Training entrepreneurs to transform India

Photo caption: An Indian farmer talks on his mobile phone as he rests on a pile of mangoes at the Gaddiannaram fruit market in Kothapet, located in the outskirts of Hyderabad, on April 18, 2009. (Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — In 2004, Saloni Malhotra was fresh out college when she heard Ashok Jhunjhunwala, an Indian Institute of Technology professor, speak passionately at a conference about helping entrepreneurs empower rural India with technology.

Inspired, Malhotra dashed off an email to Jhunjhunwala, who heads TeNet, an infotech incubator at the Chennai branch of the IITs. She proposed a rural healthcare business. “He replied immediately giving me some names of people to connect with,” she said.

Jhunjhunwala started TeNet with fellow IIT professors Bhaskar Ramamoorthy and Timothy Gonsalves to encourage students and alumni to become entrepreneurs, specifically in areas of technology. Since 1994, TeNet has incubated around 30 companies with funding from a variety of sources including government grants, industry grants and royalties from companies it has helped get off the ground.

Jhunjhunwala admired Malhotra's persistence. “Most times they don't have a clue,” he said in a recent interview, referring to potential entrepreneurs. Jhunjhunwala said he even tests potential entrepreneurial candidates by throwing them out of his office, to see if they are committed enough to keep trying.

“You're trying to be an entrepreneur in an underprivileged rural market. This is a double whammy. One wants to see if they persist,” said Jhunjhunwala, who was dressed casually in clean, rumpled clothes.

Malhotra's persistence may have won him over, but her idea did not. “If you start doing something with health care your hair will go white,” Jhunjhunwala told her. Instead he proposed she look into rural business outsourcing. After researching the idea for five months and convincing Jhunjhunwala she had a solid plan, Malhotra, now 28, joined TeNet in 2005.

Her company, DesiCrew, started operating in 2007 in one village in the state of Tamil Nadu. Now it has expanded to six centers in rural Tamil Nadu and has trained 300 villagers for free. Recently, the company broke even.

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DesiCrew employs and trains people to meet the back office demands of clients in sectors like insurance, internet and e-governance. Its services include project management, beta testing of web products, data entry and web site monitoring. 

Once Jhunjhunwala decides to mentor and incubate a project, the entrepreneur is “essentially thrown into the field” so they can learn themselves. Hand-holding can only go so far, he says.

“When a DesiCrew sets up its operations centers in villages, the work is done in the villages ... for an order for someone in the city,” he said.

Jhunjhunwala's own work began in urban India. Benchmark Systems, the first company he helped build in the 1980s, made cheap computer terminals that could access mainframe computers and designed a fiber-optic educator kit that is still used in laboratories today. Benchmark is now a significant player in providing technology solutions for business and industry.

TeNet took off after Jhunjhunwala, Gonsalves and Ramamoorthy decided that India needed 100 million telephones, not just the 6 million it had then. They decided that the only way to do it was to make wireless telephones profitable.

“We made a list of nine students,” said Jhunjhunwala. “We said if we can get five of them, we can probably take up this project. We went around the country to meet them and fortunately all nine of them decided to join us,” he said.

Midas Communications Technologies was formed and later went on to launch TeNet. Midas' main innovation is a wireless telecommunications product called "corDECT," which uses wireless technology to provide telephone connections for rural India at half the ordinary installation cost. Midas has deployed corDECT in almost a dozen countries in Southeast Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America.

“In the late 1990s we realized, 'Yes, wireless is happening. Telecom in India is happening. But it is all in urban India.' It wasn't happening in rural India because it made no business sense at that time. We said we will make telecom happen in rural India,” Jhunjhunwala said.

Rural ventures have to make business sense in order to make a difference, he said so "we have to make products that are affordable."

“Our objective is to transform the country,” he said, emphatically. “Being an entrepreneur is donkey work with no rewards. It's a very harsh situation for some time until you start succeeding.”

The grandchild of a Gandhian, Jhunjhunwala is a paradoxiocal figure. He was also influenced by the Naxalite movement — an armed, often-violent uprising to redistribute land to the landless — of the 1970s when he was studying to be an engineer.

“They [Naxalites] brought the reality of rural India in front of us and the need for its transformation. They influenced us,” he said.

Jhunjhunwala wasn't initially clear on how that transformation should happen, he said. But when he returned to India after going to graduate school at the University of Maine, he knew the answer was entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship is the best way to transform India," he said, adding that India's rural areas are “where large deprivation exists and if India has to be transformed that has to be transformed.”