Dr. Romesh Wadhwani’s success story is the kind most Indians dream of. Listed as #612 on the ‘billionaires of the world (2016)’ list by Forbes, Wadhwani is Chairman and CEO of Symphony Technology Group (STG), a strategic private equity firm that partners with companies to build software, and provide Internet and technology-enabled services, with an annual revenue of $3 billion.
Wadhwani is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and Carnegie Mellon University. He was conferred with the 2013 Forbes India ‘Non-Resident Philanthropist Award’. He sits on the boards of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Washington, D.C.
The sharp businessman, entrepreneur, and well-known philanthropist founded The Wadhwani Foundation in 2000 with the chief aim to accelerate economic development in emerging economies through large-scale job creation. Currently, the Foundation’s footprints are in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
Wadhwani’s net worth as per Forbes is $2.8 billion. In July 2015, Wadhwani announced plans to commit up to $1 billion to the Wadhwani Foundation to create 25 million jobs in India by 2020, through entrepreneurship and skill development. This aligns with the Foundation’s mission and supports government initiatives like the ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’ and ‘Start-up India’ campaigns. The Foundation claims that its expansion will enable more than 5,00,000 new entrepreneurs and 1,000,000 MSMEs in India.
Dr. Ajay Kela is the President & CEO of the Wadhwani Foundation. With 30 years of experience managing global software businesses under his belt, Ajay came on board the Wadhwani Foundation in 2009, full time. Ajay now spearheads the Foundation’s initiatives across the globe. Ajay is an alumnus of IIT Bombay and the University of Rochester.
“The desire to transform lives by enabling the less privileged to attain high-quality jobs has been a constant nag after having personally experienced such a transformation in my own life. When the opportunity arose to potentially transform millions of lives, it was a no-brainer. The kick you get from changing lives, far exceeds any incremental wealth accumulation opportunity”, says Ajay.
Ajay shares his thoughts on the Wadhwani Foundation’s initiatives, entrepreneurship in India, challenges, and the growth accelerators needed to unleash the true potential that India holds.
To drive the vision, the Foundation laid out five initiatives that would give the required impetus through innovation, entrepreneurship, and skill development. It operates in association with governments, corporates, and educational institutes.
National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) inspires, educates, and supports student entrepreneurs, startups, and SMEs for creating high-value jobs. Ajay says that NENhas trained over 3,000 faculty across 500 institutes, who now regularly offer entrepreneurship courses to more than 100,000 students, annually. Coupled with classroom education, providing hands-on support through 400 student clubs to aspiring entrepreneurs has resulted in over 2,000 startups to-date.
Skills Development Network (SDN) aims to equip non-college-bound high-school graduates with sufficient work-skills to earn Rs 12,000-15,000 per month and above to support their families. Today, SDN works across 1,400 high schools and with over 100,000 students, and is embarking on scaling this to 15,000 schools over the next three-five years, in partnership with the Indian government. SDN is working with the Central and state governments to transform ITIs to modern manufacturing training hubs and multi-skill institutes.
Opportunity Network for Disabled (OND) mainstreams the educated disabled into sustainable high-quality corporate jobs through a business value proposition. According to Ajay, 8,000 people have been placed through this initiative and OND, in partnership with the government and industry, is building capacity to place 100,000 over the next five years with the ultimate goal of corporates recognising the business value of hiring and mainstreaming the disabled.
Research and Innovation Network (RIN) aims to create a world-class innovation ecosystem in India with the goal of propelling India towards the top ten innovative nations in the world. The Wadhwani Research Centre for Biotechnology (WRCB) at IIT Bombay and Shanta Wadhwani Centre for Cardiac and Neural Research (SWCCNR) at NCBS, Bengaluru, are the two pioneer centres setup by RIN. The Start-up and Small Business Innovation (SSBI) initiative aims to create national ecosystems in critical and sectors of high importance.
Policy Research Centre provides data-driven research inputs for informed policy action towards accelerating economic growth. PRC has assessed the performance of two of India’s most comprehensive and largest programmes initiated by the Department of Biotechnology and administered by Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) – SBIRI and BIPP. Ajay adds, “The assessment has led to evidence-based recommendations for policymakers to improve impact and scale of innovation programmes in small- and medium-scale industries. The Foundation envisions creating partnerships with various central government organisations to initiate innovation grants to 25,000 companies over five years as part of the SSBI Initiative.”
Ajay says that high-potential entrepreneurship that drives jobs at scale is borne out of a culture of innovation and risk-taking. He adds that while Indians excel at jugaad, they shy away from world-class innovation and are generally risk-averse.
The good news is that there has been a drastic change in that especially with the best brains from prestigious institutes in the country choosing entrepreneurship and joining startups over the conventional and lucrative desk jobs. In 2015, 5,000 new startups emerged and collectively created ~80,000 jobs. Ajay adds, “India is adding seven to eight million people a year to the workforce and given 70 per cent of all jobs, globally, were created by startups and SMEs, our challenge is to scale this mindset and culture pronto.”
India is often quoted as the land with demographic dividend, but it is also a country where every single day, thousands of problems are screaming for a better solution. Ajay says that the solution lies in India creating multiple Silicon Valley style entrepreneurial ecosystems that support the full lifecycle of entrepreneurs, who in turn can produce innovative local and national solutions. He stresses on the solution, which also adds to the challenge,
Such an ecosystem should include colleges that emphasise entrepreneurship education and a local network of mentors, investors, and incubators that an entrepreneur can tap into on demand. Nurturing and building such ecosystems through community networks, local businesses, and government partnerships is also a key challenge for the country.
He says that the Foundation has developed a tried and tested model for job creation and job fulfillment, and now needs to scale it pan India. He details two major challenges – building national-level capacity and flawless execution in a very diverse national environment and culture. The Foundation’s strategy to overcome the first challenge is to leverage technology, build networks, and deeply engage with the government. To manoeuvre the second challenge, they are working to create a few diverse “role-model” Indian states for job creation and top talent acquisition with the goal of producing working prototypes and playbooks that other states can replicate.
‘Startup India’ has brought startups centre stage even within government circles and policymakers. On a parting note, Ajay shares his thoughts on how India can reprise its lost glory,
“The slew of policy announcements such as registration through mobile app, Fund of Funds, friendly tax regime for startups, etc., are directionally brilliant, but need some tweaks, such as extending tax-holidays beyond the first three years as most startups are barely profitable during the first three to five years. Government attention and support has the power to pave the way for creating many Silicon Valleys in India, boosting economic growth and creating millions of jobs.