#SafeIndia – hacking the way we approach women’s safety!
As featured on Inc42
For most 20-something tams (a self-made abbreviation for tamil-borns) – Rajni-Kamal-Vijay movies are a part and parcel of growing up. For us (South Indian Kids), a good movie is incomplete without the “lungi-dance” as publicized by SRK’s latest movie Chennai Express, the “kuthu-scenes” which refer to the fight scenes characterized by sparks flying from the hero’s shoes and an overall almost godly displays of sheer brilliance and strength from the hero and his sidekicks.
After spending a month as a full-time entrepreneur, I sneaked in a few hours on a Sunday to watch the popular movie “Thupaaki” by Vijay. At the end of the enjoyable three hours, I realized that a lot of things I’ve learnt about being an entrepreneur were compressed into the three-hour entertainment package.
Here are a few lessons I learn’t about Entrepreneurship – Rajnikanth Style:
TAKE SOME BIG ‘CALCULATED’ RISKS, FOR ‘BIGGER’ RETURNS
Age-old entrepreneurship idiom – you need to take some risks to be able to achieve the returns you want. Beautifully showcased in the scene when Vijay lets a terrorist escape on the day that 12 bombs were set to blast across Mumbai city (at the risk of 12 bombs blowing up Mumbai) for the “bigger” return of reaching the “mastermind” behind the operation. And his “calculated risk” ends up paying off.
DON’T STRESS IT OUT, YA!
Picture Scene: Vijay’s got a terrorist locked in his cupboard and the fate of Mumbai on his shoulders – when ‘lady love’ shows up in his room. He immediately begins to romance her and they break into a romantic dance. All while the terrorist still lies unconscious in the cupboard.
As an entrepreneur, sometimes it is easy to begin to believe that your company and product is the center of the universe – and sometimes you begin to take yourselves and life WAY too seriously. This results in lower levels of productivity and higher stress levels – which is definitely not good for your company! So remember to just sit back and take it easy sometimes.
HAVE YOUR SKIN IN THE GAME
Vijay sent his own sister in place of another girl to be kidnapped by the terrorists knowing fully well that it could result in her death. In a heart warming scene when his friend berates him for being a “cold-blooded monster” for risking the lives of five young girls for the “greater good” he informs him that one of those girls was his own sister. And that he would die trying to save them. (Which he eventually did)
In the startup scene, nobody likes it when you ask people to invest in your company when you haven’t put in your own money into it. Similarly, nobody will work full time for your company when you yourself refuse to quit your day job to work for your company. Startups are inherently such a difficult game to play – that when you keep “your options open” – success becomes an almost impossible outcome. Thus, before you ask others to put their skin in the game – have yours in the game. It will make you thirsty for success.
GIVE IT YOUR ALL
In a stunning display of patriotism, Vijay decides to sacrifice his life as part of a plan that will eventually lead to the death of the terrorist mastermind. Quote unquote, “When those people (the terrorists) are ready to give up their lives when their intent is to kill other people, then why do we (the police and army) think twice before giving up our lives when our intent is to save the lives of millions?”
No, please do not literally “die trying” – but give it your best shot to “win.” Turnarounds are always possible – even when there is seemingly “no hope.” My favorite startup turnaround is that of Fed-Ex: At its low point, all the company had was $5000 to its name, which wasn’t enough to continue operating as their planes needed fuel and that wouldn’t cover it. Mr. Smith made a final pitch to General Dynamics for more funding, but was refused. Not to be dissuaded, instead of taking a flight home, Smith took the $5000 and flew to Las Vegas and played Black Jack that weekend with the remaining company funds. By Monday, to the shock of other higher ups in the company, FedEx had $32,000 in its bank account, which was just enough to cover the fuel for their planes and to continue operating a few days more. The rest is history.
When 16 trained terrorists fight Vijay, he still wins. When they break his hand, he twists it back into working. Even when he’s captured alone on a ship by 100 odd terrorists – he still wins! No matter what happens, Vijay wins.
Vijay never shows any fear in any of his decisions – and sometimes maybe it takes a “naïve” entrepreneur who believes with full conviction that he can change the world to really change the world. When you’re a hero (and you are the hero of your story)- the odds will make sure you win. Just be fearless and persevere against the odds.
After all, like any true Bollywood/Tollywood fan would say “If its not a happy ending, the movie is not yet over!”
As background info, read about the plot of the Thuppakki movie here.
Today marks my one-month anniversary of successfully going from “student entrepreneur” to “struggling social entrepreneur.” And boy, oh boy, what a month it has been.
June 18th, 2013. A year of planning, Skype conversations and model building later, we finally arrived on ground to begin our Social Cops pilot. (I was a university student in Singapore, so I had never been to our pilot location in Delhi so far). More synced with the entrepreneurship community than most – one would have thought that the hours and hours of Stanford Startup School Videos, the hundreds of Startup books and coffee conversations with successful social entrepreneurs would have prepared me for “The Moment.” Um, yeah right.
Oh yes, there was a lot that Startup School didn’t teach me. Nothing really beats doing it on ground. And this post to meant to outline some of the important lessons we’ve learnt along the way.
Lesson 1: Bootstrapping is not just about cutting costs
Primary instincts of a bootstrapping entrepreneur are to compromise on basic things – such as the place you choose to live. Caution: Do Not Compromise on your Living Conditions. Do not downgrade your lifestyle by a great margin.
In our initial days, we lost about 15 days of productivity because we picked the wrong places to live as we tried to save a few thousand bucks… The road leading up to it was filled with flies/mosquitos/garbage; there was not enough light; there were no food options around (albeit good food options), not to mention slow Wi-Fi – to say the least.
Now, as an entrepreneur, let me tell you WHY investing in keeping yourself healthy, productive and mentally fit is a good idea:
1. You will inevitably face moments wherein you are frustrated; want to give up; throw it away. And these moments will just be accelerated if you have to fight for basic life necessities on a daily basis. For the first one week as I climbed up those dusty, depressing stairs – I used to mentally curse myself as I reminisced about my comfortable room in university campus complete with Wi-Fi, Aircon and super-awesome canteen food about a minute away. While I consoled myself that I was doing this for a bigger purpose – stray thoughts of the lifestyle I would have been living if I had taken that MNC job and the beating my life had taken from those days crept in on a daily basis. Not the best mindset to build a Million Dollar company with, huh?
2. As a startup, you will have enough battles to fight. Don’t make the basic necessities for life a fight just to save on an extra INR 10000 per month. That extra INR 10000 a month will grant your startup one extra month of life at the most. And I think we can safely say that in 6 months if you’ve not proven anything about your model – chances are that you’re not going to prove anything in the 7th month.
Similarly while sourcing for office space, make sure that you don’t compromise on the basic feel-good factors. This article provides a great summary of what a startup office actually needs.
Remember: Bootstrapping is NOT about cutting costs – instead it is about a mindset. It is about maximizing productivity and minimizing resources. But as the founder – ultimately YOUR productivity, YOUR mindset and YOUR ability to quickly adapt is what will differentiate success from failure. So don’t forget to care about yourself.
Lesson 2: Never Stop Asking for Help
Starting up is really about leveraging on everything and everything you know and have. There have been days that I’ve spent making conversation with people and reaching out to friends to source for talent. I’ve only learn’t to never ever stop asking. Sometimes, you’ll be rewarded in unexpected ways. Let me tell you an example of how: I was randomly reading through a popular news blog when I came across an article wherein the author mentioned the need for an idea such as Social Cops. Generally I ignore such references, but that day, I somehow commented on the article with a link to our website.
The author responded almost immediately with an email saying he loved what we do and that he was coming to Delhi for a major mobile governance event and that I should go too! I excitedly checked out the event website only to be disappointed to note that the ticket price was INR 3000! Not wise expenditure for a bootstrapping startup. Throwing caution to the winds (trust me, I have NEVER done this before!) – I decided to shoot out an email to the author asking if he knew of any discount codes. Guess what happened after? The author connected me directly to the organizer of the event and I ended up getting a megadiscount! So, Lesson 2: Never ever stop asking. For every 9 rejections, you’ll meet at least one person who surprises you!
Lesson 3: It is not easy, but it is going to be worth it?
Some hilarious incidents that I’ve dealt with as an “entrepreneur” include being unceremoniously thrown out of most houses while searching for a place to live – being told that, as I was neither a student nor a corporate employee I wouldn’t be given a place to stay. It took my mom, her 20 years of experience, her visiting card, my dad’s visiting card, a big corporate name, some name throwing, and a personal guarantee from mum that I wouldn’t default on rent to finally find me a place to live in.
Some other (more serious) stuff includes being frustrated with clients, things not moving as fast as you want them to and making some big decisions such as deciding to walk away from a project. You are going to go through moments of deep insecurity and confusion. There will be times that you will not know the correct answer. Because, you’re right: there are no right answers.
My best friends for the past month have been: Quora, Books (Founders at Work, The Lean Startup and Breakthrough Innovation are HIGHLY recommended). It is also highly recommended to be on friendly enough terms with at least one co-founder who has already made it work pretty well – so you can buzz them with questions. Seek out those people. They are super willing to help!
And despite all the confusion and uncertainty, there are some great highs. When you make your first presentation to a big guy! When you get great response for your pitch. When you build something and it works. When you get your first client. And, yes, you guessed right – it is these highs that keep you going.
Sometimes being a bit stubborn, naïve and believing you can change the world is what it takes. MakeMyTrip’s founder went without being paid for 3 years… that takes stubbornness. Paypal took 6 iterations before they got a business model…that takes stubbornness. And my personal favorite story is that of Deepak Ravindran from Innoz, beautifully outlined in his INK Talk here.
Which brings me to the conclusion that, maybe they are right. Maybe it is true… and maybe, just maybe, it is not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it?
As featured on Inc 42
I am an average 20-something university student from a middle class Indian family. In my final year of university, I was bitten by what they call the “startup bug.” My batch mates around me were applying for jobs feverishly. On the other hand, my co-founders and I were working on our startup idea without respite. And with the decision to not apply to jobs, came its fair share of fears and insecurities. I’ve said this a million times over – I think the most difficult part about being an entrepreneur is “deciding” to take the plunge.
Especially so when you come from the average Indian middle-class background. Most of us have seen our families struggling to meet ends and understand the importance of money and a regular paycheck. We are scared that we are throwing away the promising future we have created for ourselves in IT companies, consulting firms and investment banks by the virtue of an undergraduate ‘engineering’ degree from a good college. The risks seem too high, and it seems to be a more prudent decision to do a Masters degree and get some experience before starting up.
Personally, I went through moments of deep insecurity when I decided to take a plunge. I have made frantic phone calls to my best friends searching for support and validation, more than once. In this post, I’m detailing some of the stray evil voices that floated through my mind screaming, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it” and how I applied some logical reasoning to quiet them.
Voice 1: I need to get a safe and respectable MNC job out of college as that is what I am expected to do
Well let’s get this straight; startups are not the most “safe” investment of your time. Basically, working for someone else who promises to deliver you a paycheck every month is a much “safer option.” It is the difference between putting your money in a safe fixed deposit for a 1.5x return and gambling it in a Poker game for a 10x return.
But is this completely true? Maybe 20 years ago, an MNC job was the safest route to a comfortable lifestyle. But it’s not really the same anymore. I spent the summer working in an Investment bank, and in the 2 months I was there – 4 people in my department were laid off. (People at a vice-president level having worked in the company for at least 5+ years, nonetheless). You could be the next one to be fired, no?
Voice 2: If I fail, I will never get a job and will be poor and hungry for the rest of my life
Lets be honest, startups are a high risk- high return game. But how much of the risk really exists? Are you going to starve to death if your startup fails? Probably not.
We tend to overthink stuff – If my startup fails, and I lose all my money, and I can’t ever find another job cos’ I’ve failed in my startup, and my family will throw me out and and and.. oh, come on!
Yes, I might fail in my startup but that does not steal away from me my academic degree, my ability to work hard, and more importantly what I’ve learnt from running my own startup. So failing once is really not going to be the end of the world. (At least, I naively believe so currently!)
Voice 3: My family has survived without my income for 21 years, but now suddenly the heavens will fall apart if I don’t earn!
Now, this is tricky. A question you need to ask yourself is: does your family really need your additional income currently? Or is your income just a nice-to-have? If you’re a 20-something, chances are that this is the only time of your life for you to be as free of financial commitments. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to take the risk when you need to send two kids to school.
Also, I’m assuming that most people do want to make money off their startups. So according to your plan, when are you going to be able to make a steady enough income to sustain yourself? Multiply that time period by 2 (If you think you need a year, you probably need 2) – and ask yourself if you can afford to give yourself that time.
You could also consider working part-time/taking tuitions during your startup to at least cover for your own expenses during your startup phase if you do not want to become a liability. At Social Cops (www.socialcops.in), we raised money via various student business plan competitions to buy ourselves some time to focus on our startup full time without becoming liabilities to our parents.
Voice 4: My family will not support me, no matter what I say
This is where it is important to have a heart-to-heart with your parents – explain to them what you’re doing, show them your passion, show them your dreams. Be practical about it. Ask for support in a clear time frame (e.g. ask them to give you a year to prove yourself. If in a year, your startup is not going anywhere, promise them that you will find a job). Most importantly, show them how happy you are following your passion. Parents like it when their kids are happy J At least try to convince them before you give up! If you can’t convince your own family about what you’re doing, chances are that you won’t be able to convince anyone!
Voice 5: What will the neighbors/family friends/relatives say?
To be honest, does it really matter what your neighbors, uncles and aunts say? Neighbor aunty would do a flip if she found out about your girlfriend, but that doesn’t stop you from falling in love, no? Reality is: Everyone is bound to tell you that your business model won’t work. People will tell you that you’re going to fail. The best advice I’ve ever been given is “Stop listening to the critics. Just do your shit, and be passionate about it.”
Six months into my startup, the evil voices in my head have almost disappeared. Today, I’ve accepted the risk and the uncertainty that comes with a startup. I’ve accepted that I might fail. And somehow, this mere acceptance of what the future holds has replaced fear with a sense of conviction. I do not know what might happen in the future – but I do know that if I do not take this plunge now, I will definitely regret it when I’m 40 years old. And with the comforting thought that I am living a life without regrets, I brave on.
This post is the first in a series column where I hope to detail my thoughts and learning from the journey so far, and the journey to come. We’re starting the pilot of my startup in New Delhi, in about 4 days time and it’s an exciting time ahead. Wish us luck!
As featured on theTechpanda.com
Our 2nd grade social science textbooks are filled with images: Images of women as “teachers” and men as “professionals”, of mothers singing lullabies to the baby and fathers teaching the kids mathematics.
When I was a kid, I remember the girls being as good, if not better than the boys. We did better in tests and were always picked to be Class Prefects. Sometime around the age of 16, things began to change. Boys started doing better in class, topping our engineering entrance exams and getting the more prestigious jobs. I googled “girl topper IIT JEE” and got no results – so I’m assuming there hasn’t ever been one.
Today, the world is entering a new era and India is leading the way into the next century. Yet, as on one hand Bangalore spurs its own Silicon Valley, on the other hand -India has to battle challenges like poverty, lack of sanitation, lack of access to clean drinking water and a lack of electricity. And to tackle these challenges, we need to empower our women. Not just our educated daughters in the cities but also our uneducated, illiterate sisters in the villages of real India.
As part of Jagriti Yatra 2012- I traveled to different parts of India visiting social enterprises. And it was in the deepest trenches of rural India that I realized empowering one woman can create hope- not for just the woman, but for the entire community. Be it the rural women solar engineers setting standards for MIT in Barefoot College, Tilonia, or self-help groups such as SEWA, women were taking charge of their lives, families and communities. These rural women entrepreneurs were now sending their children to good schools, they were investing in homes and were no longer victims of the abuse.
Any household with an empowered woman seems to flourish. Yet, why do we see so very few women in entrepreneurship and business? Are we as a society programming our boys in one-way and girls in another? Are our boys growing up with the notion that it is their responsibility to be “bread winners” and girls growing up with the notion that one day “they have to give up their careers to get married anyway”?
Are those same images in our 2nd standard social science textbooks responsible for a subconscious social programming that shapes our girls in one way and boys in another?
In my personal experience, the most difficult part about being an entrepreneur is “deciding” to be an entrepreneur. Deciding to start a business is hard for the average middle class Indian. Questions plague you everyday – Is it the right thing to do, what if you fail, what about your family, what will the neighbors say? And it is in these moments that it is important to have that one person you can look up to – your sister, neighbor or friend who knows what its like to have been there.
We come from a society, which celebrates success but scoffs at failure – and the risks associated with entrepreneurship make it an incredibly unconventional option. The additional bias of being a “woman” to this stratosphere makes it virtually impossible for an average Indian girl to even consider entrepreneurship as a viable career option.
And it is this bias that we need to tackle as society. We all respect our female teachers and are thankful to our female doctors. But as a society, we are not yet comfortable with the idea of women in business. Yes, we celebrate the success of Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Indira Nooyi – but we have not yet completely ‘accepted’ the possibility of our daughters running their own businesses.
But hope lies – in the 20-something young women such as the Anu Sridharan of Nextdrop.org and Richa Kar of Zivame.com who are redefining women entrepreneurship in India and with that, dissolving societal biases surrounding young women entrepreneurs in India.
And it is time that as a society – we begin to truly “accept” women entrepreneurs. Not look at them with astonishment, not celebrate them- just completely “accept” them.
You are the message. What Inspires you is the message.
I met some people who gave me strength and inspired me to do one thing- follow my dreams. No, not Anshu Gupta and Harish Hande who are already Ashoka Fellows and are larger than life.
1. Akram Feroze
Akram has been cycling and hitchhiking India for the last 500 days. With no money, he survives by doing odd jobs and living with the locals. When I asked Akram, what is he planning to do next- he said “I plan to do this till my last breath.” Akram probably knows India better than anyone ever could. And he is happy. Follow Akram’s Facebook page at CycleNatak.
2. Fahad Yunus Mohammed
Fahad quit his job to pursue photography & filmmaking- his real passion- full time. He’s been trekking around the country and doing what he really likes doing with his life. Did I mention? He loves his life! Subscribe to Fahad on Facebook.
3. Pratik Jain
He studied commerce, but decided to pursue videography. Worked in Balaji Telefilms, did some internships in big production houses- but found it stiffling his creativity. Pratik, quit and started his own firm- IMPED productions where they make movies that matter. Check out some cool campaigns they’ve run on anti-smoking and anti-mobile-use-while-driving.
4. Shipra Agarwal
Shipra graduated from IIT Bombay and went on to work in a famous management consulting firm. She’s probably the one person whom everyone thought was ‘settled’ in Indian terms - “IIT se graduate kiya, phir beti consulting main kaam kar rahi hai – haan woh USA bhi jaati rehti hai.” But 2 years into her job, Shipra wasn’t happy. She dream’t of creating her own enterprise- and her high paying consulting job wasn’t satisfying THAT particular need. She wanted to create an ecosystem preserving arts & handicrafts among women in rural areas and connecting them to developed markets to create wealth in rural India. And so she quit. She quit the “dream” consulting job and is working on her own social enterprise to achieve her dream.
The point I’m trying to make here is that – there is no right or wrong anymore. The first realization I had in my final year of university was that I was free to do what I chose to do now- I could get married if I wanted to (I have batchmates who are getting married), I could work on my own startup, I could take a year off and travel the world, I could work in an investment bank, I could work in a technical company, I could study further, I could do research, I could become a full-time writer (I wanted to say dancer/singer et al. but with my dismal singing and dancing skills, even ever-optimistic me says that it is of no avail). And NONE OF THESE are WRONG. And suddenly that scared me. My whole life as a student- there was the ‘right’ thing to do- study hard, take science stream, get into the best engineering colleges, do good internships – and suddenly ‘the right thing to do’ wasn’t there anymore. The world was my oasis. So, nothing that you choose to do can be wrong (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!)- as long as YOU are HAPPY. As long as you are choosing for yourself and not because of what ‘society’ things.
The unfortunate truth is- being unconventional is still frowned upon by society. I still have people frowning at me when I tell them I want to start my own company and I know how hard it is when everyone around you is doing something completely different. And I realize that thanks to all the new govt. schemes and awareness campaigns and events around entrepreneurship, being an entrepreneur is still way easier than becoming a musician/photographer/dancer full time.
I’m writing this blog post to share some things and people I came across that inspired me which I hope might inspire you too. But more importantly, I’m writing this blog post selfishly- I’m writing it for myself. To capture how I feel today. Because I might not feel like this a few days, weeks and months from now. I met someone on the train who had been pretty depressed before the yatra because he hadn’t gotten placed in a certain company. The yatra made him reconsider pretty much his entire vision for what he wanted to do. In his words “This train is crazy man. People here are crazy. I just hope I feel like this even when I go back to college- where all everyone talks about are placements, MBA apps, CAT & GMAT scores etc etc.”
And its so true. I face it everyday. And at Jagriti Yatra, for the first time, I wasn’t a misfit or crazy- infact I fit right in. We were all crazy (or wanted to be crazy). And to be honest, before the yatra- I believed that I might need to go to Silicon Valley to find that environment. Luckily, turns out our very own India is beginning to create its own form of Silicon Valley. So I’m trying to capture my inspiration here on this blog- so when I am in fear, when I question myself, when I am in doubt- I can reread this and it will make me remember my dreams.
And I hope that reading about common people like you and me who had the courage to follow their passion- be it in music, travelling, photography or entrepreneurship would make you realize that it isn’t that difficult. If you’re in doubt- reach out to people and talk to them, understand what its like to be doing what you’re scared of doing full-time. And then, make an informed decision (not a blind one because everyone around you is doing it) that you will never regret looking back.
With Dreams, Come Risk.
Find your way. Not the way everyone preaches.
My fellow yatri, Ravi Kumar Jha at the end of his touching and inspiring life story said “A man makes the job, the job doesn’t make a man.”
Kalkeri is the name of a school for underprivileged kids. It is a boarding school which runs on grants and donations from the outside world. The kids don’t need to pay anything but are given the love, affection and education they deserve. They are taught not just math and science and English, they are taught dance and music, they learn to appreciate our Indian culture, In waysthat even we lucky privileged private school studying kids don’t.
An anthem by itself- the Jagriti Yatra geet. This song can rejuvenate you, no matter how sleep-deprived, tired and annoyed you are.
Brilliant lyrics written by Prasoon Joshi, composed by Adesh Shrivastava, and sung by Babul Supriyo. The choreography by Gauri Mani ma’am is so simple, yet so powerful. (When Gauri ma’am dances, she’s the only one on stage you can look at!)
Dance & Music is such a powerful tool. I realised this only about a year ago. I was always really shy, I have two left feet and I hate dancing. I was fortunate enough to have participated in Bhava Spandana (by the Isha Yoga Centre) which changed my attitude towards dance forever. This was followed by my involvement with AIESEC, and if you’ve ever heard about AIESEC- you’ve heard about AIESEC dance! So for those of you who are too shy to dance at random places- try. This Jagriti Yatra, we danced on railway platforms, in government schools, on buses and in trains. And it was the most liberating experience ever.
In conclusion, Yaaron Chalo is truly a part of every yatri and deserves a mention. Yaaron Chalon, Badalne ki rut hai.