During the 90’s, India’s new service class did not look kindly on those who were in business. It was an era when finding a government job was the ultimate promise of security, and business was the antithesis of what parents wanted for their children. It was also an era when ‘good people’ didn’t think they could make it in business. Corruption was seen as an essential part of the package.
However, a lot has changed in the last three decades. The biggest of them is the coming of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship effectively broke off all ties with the old business class. The entrepreneur arrived on the scene as a hero both in the economic and social sense. He was that catalyst that Indian economy needed to enter the first world.
From not even being a career choice, how did doing business become one of the most preferred? How did the society and governance change to enable this? And, most importantly, how is entrepreneurship changing society and governance?
To understand this whole phenomenon and its context, a single word is the key – startup. A startup today is mostly a perception and mind space game. A startup is not just business. It’s infinitely incremental, a generator of self-employment, a potential contributor to the national GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It’s a potential pride of the nation, an aggregator of the youth and its talent. A traditional business, or small and medium enterprise, in contrast, is seen to be serving its own end goals and nothing more. In essence, a startup is an SME plus venture capital funds plus virtue.
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Another virtue that has come to be associated with startups is patriotism. While programs like ‘Make in India’ were aimed at large manufacturing giants to either shift their production base to or set up production units in India, the ones that clearly took the message home were startups. One could not miss the hundreds of sanitizer and mask brands that came up during the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, or the health food brands that came later, each of them boldly advertising ‘Made in India’ as their USP.
Beyond branding, startups are seen as a show of India’s might to the world. It was another decade when Tatas buying Jaguar made Indians proud. Since then, the focus has completely shifted to startups. Specifically, to technology driven ones.
The technology sector has also been the one that has stood strongly behind the government across diverse issues. For example, the farm laws: many technology companies that wanted to replace the middlemen were sad to see the laws repealed. The rise of direct-to-consumer startups across sectors—food & beverages, health, fashion—in the last decade has given germ to the assumption that the consumer base and wealth in the hands of people has grown multi-fold. This sense of opulence, optimism and patriotism has coincided with the era of startups and has become culturally merged in our minds.
But where do we go from here? At a time when unemployment is at a historic high, entrepreneurship is not only seen as another alternative but the only one that leads to glory. The expansive media coverage of fundings, IPO launches and acquisitions have made entrepreneurship seem very accessible and incredibly lucrative too.
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There is no better example of startups entering popular culture than the TV show Shark Tank India. The conversation around entrepreneurship has now entered every Indian drawing room and the startups are being discussed with as much fervor as the saas-bahu serials before them. Shark Tank did to Indian parents what IPL had done before. Many successful and profitable businesses lined up at the show for funding.
In 2019, schools run by the Delhi government piloted a “Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum”. In 2022, Class 11 and 12 students were given ₹2,000 as seed money to develop entrepreneurship ideas. Funding and incubation are no longer novel concepts. Almost all higher education institutions have one today.
This puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on individuals to succeed. Even though, statistically speaking, chances of success are miniscule, the burden of failure is solely borne by the individual. The ecosystem that is geared to produce success can't be bothered with burnouts, labour practices and psychological issues.
Shantanu Deshpande, CEO at Bombay Shaving Company, in a viral post, advised youngsters not to do ‘random rona dhona’ and disparaged work-life balance and spending time with family etc. The journey from education to entrepreneurship is a solo one. Working eighteen hours a day and giving up on life outside work are seen as essential pre-conditions for being an entrepreneur. It needs to be explored how such demands affect people—does it close the doors on women who may not be able to dedicate eighteen hours to work?
But the strain is showing. IITs, where most of the startup founders come from, have recorded 33 suicides over the last five years. A student in an interview to a prominent newspaper said “One of the main reasons students take this extreme decision is academic pressure.” The downside of blind meritocracy is that it has no consideration for context and there will be less room at the top. And, those who fail to climb will be blamed for not trying hard enough. The question is why is the startup ecosystem being built as a pyramid?