jobs. Entrepreneurs honed at Sandbox, who have a sense of familiarity with the people, are able to articulate with the local folks and at the same time collaborate with MIT to help solve existing problems.
The opportunity for Indian entrepreneurs
Dr. Deshpande, who had co-chaired a National Council to support former U.S. President Barrack Obama’s innovation and entrepreneurship strategy, believes that people who can solve the problems and build profitable companies are the people who have both the sides – technology expertise and also the customer base. “That’s something where India shines, because India has 800 million people who belong to the bottom five billion category, hence we have a huge customer base. Moreove, about one per cent of our population, which about 12 million people, are globally competent! For example, you have problems in countries like Africa but you don’t have those 12 million people out there to solve that problem. For the first time, India is seeing this confluence of people, which did not exist back in 1970,” Dr. Deshpande said.
Is India nurturing the right entrepreneurs?
While comparing the entrepreneurial culture in India versus the west, Dr. Deshpande said that Indians usually
don’t have a good sense of quality of process. Somehow, India seems to do extremely well in crisis management.
Unfortunately, the country does not solve a problem unless it becomes a crisis. Indian entrepreneurs need to
learn to become better organized and learn better processes with a little of strategic view because one cannot grow under crisis mode, he adds.
(The article was published in the March issue of Entrepreneur India Magazine 2017)