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A professor takes it upon himself to empower young businessmen to make the most of rural 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.