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12 Jan 2021

A New Spin to Tagore’s Immortal Lines – “Where the Mind is Without Fear and the Head is Held High”

Two things happened in the past few days that got me thinking even more about something that has been playing on my mind for some time now. The first was a conversation I had with a friend, with whom I reconnected after a gap of several years. In the course of our conversation, he told me that his twenty five-year old son runs his own start-up that does cutting-edge work in the field of AI. I was somewhat surprised to hear this because when the children were in school, his wife would often complain about the boy’s poor academic performance. As if he had read my mind, my friend told me that he had given his son complete freedom to pursue his interests in life. He said, “The only thing I told him was to excel in whatever field he chose, and to be accountable for all his decisions in life”. Pretty good advice.

 The second was that I read an article titled “Be humble but also be brave” by Mr. Ratan Tata. The article, which appeared in the Times of India on 27th December 2020, contains Mr. Tata’s views on what we as a nation need to do to improve our society. He writes about our collective responsibility towards the underprivileged sections of our society. He also writes about the importance of gender equality and equity in rewards given that women can (and will need to) play an important role in the nation’s growth. You may read the article here if you missed it earlier.

I agree with him on both counts. However, what resonated with me, even more, were his observations that India’s transformation will be powered by young people, and to enable this efficiently, we need to create a culture that is more supportive of innovation.

As I pondered the ways in which life has changed over the past nine months, it struck me that while technology has created “Digital” alternatives and workarounds, we as people have changed our mindsets too. This is in no small measure due to the pandemic. Being mistrustful of digital devices and ways of communication, many of us preferred to physically visit banks or shops. (Some will claim that they did so to maintain relationships- which is also a fair point). But while being forced to stay at home for several weeks, we discovered the freedom and convenience of banking and shopping from home. And now, this has become mainstream, thanks to the growing penetration of smartphones and hence, access to the internet.

I asked myself in what other areas do we need to change our mindsets and realized that change and shifts are inevitable in every walk of life. Here are five that immediately come to mind.

Parenting

At least in my generation (and earlier ones), the general paradigm was that “parents know what’s best for their children”. That may have been true during an era of relatively little change when things remained more or less the same for decades (say 1950-1990). But it is certainly not true anymore. So many career choices are coming up in the gig economy- but yet, many parents are even today fixated on Engineering, Medicine, MBA, Chartered Accountancy or Law. Maybe this explains why so many Indian executives are CEOs in global companies, but the number of innovations that have emerged from India and shaken up the world remains small. India has been an IT services powerhouse for more than two decades, but where are we with products? Zoho is perhaps one success, but there are not too many others I can think of. As parents, we need to be more encouraging of our children’s interests and allow them to pursue avenues that were once labelled as “offbeat”.

Education

Our education system has largely remained oriented towards rote learning and examinations. Marks and grades continue to be indicators of learning. But in a world where there are new problems crying out for new solutions, critical thinking skills become even more important. The new education policy alone is not adequate- all stakeholders including parents, teachers, society at large and students themselves need to change their mindsets. Risk-taking as a behavioural attribute has generally been suppressed in us right from a young age. “Don’t do this or you might hurt yourself” or “Don’t do that because it might damage the object” have been a part of our growing up years; we generously proffer the same advice to our children, and so the cycle continues.

This needs to change so that our youth are not afraid to take calculated risks. I am not advocating that they take wanton, senseless risks- but if they have a business idea, they should be encouraged to explore it and give it a shot- even when they are in say, middle school. They may fail, but their journey of pursuing their dreams will teach them so much more about life, success, failure, planning, preparation, resource management, handling people and so on than our institutions can. Just as only a tenth of an iceberg is visible above the water, 90% of failed start-up ventures remain invisible to the world. But the successful ones have ushered in so much transformation. Remember that only a few years ago, Uber, Zoom, Byju’s and Swiggy were all little more than ideas or early-stage start-ups.

Maybe the government needs to make it easier for new courses to be offered online, so that interested students, entrepreneurs, mid-career executives and professionals can expand their repository of skills- and in the process, also get awarded a certificate, diploma or even degree. The digital ecosystem is already a powerful catalyst for such a step. What is needed is a “nudge” in the form of reasonable regulatory unshackling to set up virtual universities, for example.

Innovation Ecosystem:

Depending on the idea and the problem it seeks to solve, the seed capital needed may vary from a few thousand to several lakhs. Not everyone will have access to the resources needed to set up a company and develop solution prototypes. But this does not mean these youngsters should not be given a fair opportunity. Some of the best ideas for solving our country’s problems come from young people.

The other day, I watched a video on the solar-powered ironing cart designed by Ms. Vinisha Umashankar, a fourteen year-old girl from Tamil Nadu. For a country like India, this is a great solution for three reasons. First, we have adequate sunlight throughout the year. Second, many people get their clothes ironed by people who use coal to heat their irons- and even this coal burning is a source of air pollution. Third, providing such services is a source of livelihood for many people in urban India. How she got thinking about this solution and how various entities got together to refine her prototype makes for interesting reading.

But not everyone will be as fortunate as young Vinisha, who seems to have had access to a supportive ecosystem through her school. To democratize access to resources, we need the government and the private sector to set aside more funds as “risk capital”. There are already several schemes at the central and state government levels, but awareness is limited. Teachers themselves do not have the necessary information to guide their students and help them apply for such funding. I am aware of executives who mentor and coach youngsters through NGOs and other social initiatives. I salute the people doing this and invite more people to volunteer.

For some years now, my colleagues and I have been assisting young entrepreneurs (on a pro bono basis) to give them advice and provide guidance on the legal aspects of setting up an entity in India, securing their IPR, etc. The Fox Mandal Foundation runs an early-stage incubation center in Bangalore. If you know of any start-ups looking for office space, legal assistance and mentorship, do ask them to contact me.

Regulatory Reforms

Entrepreneurs (and even established businesses, for that matter), spend inordinate amounts of time on seeking regulatory approvals and thereafter, on ongoing compliance. A certain amount of regulation is necessary- and in fact, desirable. But needless process delays (and instances of corruption) only cause frustration. For example, in today’s digital environment, it should be possible for company incorporation procedures to be completed within two business days. To be fair, the government has been taking steps to improve the “ease of doing business in India”. But more needs to be done- both by the central government and individual state governments. 

Social Support

Not every startup idea will succeed. In fact, if history is anything to go by, 8 out of 10 will probably fail. This is where society at large has a role to play. Don’t chide or deride youngsters you know who have turned entrepreneurs and failed. If you have not done it yourself, you have no right to comment on others; at least they had the courage to take that risk. Perhaps this mindset should extend to parents preferring to give their children in marriage to those with “secure jobs”- which entrepreneurship is definitely not.

Unless we empower our youth to be bold and take calculated risks, we cannot expect India to transform at a pace that meets our aspirations. In this context, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s famous lines, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…”, take on a whole new meaning. We need our youth to be able to boldly take calculated risks and if they fail, move on to the next idea or do something different, without feeling like misfits, failures or under-achievers.

I wish you a happy new year!


Image Credits: Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

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