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Training entrepreneurs to transform India

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

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.”