[Book Review] The Captainship: First Gen Entrepreneurs

Edited by Anya Gupta, illustrated by Anitha Balachandran
2013 Bloomsbury India (Amazon: http://www.amazon.in/The-Captainship-First-gen-Entrepreneurs-ebook/dp/B00CRKPUWO)
9 chapters, 164 pages

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The Captainship is a collection of first-person narratives of nine first-generation Indian entrepreneurs. The title The Captainship is inspired by the famous line from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus: ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’

A related book I must recommend is “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” by Tony Wagner (see my book review and author interview).

The Captainship is edited by Anya Gupta, an MIT Sloan graduate, and illustrated by Anitha Balachandran. The material is crisply edited and the painted illustrations add an imaginative texture to the material.

The website of the book offers a few paragraphs of each chapter, but could be doing much more in terms of forums, videos and interactive features – especially since the book ends with the provocative words “Join the movement.” The autobiographical series does seem to be continuing on the Web (eg. the narration to Anya Gupta by YourStory.in founder Shradha Sharma is now online).

The chapters are not case studies of each startup, but reflections on the childhood and early memories of these entrepreneurs. There are no checklists or tables of recommendations, but readers are invited to draw their own conclusions on what effects childhood has on entrepreneurs, and how readers can themselves interpret or draw on their own experiences in life.

The nine featured entrepreneurs are: Sanjeev Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO of Indian BPO firm Daksh; Subroto Bagchi, co-founder and chairman of IT services and consultancy firm Mindtree; Girish Batra, founder, chairman and managing director of financial services firm NetAmbit; Sanjeev Bikhchandani, founder and executive vice chairman, Info Edge (Naukri.com); Ashish Dhawan, co-founder of private equity firm ChrysCapital and K-12 NGO fund Central Square Foundation; Dr Ashish Gupta, co-founder, Tavant Technologies and Junglee (bought by Amazon); Zia Mody, founder and senior partner, AZB & Partners; Satya Narayanan, founder of education service firm Career Launcher; and Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of mobile VAS firm One97 Communications.

The book captures the simple background of most of these entrepreneurs, the ups and downs of their childhood, decision forks in their education and hobbies, the Indian games they played (such as gulli danda and langri tang), sacrifices made by their family members, the birth of the values and ethics which shaped their future lives, and even the names of pets and events which went on to become the names of their founded companies. For instance, some of them were excellent in sports as well, and others dabbled in poetry. Some experienced violence in their families, others saw parents falling victim to mental illnesses.

Satya Narayanan reflects on his family background and mottos while growing up in Andhra Pradesh: Deny yourself so that tomorrow is better. The escape from scarcity is success. Strength comes from what you are driven by, and not balance sheets and bank accounts. Older guys must get out of the children’s way.

Subroto Bagchi was deeply shaken by his father’s bipolar disorder, which was treated in those days by tying him up and administering electric shocks. “Your life is just a means of delivering something to others before saying goodbye. We need optimism to create the uncreated. And optimism must be led by a sense of control or self-ownership,” says Bagachi.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma reflects on the ups and downs of education with good and negligent teachers. He regrets the existence of domestic violence against women in India, which he witnessed as a child. At the same time, he imbibed values from his father such as ethical opposition to bribery. Vijay also discusses the pros and cons of accepting money from family members while starting up his venture One97. Some amount of hurt in life may eventually end up in giving positive energy later, observes Vijay.

Zia Mody (the only woman featured in the book), reflects on her mother as ‘ogre taskmistress’ during school years. Her Bahai upbringing gave her a broad perspective and respect for the condition of women. Her education in the UK and US exposed her to new styles of inquiry and debate. Work life balance is a challenge for entrepreneurs: work is life is work. Her values at home were: never lie, never cheat, never climb over somebody else to achieve things.

Sanjeev Aggarwal jokes about how being the youngest in the family gave him three siblings who looked after him, an ‘unfair advantage in life!’ His parents moved to India after the 1947 partition. His father would recite poetry to calm the children down if they fought. Sanjeev says he draws his business savvy and leadership skills from his mother, which helped him build good skills in judging people’s character before hiring them. He was a drifter in his early career before strengthening his focus; on the home front he had solid support from his wife, to whom he ‘outsourced’ the disciplining of his kids.

Girish Batra also came from a family who migrated to India after partition. Studies were important and ‘non-negotiable’ with his father. Girish was plump, wore specs and had a stammer; he later picked up confidence in public speaking after his IIMA days. His experience with Godrej led him to respect integrity standards in his own company as well, along with notions of fair pay. Not happy with the continuous transfers of his father’s job, Girish decided to take control of his life and start his own company.

Ashish Dhawan has memories of the blackouts during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. His mother helped keep up his competitive edge in school. Local community activities such as newspaper recycling helped build skills like persuasion and teamwork. The name of his school festival -  Chrysalis – eventually found its way into his own investment fund. In school he taught junior students. His college years in the US exposed him to its unique strengths in meritocracy, startup culture, free speech and equitable society (but also to some of its corporate greed in the financial sector).

Ashish Dhawan reflects on his aunts who would happily give him a piece of their mind or a tight slap if things were not done properly. His father read about all religions; he respected principles but not too many rules. Ashish has come to respect the process of education as much as the end result. Scarcity may actually have value by building a deeper sense of appreciation of what you have. The Indian education system should focus on helping students identify problems and not just solve them. Indians should focus more on environmental sustainability and less on ‘romanticising chaos.’ India is now lucky because it has so many entrepreneurs asking the important questions and answering them, says Ashish.

Sanjeev Bikhchandani’s family came from an era when the father had only one job his whole life. He reflects on the advantages of convent education, where each student is treated the same; today the quota system is not keeping up with meritocracy standards. Indian history books are not written in an engaging manner, and only focus on memorisation, Sanjeev recalls. His years at Lintas led him to recreate its smart hardworking culture in Naukri.com. Diversity of student mix is important in management education, but it is too engineering-centric these days.

“The goal of every good school should be to produce a fair number of misfits, because that is what entrepreneurs are,” he advises. Entrepreneurs should also be responsible for creating other entrepreneurs internally in their organisation, and consciously build an ‘argumentative company.’

In sum, this book is an inspiring and informative read (and can be finished in one sitting), and some of the quotes and messages are worth dipping into time and again. It particularly appeals to aspiring entrepreneurs, but also has value for established professionals and educators.

[Follow YourStory's research director Madanmohan Rao on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MadanRao]

Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao

Madanmohan Rao is research director at YourStory Media and editor of five book series (http://amzn.to/NpHAoE). His interests include creativity, innovation, knowledge management, and digital media. Madan is also a DJ and writer on world music and jazz. He can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao