Posts Tagged ‘entrepreneur’

Breaking the caste barrier: Aspirations, upward mobility and the brass ring

We don’t talk about this much. India’s caste system is an intangible barrier to upward mobility. We assume the ‘untouchables’ are a one lumpen mass of poor. Is the post liberalization economic growth finally offering opportunities for change?

“Post-liberalization, the country witnessed a transition from the caste-based occupations and services to modern businesses. Looking at so many self-made people from different communities across the country, aspirations among more and more people started rising, they started taking risks and are now competing with the market (irrespective of the caste),” says Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), an organization that brings together all the Dalit entrepreneurs in India under one umbrella.

According to DICCI, there are more than 30 Dalit crorepatis (billionaires) in the country.

Although, there is no reliable data on the profile of scheduled caste entrepreneurs, as per rough estimates of DICCI, there are 1,000 Dalit entrepreneurs with combined turnover of Rs.60,000 crore.

Reading Siddhant Kumar’s story reminds me of CK Prahalad’s immortal words on the tyranny of dominant logic.

ckptyranny1Taking this concept a step further, we can say the same about Indian beliefs. Innovation was a top down process, designers came from elite English educated families. Instead, what we have here, is a designer from IIT Bombay who breaks the rules.

“While all entrepreneurs in India face obstacles because of lack of credit from the formal banking system, potential Dalit entrepreneurs are doubly handicapped because they almost invariably lack the collateral and also because of their more limited access to informal credit through community networks,” according to the book Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs by Devesh Kapur, D.Shyam Babu and Chandra Bhan Prasad.

Note that the very same tools inspiring young Africans to break free of their expected roles (jobs in government) and start online businesses, are what offered Kumar his break – e-commerce, and dreams of the brass ring.

NB: It isn’t just the Dalit who face caste based discrimination, every caste faces prejudice and stereotypes, so much so that my father too dropped the caste marker from my name and gave me his middle name. We are Gupta, the greedy, grasping, miserly moneylenders of middle India.

Innovation at the small enterprise level

Moses with Muchiri, MtoPanga, Mombasa Oct 10th 2011

I’ve never been left with such a strong sense of enterprise and innovative thinking as I have now after this past week in Coastal Kenya. In fact I asked Muchiri if he’d been specifying some high standards for the introductions made to various cyber cafe owners or was it that we just happened upon the amazing crowd of people that we did.

What blew me away was simply their quality and resourcefulness – Moses for example, shown above talking to Muchiri in his little workspace at the back of his second cyber cafe, was a biochemist by training with a penchant for fine arts. He had a thriving business around creative services – graphic design, screen printing, photo touch ups etc right down printing your choice of photograph onto a ceramic mug for you. This was in addition to his two cyber cafes and computer training classes. He was the first to dismiss mobile phones as the perceived threat to cybers, instead pointing out that it was mobile broadband modems that were having the real impact along with easily available cheap desktops.

The common thread running through the success stories of growing sustainable small businesses seemed to be centered around a willingness to question the limitations of conventional services, spotting opportunities centered around this investment in hardware, software and access and a sense of changing trends observed among their customer base.

Moses' Dibarts ICT Village at Vintage Plaza, Mtopanga, Mombasa

Moses actually mentioned that latter – almost articulating the basic idea of doing user research and incorporating the feedback into his business strategy. He calls it the number of ‘No’s he gets versus the number of ‘Yes’s as one of the drivers for his choice of services to offer.

The ones who felt the slowing down of business were more likely to be those who imagined that simply setting up shop would bring in the cash flow or had let the changes go by passively without responding.  The good old days of customers waiting in a queue for a limited amount of time at the computer have gone for good.  What’s emerging in the frontlines are solutions like Robert‘s in Cannon Towers in downtown Mombasa.

Business centre set up by Robert, Mombasa, Kenya 12 Oct 2011

Noticing that many of his cyber cafe customers were walking in piles of documents they were struggling to manage in the tiny space available in the traditional cyber cafe layout, Robert realized that there was a business opportunity in catering to their needs. The majority of his business came from shipping agents and such like, most of whom would not even be based in Mombasa but in town only long enough to release their goods at the nearby port. He threw out the cramped cubicles and replaced them with spacious work stations – in effect, offering hot desks rentable by the day, week or month by the transient business workers.

Robert's signage on the street level of Cannon Towers, Mombasa, Kenya

Now, with fewer computers he generates more revenue at his business center than he does at his original cyber cafe still operating at a different, yet more high traffic location surrounded by educational institutions. Naturally, he already has his expansion plans in place even as the traditional cyber next door has declining revenues due to market forces.