In the days of the big bad USSR and the Eastern Block, come Olympics time or in the immediate days thereafter, we always heard how the East Germans catch girls real young – “catch’em real young!” and make kids medal winning automatons, in gymnastics, ice-skating, swimming, diving …
Something like this may be happening in the so-called Deemed Universities (University under section 3 of the UGC Act, 1956) that dot the national landscape, and more densely in Tamil Nadu. I would venture a guess that is becoming a selling point of all these “educational” institutions, particularly in engineering. The irony is with everyone following everyone else, no one has a USP! And it is like snake eating its own tail!
How young is young? I teach first year engineering students and I regularly get interrupted by other students who are active in extracurricular activities coming in to make announcements about some club or the other, a meeting, a contest etc.
Lo and behold, one of these announcements is about start-ups, technology incubators and about entrepreneurship! That is how young!
Yes, I know Bill Gates did not finish college. Steve Jobs was a failure in academics. So, the argument goes, university freshmen are not too young, are not green horns. Is that so?
The way I see it, Indian first year college students, at least the ones I come across, treat college as an extension of high school, such slaves to their habits. They finished high school merely by exercising their highly developed powers of memorization (think state board exams and even CBSE save the HOT segment). They think that will serve them well in college. What is worse, teachers themselves are not averse to aligning themselves with the students along these lines (makes their lives easy). Yes, there are exceptions and clubs and groups I had mentioned earlier may even lead to success in stray cases. However, is that a sustainable model?
Is that the environment that would produce a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs? I think not. The start-up eco-sphere is not merely not developed, it is rather unrecognized, unacknowledged.
Let me come to entrepreneurship. Do people recognize that start-up culture and entrepreneurship go hand in hand with an aptitude for daring, for risk taking? In the US and possibly in other western countries too, failure is not a mark of shame. It indeed is the opposite. People are proud to recount their failures, to be sure, after they achieve a level of success. A battle scar that proclaims valor.
This I learned in 1979 when I spent more than 10 days with a family in Florida. He was a successful home builder in a small community, Dade City. He told me about how he came to be what he was. He had tried his hand at selling insurance (Yuk!), being a commercial pilot, small time and a few other jobs before he chanced on his calling. There was not a hint of shame as he told me all this.
Imagine an Indian doing likewise. Fat chance!
The basic point is, unless our society accepts, indeed recognizes failure as a part of growing up, a stepping stone to success, start-ups are not going to blossom readily. Entrepreneurship will languish where it is; Mariana Trench?