This is a interview of Suhas Gopinath who is one of the speakers at the St Gallen Symposium 2010. He speaks to Lasse Stünitz & Johannes Berchtold about entrepreneurship and his journey.
Suhas Gopinath (IN) is Chief Executive Officer and President of Globals Inc., a multinational company providing IT solutions. He was denominated as the world’s youngest CEO by leading medias across the globe. He received his Diploma on global leadership from the Harvard Kennedy School.
You have been an entrepreneur from a very early age, what is your definition of an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur is someone who accepts risks and, at the same time, is able to exhibit leadership spirit. Entrepreneurship is all about an adventure where you are sure to face setbacks. And an entrepreneur is somebody who knows how to overcome setbacks and sees any hurdles encountered as an opportunity for his business.
In your opinion, what does it take to be an entrepreneur?
One of the main qualities of an entrepreneur is just authentic leadership. You also need a strong vision for your own enterprise. An entrepreneur is not somebody who is looking for short-term success, but rather someone who is able to pursue a long-term vision for himself and his stakeholders. I think one of my major motivations to become an entrepreneur was the fact that I was able to offer employment opportunities to others. Especially coming from India where you see that unemployment is one of the major setbacks to our economy.
When was the first time that you actually realised that you were an entrepreneur?
You know, when I actually started, the funny thing was that I was not aware that I was actually an entrepreneur and I had not even heard of the word entrepreneur. At one point I felt that, if you are alone, people will not take you very seriously, but if you are a member of a team, people will actually accept you. So I thought that if I formed a small team and started my own organisation, we could formalise the setup. I think it was at the age of 15 that I realised that I was into entrepreneurship and I felt that I had already started my entrepreneurial career.
It certainly matters what you do and, in fact, how you do it, especially when you are a first-time entrepreneur and your family is not involved in business. And you have no guiding light there, so you have nobody to act as a pilot or mentor you, and this is when you start learning on your own. The first thing I learned as an entrepreneur was that if I or my company suffer any setback, I always have to look at it as an opportunity. I am always evaluating the opportunities around me.
So how do you deal with setbacks?
When I started at a very early age, I faced a lot of setbacks, especially because I was underage. In my case, therefore, it was actually very hard for people to take me really seriously. I do not think we should underestimate anyone because of their economic status or age. I used to offer my services free of charge, and this enabled me to showcase my skills. Aside from this, I did have some other setbacks at a later stage. I was not allowed to sign agreements or papers.
In your opinion, can entrepreneurship be learned? There is a huge variety of business schools out there, but you are, ultimately, the best example that entrepreneurship has more to do with learning by doing than by attending classes?
The main qualities of an entrepreneur cannot, in my opinion, be taught at any school or university, because it is more of a self-learning process and an experience in itself. I therefore think that that which we learn in business schools or at universities can, at most, only act as a facilitator. Because, for example, I might not have any knowledge of finances or human resources. You could learn these managing skills at universities, but you cannot learn entrepreneurship itself.
Where do you see the most important challenges facing the next generation of entrepreneurs?
I think it is essential for the next generation of entrepreneurs to be more innovative, because I can see a deterioration in the level of innovation. I see many entrepreneurs who are not innovative but actually replicating ideas that already exist. I therefore think the biggest challenge for us will certainly be innovation. The second one is for us to set up ethical and value-based enterprises, because you really do not want a repeat of this economic recession which originated in 2008 and 2009.
What will be your message to the young people that will attend the symposium?
I think my message to my fellow youth, the students, is that even if they want to be an employer or an entrepreneur, they need to have an entrepreneurial spirit at the end of the day, irrespective of if they own this company or not. I mean, entrepreneurship is not only about owning a company. It is also about seeing how much value we can add to our books and, at the same time, how we are able to use our leadership spirit to help others.
That means anyone can be an entrepreneur, doesn’t it?
I think that anyone could be an entrepreneur. Obviously, you need to feel a passion for independence. If you don’t feel any passion and you look up to Bill Gates and say: “so if he can be an entrepreneur, I can be entrepreneur”, you are, of course, right in one way, but if you don’t feel passion within yourself and you haven’t got your own focus, I don’t think you can be a successful entrepreneur. I am convinced that anyone can be an entrepreneur, because when I started off in India at the age of 13, all my family members were against the fact that I wanted to opt to be an entrepreneur.
Everyone was apprehensive because of the fact that I didn’t have work experience or had not been to university and didn’t complete an MBA. They were very sceptical about my success. They felt that, should he fail, he won’t even have a job, and he won’t be able to manage his company because he hasn’t got the experience. So I think that you need the right mindset to be an entrepreneur. You don’t need a very strong academic or financial background or work experience. If you believe in your own ideas and visions you will be able to acquire these skills on your own.
Interview by Lasse Stünitz & Johannes Berchtold