The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tag.
In this edition TCI-Changemaker spoke with Sramana Mitra, a serial entrepreneur, journalist, startup and innovation consultant and more. TC-I’s Vinay Ganti spoke with Sramana about her new book Vision India 2020, which puts forth forty-five startup concepts that could drive significant innovation within India. TC-I has also written a review of the book, available here. Sramana has also established the 1M/1M initiative, which aims to help 1 million entrepreneurs achieve $1 million in revenue.
What prompted you to write this book?
Writing Vision India 2020 is something that has been a long time coming for me. After completing my degrees here in the United States, I wanted to return to India in 1995 to pursue my first startup but I quickly found that the country was not very entrepreneur friendly. It seemed as though the only industry you could be successful in was outsourcing. While outsourcing has been very successful for India, it was not the type of startup I wanted to build, and as I have written in the past I do not believe that on its own it can sustain India’s growth.
Ever since then and even prior I have been fascinated with ideas on how both India could unlock its true potential and how the rest of the global economy could capitalize on India’s strengths. (For a more in depth understanding of Sramana’s opinions on India’s innovation gap, you can check out her multi-part series on the issue on her blog). This book has been an ongoing work in progress — a synthesis of pages of notes, thoughts and ideas that have come to me throughout my travels around the world.
What sort of effect are you hoping this book will have?
I actually wrote this book from a regionally agnostic point of view and was less concerned with the origin of the innovative ideas themselves, and more focused on how such innovative ideas could leverage India’s strengths. I wanted to trigger the imaginations of people who may be in a position to incite massive change. I have pushed hard to get this book on the desks of key policymakers, including chief economic advisors within the Indian government, and am trying to get it into the hands of as many important people as possible.
My experience and travels have informed me that the solution for India’s challenges lies in entrepreneurship. The book addresses areas such as healthcare and infrastructure, sectors usually relegated to the public sector, but I believe there are substantial opportunities for entrepreneurs to address these problems with scale and profit.
Can you speak further to the stylistic approach you choose? In particular, the essays are all written in first person and utilize what you term as ‘futuristic retrospectives’ — taking it as if you are writing from the year 2020 looking back on hypothetical success stories.
I am a big believer in the power of narrative in changing people’s minds and perspectives. So I chose to write the book in the first person, because I believed there needed to be a personal character to the book which held the stories all together. The appeal of an enduring protagonist is important. I also took great pains to keep things accurate despite the approach of looking back from the future. All of the people referenced throughout the book are real people from my network that could be tapped into. In this way I wanted to provide a rich universe of people and ideas that show readers what is really possible. To be blunt, this book should open up doors to new entrepreneurs and innovators who I can hopefully work with and help achieve their goals. Anyone interested in helping out with this initiative, we are offering internships allowing them to work closely with entrepreneurs and help build this goal for 1 million entrepreneurs.
One of the interesting trends I noticed was that many of the schools and key people you would bring on board for ventures came from Western institutions of higher learning. Do you feel as though this may rub Indian schools the wrong way?
It is true that India has developed incredibly strong undergraduate programs. However, with regard to robust graduate, e.g. masters and doctorate, engineering programs, the country still lacks the necessary infrastructure to support a robust climate of innovation. Much of the innovation that needs to be done will require significant amounts of research on the part of the entrepreneur and many solutions to complex problems cannot be discovered without such research. Obviously it is easy to highlight Facebook or Twitter and claim that such institutions are not needed for innovation, but that misses the point that innovation must come from a variety of different sources and one of those must be academic research.