How this Haryana institute is giving wings to Tibetan refugees’ entrepreneurship dreams
Tsering Norbu’s life seems straight out of the movies. Now 24-year-old, he tried to escape from Tibet at the tender age of 10 but was caught by the Chinese authorities and jailed for a month. Two years later, on his second attempt, he successfully made his way to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, India, where the Tibetan government in exile - the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) - is headquartered.
Tsering made his way out of Tibet on foot, in harsh winter conditions when Chinese authorities do not monitor the borders as stringently. He crossed over to Nepal, from where he was guided to Dharamsala by CTA representatives. “There is a Tibetan reception centre in Nepal funded by the United Nations. That is where I first went,” Tsering reminisces.
A little more than a decade later, Tsering has his own ecommerce fashion startup palnor.com, which sells clothes, accessories, and bedding that are a mix of traditional Tibetan and modern fashion.
The young Tibetan entrepreneur is also looking at marrying technology and fashion with his startup but is reticent about details since it is still in the ideation stage.
“There is a lot of scope for innovation at the junction where fashion meets technology. So, we are exploring the various intersections of fashion and nanotechnology, fashion and AI, and fashion and IoT to come up with new innovative products,” he says.
After the CTA took him in, Tsering completed his education from Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCV) Suja school in Mandi, a branch of an integrated community in exile for the care and education of orphans, destitutes, and refugee children from Tibet. He went on to study computer science engineering at Manipal Institute of Technology.
He soon realised that he wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. His dream was given wings last year in August at the Jindal Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship (JSiE). The centre, a part of the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, in 2015 launched a programme in partnership with the CTA to support Tibetan entrepreneurship across India.
“Attending JSiE’s incubation programme and business empowerment sessions is like getting your tap water purified in a water filtration plant,” Tsering says.
Addressing the unemployment issue
Jeremy Wade, Founding Director, Jindal Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, OP Jindal Global University, says unemployment has been a problem with Tibetan community in India and the CTA believed that such a programme would help address the issue.
Each year, four to six Tibetan entrepreneurs are selected by the CTA’s Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development (TED) initiative to attend a five-week pre-incubation programme at the JSiE centre in Haryana. The candidates are either at an idea stage or have limited experience in entrepreneurship, Jeremy says.
Tenzin Rigthen, 28, is part of JSiE’s first batch in 2015, and now runs a successful restaurant Tenzin Kitchen in Bengaluru’s Koramangala area.
Speaking of his experience, Tenzin says, “Before I attended JSiE’s incubation programme, I was just in a business ideation stage. At the centre, my idea become a precise and goal-oriented business model, which is now a successful restaurant.” He is now planning to expand his business with more outlets.
TED’s Executive Programme Officer Tenzin Wangyal says, "Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development (TED) is one of the important initiatives of the CTA. It aims to provide end-to-end business development support to Tibetan entrepreneurs. Our vision is to transform the Tibetan community in exile to become economically sustainable and self-reliant through our role as mobiliser of the Tibetan entrepreneurial spirit so they can partake in national and global opportunities and contribute to the community’s economic wellbeing."
The programme will enter its fifth year in 2019, and 20 entrepreneurs have been a part of it till now. “The age group of the candidates is between 20-40 years,” Jeremy says.
Speaking about the scope of the programme, he says, “While communication and pitching is one aspect, we also help them in business planning, business modelling, and lean startup methodology, while testing their assumptions. The entrepreneurs are taught how to create a marketplace quickly, book-keeping, financial aspects, marketing, digital smarts etc. We also guide them on legal aspects and help them prepare a legal entity for their startups.”
The programme is conducted by OP Jindal’s faculty, external mentors, and established entrepreneurs. Afterwards, the graduating class pitches to the CTA in Dharamsala for a Rs 3 lakh grant, which is like an early seed capital. The success rate of getting the grant has been nearly 100 percent, Jeremy says.
Why the Tibetan community?
Firstly, it had to do with timing, Jeremy says. “The CTA was starting a programme to encourage entrepreneurship around the same time we were setting up our centre. Our mission was growing the number of incubators at that time. Our vision was to focus on inclusive entrepreneurship and focus on a community that would not have the typical resources,” he says.
And secondly, the OP Jindal University had a connection with the CTA, he says. “The Tibetan prime minister-in-exile (his title changed to ruler or regent in 2012) Lobsang Sangay and the university’s Vice Chancellor, C Raj Kumar, were batch mates at Harvard Law School. He had visited our campus. The university had started to and still offers scholarships to Tibetan students. We had also started doing training programmes for CTA officials.”
Interestingly, despite the Tibetan community having been in India for 60 years, the government only recognises them as “foreigners”, and not as refugees. This is owing to the fact that India is one of the few liberal democracies that did not sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which defines refugees and makes states accountable for their wellbeing.
According to government data, the Tibetan population in India has, over the last seven years, dropped 44 percent to 85,000 from 1,50,000 in 2011.
The road ahead
According to Jeremy, the future will be for the CTA to run the programme in-house. “They have acquired space in Dharamsala and a centre will be set up there. CTA officials will conduct the programme. We will continue mentoring and visiting the centre,” he says.
The format will continue to be a five-week pre-incubation programme. JSiE will lend support to the entrepreneurs by helping them find mentors, investors, and in scaling.
A helping hand
According to the UNHCR, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. They include nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
JSiE is also keen to help other refugee communities in becoming self-sustainable by taking up entrepreneurship.
Jeremy says, “The refugee population around the world is growing. We met with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in Delhi recently. We have had learnings working with the Tibetan refugee community that we can share and apply to other refugee communities in South Asia, Asia, and the rest of the world.”