E-Summit 09: Day 1: Guest Lecture by Sramana Mitra (Part II)

After WATER, Sramana took us to the next area of opportunity: IT & TELECOM. Her suggesting IT & Telecom as a sector which required more innovation and had a lot of potential came as a surprise to some initially. After all, wasn’t India already a leader in IT, and hadn’t the industry reached a saturation level which left no room for innovation? Apparently not.

She began by exemplifying her assertion. She took the example of bootstrapper Sridhar Vembu of AdventNet|Zoho. Sridhar developed an online office suite, the Zoho Office Suite, which includes tools for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, note-taking, wikis, CRM, project management, invoicing and other applications.  While the company has over a 100 people working on its software in Chennai, there are just seven in the Silicon Valley, mainly to market it. This leads to dramatic price undercutting. Products and Services offered by AdventNet cost less than one-sixth of similar offerings by rivals. AdventNet makes use of Software Concept Arbitrage to cut its costing.

Her point is, India can be in software what China is in manufacturing. After all, India has the expertise as well as labour that the west lacks. While the IT sector is already quite developed in India, it is nothing if you look at the future prospects. As of now, India is a haven for outsourcing. By 2020, India, instead of helping their western counterparts make products through BPO, should start creating its own products. This calls for a paradigm shift.

Another remarkable example she gave was Carol Realini, founder of Obopay. Carol realised that majority of the population in the world accesses technology not through computers but through cell phone. This is especially very easily understandable in India, where cell phones have infiltrated deep into the rural areas where there are no other signs of technology. So while banking has gone online, she realised there’s a much bigger innovation waiting to take place. She took banking to cell phone. So now Obopay enables you to make payments, and do all sorts of banking activities from your cell phone. Now that’s innovative thinking, bringing in millions of dollars. There still remains a lot of scope, say, integrating microfinance with mobile technology. Watsay?

She also talked about her rural BPO venture, Maya Ray. At times like these, Indian BPO industry is facing serious trouble. The problem is, the Indian BPO industry till now, is concentrated in urban India, and caters to large US enterprises. The US has approx 5 million small businesses which have a potential for small-scale outsourcing. Even with an annual budget as low as $5000, it adds up to a whooping $25 BILLION. The biggest problem with Indian BPOs: rising costs, can be totally avoided since Rural BPO means large number of people- simple demand & supply equations will lead to huge cost-cutting. It’s a win-win!!!

There are many other large markets to explore as well. The US healthcare market needs IT support, and it’s a perfect opportunity for Indian software industry to capitalize on. Similarly domestic security and defence industry is now a big money game, and needs IT support as well. The opportunities just don’t seem to end.

Sramana also discussed the driving force behind Entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurs are driven by PHILOSOPHY (Yes! Knew it!). Successful innovation may involve years of hard work and countless hurdles to clear before any sign of success. Lots of risks, lots of experimentation, lots of obstacles, before any fruits of success are visible. If one does not believe in the self during this time period, it’s very easy to give up. Sramana suggests reading up on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead for inspiration. Who’s John Galt, anyone?

E-Summit 09: Day 1: Guest Lecture by Dominique Trempont and Sramana Mitra (Part I)

This is the first of my series of posts covering the events under Entrepreneurship Summit 2009 (2nd Jan – 11th Jan), organised by the Entrepreneurship Cell, IIT Kharagpur, and hosted by IIT Kharagpur. It is one of the biggest platforms in India for academicians, new-age entrepreneurs, eminent business personalities, venture capitalists, and students alike, to gather and share their entrepreneurial endeavours and experiences, and to pledge to take Entrepreneurship in India to greater scales. Keep reading the E-Summit diaries as I, the official Blogger for E-Summit 2009 (sounds cool, right?), take you through this Entrepreneurial expedition over the course of 10 days.

E-Summit 09 kick started today with a Guest Lecture by Dominique Trempont and Sramana Mitra.

Dominique is currently a member of the Board of Directors and Audit Committee of Finisar Corporation, a public company that develops and markets products and services for large enterprise storage networks. He also serves on the Board of Directors, and Chairs the Audit Committee, of Energy Recovery, Inc., a public company that helps water desalination plants recycle energy used in the desalination process. Mr. Trempont was CEO-in-Residence at Battery Ventures, a venture capital firm, prior to which, he was Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Kanisa, Inc., a software company focused on customer self-service, contact centre and peer support applications. He has served as Chief Executive Officer of Gemplus Corporation, a smart card application company. Dominique was recruited by Steve Jobs to turn around NeXT, first as chief financial officer and later expanding to lead all operations. Dominique led NeXT’s shift from hardware to software and brought the company to profitability. He successfully restructured the company financially, organizationally and strategically, and sold NeXT to Apple in 1997 for $462M.

Mr. Trempont began his career at Raychem Corporation, a high-tech material science company focused on the telecommunication, electronics and automotive industries, including holding the position of Chief Audit Officer. Mr. Trempont received an undergraduate degree in Economics from College St. Louis (Belgium), a bachelor’s in Business Administration and Computer Sciences from IAG at the University of Louvain (Belgium) and a master’s in Business Administration from INSEAD.

Sramana Mitra has been an entrepreneur and a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley since 1994. Her fields of experience span from hard core technology disciplines like semiconductors to sophisticated consumer marketing industries including fashion and education. Her current focus, however, is primarily in the realms of Web 3.0 and Enterprise 3.0, and related infrastructure. She has a particular interest in Media and Retail companies and their transition to a Web-centric world.

Writings from Sramana’s popular blog “Sramana Mitra on Strategy” are syndicated by Seeking Alpha, Yahoo! Finance, ReadWriteWeb, Cadwire, Emergic, GigaOm, TheStreet.com and many other high traffic online business, finance, and technology publishers. Sramana also writes a weekly column for Forbes and syndicates her Vision India 2020 column to the Indian daily, DNAIndia.

As Sramana stepped on to the stage of a fully-packed Netaji Auditorium to deliver her lecture on “Entrepreneurship Opportunities in India”, she was greeted with a warm applause by the audience, primarily consisting of undergraduate and postgraduate students, potential entrepreneurs. She recollected how the scenario in IIT-Kgp today was at contrast with the last time she visited the campus 12-13 years ago with the aim of recruiting some Engineering graduates for one of her ventures. At that time, students stuck to the notion of working for established brands and were quite critical of job prospects in new ventures, and Sramana was not in a position to recruit even a single student. She reflected that the outlook towards Entrepreneurship has drastically changed over the years, and congratulated E-Cell for cultivating the spirit of Entrepreneurship amongst IITians.

Right before the presentation began, she urged the audience to first assume that they WILL each become important entrepreneurs. Beginning on a highly optimistic note, she went on to list the important areas/sectors which are as yet untapped and are potentially huge opportunities for our generation. The point was to pick important problems we are facing and find innovative solutions to them. Case studies, Role Models and Frameworks were presented to further stress the cause and to aid in the development of Entrepreneurship models.

The first of these areas of opportunity was WATER. At this point, Dominique stepped in to explain the seriousness as well as the entrepreneurial potential of “Fresh Water on a Shrinking Planet”. He explained that such problems need to be tackled the way it was done in Silicon Valley: Focus on one particular problem, find innovative solutions to it, and then gain profit by marketing the solution through a venture. He stressed on the fact that India not only has huge problems which need to be approached this way, but also has the creativity to find such solutions.

Dominique elaborated on the water crisis by stating that while the world population doubles every 40 years, but the demand for freshwater doubles in just 20 years, and by 2025, the demand would have outstripped the supply by 150%. Fortune magazine, in 2000, went on to say: “Water promises to be to the 21st century what oil was in the 20th century: the precious commodity that determines the wealth [and health] of nations.” In fact, the water crisis is already so acute in some regions, collaborative efforts have been made by nations like Israel and its neighbouring arch-enemy nations to deal with the problem collectively. So large is the problem, that feuds many millennia old have been forgotten in efforts to tackle it.

The problem is more acute specifically with regard to Ground Water. Water used for Agricultural, Industrial and Household purposes is comprised of 70-80% Ground Water. Importantly, Groundwater depletes 14 times faster than its replenishment. Can you guess the number of children dying from water-related illnesses EVERY DAY? 1600! It’s equivalent to shooting down 8 Jumbo Jet aircrafts full of kids every single day.
Looking from a pure entrepreneur’s point of view, water-related problems are a huge toll on the economy, on which 3% of India’s GDP is spent. Thus, it’s an unopened treasure chest. The water reserves are fast declining in India with the Gangotri glacier melting, existing reserves getting polluted, and most of the rain run-off not making it to the reserves, while the demand is skyrocketing with Agricultural Growth, population Growth and Economic Development.

In case you’re wondering where all the water is going, consider this: 1 kg of beef requires around 10,000 litres of water to produce, and even a seemingly harmless cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water. A pair of Jeans consumes 11,000 litres of water over its lifetime, while an average car guzzles over 4, 00,000 litres of water. Water resources could be subject to geopolitics in the future as well, with disputes over water rights, water dependencies and related conflicts. On a related note, the Siachen Glacier, which is at present the world’s highest battleground, could be a source of dispute in the future merely due to the fact that it’s a huge reserve of [frozen] water.

Potential solutions were also suggested for the problem. Protection of existing water resources could be one. Harvesting sources of Rain Water is another one, which needs innovative solutions. Similarly, maintaining water infrastructure requires innovations, innovations that engineering students from IITs and other premier institutes should indulge in. Another important step to be taken is management of ‘Water Footprint’. This is possible if technologies are developed to make the existing processes that consume water more efficient on those terms.

For example, one possible technological innovation could be the development of a better Reverse Osmosis system that could affordably and efficiently convert Sea water to potable water. To establish this, membrane technology needs to be explored. These are the kinds of innovations that IITians could do. Water desalination is a big problem, and any innovation in this field is sure to bring in huge profits.

Students sitting in the audience could be seen exchanging glances. The single area of opportunity suggested till then, WATER, could actually incorporate innovations from Mechanical, Metallurgical, Mining, Agricultural, Biotechnological, Chemical, Civil and other such engineering fields, and turns them into highly profitable ventures. Some of the technologies suggested to be developed are in fact being presently researched by the academia at IIT-Kgp, but no one had any idea there was such a huge potential in them. This universal water problem is a gold mine for entrepreneurs with an innovation.

Besides, the issues with other areas dependent/linked with WATER crisis could also be answered by these innovations, which translate to an even greater margin of profit. For example, huge amounts of Energy are required for water treatment. A better solution to water treatment could thus also help cope with another issue at large, Energy crisis.

Much of the audience was looking open-mouthed at the slides, completely in awe of what they were seeing. Some, perhaps, might have been sceptical about all this, feeling it all looks great in theory and fantasy, but will it be feasible? Sramana walked right in to the opportunity to present a role model: HP Michelet. Michelet is a Norwegian Entrepreneur, who came with the idea that formed Energy Recovery Inc. (ERI). ERI is the world’s leading manufacturer of energy recovery devices such as the PX Pressure Exchanger used for seawater desalination that reduces energy consumption of up to 98%. The idea of recycling energy in desalination was the simplest that could be, and ERI is slated to be a billion dollar company within a few years. India has huge opportunities for desalination plants along its huge coastline, an excellent opportunity. Are you listening?

Recap 2008: End-of-the-year Nostalgia

20 years from now, what will be the first thing that comes to your mind when you come across something dated 2008? Besides the fact that that ‘something’ is no longer in its warranty period/edible, what will it be? Of course, it may be something personal, but how am I to know that. All I can do is list out a few events which I think 2008 will be remembered for. In no particular order (or rather the order in which they come to my mind, thus dependent on their importance, their taking place in January/December and whether they fall in my areas of interest):

  • The year of the meltdown
    Sadly, the first thing that comes to mind is the Economic Recession. The time when every other news item/advertisement reminds you “in these hard times”… But then, every other decade has had its recession. Let’s just wait for the global economy to rise back and hope we ride the boom in 2009. 

    Alternately: The year the stock markets fell, The year of the mortgage crisis,  The year the investment bubble-burst, The year of the Recession etc.

  • The year of Heath Ledger
    I could have bulleted it as the year The Dark Knight was released, but this is just too close to my heart, as to anyone’s who’s seen this guy play ‘The Man who laughs’ the way nobody ever has. On a related note, I plan to blog about the movie as well as The Joker’s philosophy in the coming year. 

    Alternately: The year of The Joker, The year Heath Ledger died, Why So Serious?

  • The year of Obama
    2008 will always be remembered, by me and the rest of the world, as the year Barack Obama was elected President, of a nation half-way across the globe from where I’m writing this. 2009 will see the Presidential Inaugration of Obama. This makes 2008 the year we all said, Yes We Can. I will be blogging on Obama pretty soon as well.

    Alternatively: The year we said Yes We Can, The year Obama became President, The year Bush left the White House, The year Hillary almost became President, and quite possibly: The year Obama First became President.

  • Mumbai Attacks
    No one can ever forget the attack on India’s largest city that took place on 26/11, often dubbed as India’s 9/11. While the crisis was massive, with 10 coordinated attacks taking place in the city, they were rather dwarfed by the reactions to the crisis. A range of resignations and political changes, and almost insurgent movements my civilians. International reaction for the attacks was also widespread. Media coverage highlighted the use of new media and internet social networking tool in spreading information about the attacks, observing that internet coverage, especially the blogosphere, was often ahead of more traditional media sources.

    Alternatively: The year of 26/11, The year of the Mumbai Hostage Crisis, The year of Taj, The year we realised it was enough

 

  • The Year of the Iraqi Shoe
    Oh, nobody can forget Muntadhar-Al-Zaiydi, though nobody knows how its spelt either. The guy who did was millions of people in Iraq, in the United States, and across the world wanted to do. Though it’s a pity Bush dodged the farewell kiss, and quite quickly at that.

    Alternatively: The year Dubya got his farewell kiss, The year Iraq thanked Dubya with all its sole, The year of THE shoe

Of course, these are not the only major events of 2008. I am just predicting that these are the ones that’ll be remembered throughout.

Now for those for which 2008 will NOT be remembered: (in no particular order, as before)

  • Our Olympic Medalists
    Nobody cries about not winning medals at the Olympics more than India. No one celebrates their victories and joins their orkut fan clubs more quickly than us. And nobody forgets them the way we do too.

    How many medals did India win at the Beijing Olympics? And which ones? And who won them, and in which events? Was he a colonel or a major who won that Silver last Olympics at Athens? And what was his name? And did you have to use Google to check any of this out?
    I think I need not say any further.

     

  • Possibly, the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks:
    While we are all up in arms against the politicians at the moment, aren’t we going to vote the same bunch of goons back to power again? Not something that I hope, but expect.
  • Chandrayaan, and the record-setting 10 satellites sent into orbit with a single launch by ISRO.
    The next time you complain about India lagging behind in technology, try sounding C-H-A-N-D-R-A-Y… in your mind.
  • Ghajini
    Sorry guys, for bringing this up again, but I just couldn’t resist all the forgetting/amnesia punny situation. I hope we DO FORGET this one. I also hope I forget certain scenes from Harold and Kumar’s escape from Guantanamo Bay. While the aforementioned The Dark Knight holds the record for being the highest-grossing movie of the year, this one is the most Gross movie I’ve ever seen.
  • I’m sure there’s some more, but I seem to have forgotten already.

So there you are, 2008 for you. The new year’s eve is also seen as a time when people take stock of their lives, but I prefer doing that on my Birthday, which falls in the same week anyways.

My resolutions will be coming up on my Birthday. You make sure you keep up with yours atleast till the next weekend. Let’s try make this world a better place to live, and we’ll see what we’ve got by this time next year. With these thoughts, I wish everyone reading this, a very prosperous 2009. Happy new year, everyone.

You’ll Know What I Did Last Summer

OK, so here we are. After the usual inferno over the Title and URL, here I am finally writing the first post for my blog. And it’s a long one, so may you have the courage to begin reading it, the patience to continue reading till the end, and the earnestness to leave a comment. This is about how I spent the major part of my unexpectedly exhilarating Summer Vacations of 2008. It all started with me coming across Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI).

Engineers for Social Impact is a unique fellowship program in India for current engineering students to spend a summer at a social enterprise, gain understanding and contribute. In a search across the 10 best Indian engineering schools, they connect the 5 best candidates to 5 social enterprises that drive market-based solutions to development in India.

While applying to E4SI, I was going through the list of their partner social enterprises, all profitably driving social impact in diverse sectors, when I first came across iDiscoveri. iDiscoveri (read I-Discover-I) is a social enterprise founded with a mission to renew education in India, and is now a leading enterprise in the spaces of school education, enterprise leadership development and outdoor education. I was quite amazed to read the company description, and my curiosity got me to Google it for further info, which amazed me even more, mainly due to two reasons:
  1. iDiscoveri was backed by a team of “scholars & doers”, exceptional individuals educated at institutions like Harvard, Cambridge, Georgia Tech., Wharton, MIT, Brown University, INSEAD, XLRI, the IIMs and the IITs, many of whom had previously worked with and played leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies in India and abroad.

     

  2. It was working in the Education sector, including school-level education.
I was stumped. I had absolutely no idea that such a talented lot of people could be working in the education industry, and that too, at the elementary level, in the social sector. Besides this, I realised that the issues being addressed by iDiscoveri were the very ones that had been plaguing me for years. I had always thought that no one understood the plight of students on whom huge quantities of useless information was imposed to hammer them into the desired shape, judged on their performance in mug-and-vomit exams. Apparently, someone did. Naturally, my application followed.

Having got through the Interview, I was inducted in the first cohort of ‘Engineers for Social Impact’ fellows, and soon joined iDiscoveri as a summer intern. At this point I’ll have to make a confession. Though having always been very interested in social entrepreneurship models, I still pictured such enterprises as not much different from NGOs and other not-for-profit organisations, stereotyped as employing spiritless social workers working in backward areas and being low on funds and motivation. And was I in for a surprise!!


So there I was, my first day at work, and was greeted by a surprisingly cosy atmosphere and relaxed corporate culture. A company that has held its Annual Review Meetings in the Himalayas, with a “you can be serious without a suit” dress code, complete lack of a sense of hierarchy, and office environment consisting of good sports facilities and culinary treats for employees in a very colourful and vibrant campus (with Calvin & Hobbes all over the walls), iDiscoveri was scripting its own version of the Google Story. And all this completely reflected in the iDiscoveri team’s enthusiasm and dedication towards work.

Although some possible roles for me had been suggested during the selection procedure, I was still doubtful regarding my exact placement in the organisation during my two-and-a-half month stint with them. Keeping with the flexible nature of work at iDiscoveri, I was allowed to choose my project on my own after interacting with the various teams there. Finally, it was decided that I’d be working with the Curriculum & Knowledge team. My interest in Mathematics, and the way it is taught at the school-level, finally lead me to work with the Math team for XSEED.

XSEED is a comprehensive curriculum and training solution for schools, which is also suitable for CBSE/ICSE/IGCSE/IB systems, and has been changing the way teachers teach and children learn in classrooms across the country and abroad. As I worked with them, I came to know that the program was based on latest research in brain science, child development and learning science. XSEED aims at making learning more experiential in nature, and I decided that the best way to make learning of Maths experiential was by introduction of Math Labs to XSEED. My work was highly encouraged by my colleagues. I started out by studying the aids presently used by Maths Labs in Schools in India and abroad. I explored the use of “manipulatives” to teach maths, which have been very successful in the west, but are virtually unheard of in India. Based on what I had accumulated by then, I began developing some new instruments. After creating some prototypes, we tested them by using them to teach sample groups of children and made many alterations in their designs and implementation strategy based on the response. Ultimately, we developed some pedagogical aids which enabled learning of abstract mathematical concepts more intuitive. In particular, Math-tiles, a new product developed by me under the guidance of the Math team, was highly appreciated for simplifying the teaching of the most abstract and difficult-to-understand concepts at the school level, mainly relating to Algebra, using which Algebraic expressions and equations could be tackled with a hands-on approach. For example, quadratic expressions may be factorised by a simple game of rearranging the tiles, while another tile-train game will tell you the actual meaning of Lowest-Common-Multiple. The fact that XSEED was going use these pedagogical aids in its classrooms all-over the country and more, made my job even more exciting and rewarding.

Besides this, I also had the opportunity to interact with the Advocacy team at iDiscoveri which gave me a taste of Marketing and Strategy. My experience with them completely changed my outlook towards social entrepreneurship. It is, after all, not social work, but profitable work aiming at social benefit, so beautifully exemplified by iDiscoveri. Their schools division was changing the way learning takes place in schools, in a revolutionary way. iDiscoveri has worked with close to 200 schools across India, including The Doon School, Heritage, Cambridge, Mallaya Aditi, Modern School, Vasant Valley, Bharti Foundation Schools, and several DPS schools, and has entered an agreement with the Bhutan government where it’ll be helping the Royal Education Council to enhance learning standards throughout the country. The social impact made by iDiscoveri is by far greater than most NGOs can hope. And yet it was reaping great profits, which ensured that the impact was sustainable and in effect, perpetual in nature.

iDiscoveri’s work is focused on Education, but it includes more than just Grade Schooling. iDiscoveri is an audacious idea about using education to awaken our society, our schools, our work places, our lives. It’s working in schools with its own preschools, XSEED curriculum and school transformation projects. It influences workplaces with its leadership development, teamwork development and other such people development programs. It has also been changing lives with its outdoor education programs and their quarterly journal on learning, Mindfields. iDiscoveri has been attracting passionate people in the field of education at the iDiscoveri Centre for Education and Enterprise as well.


What made iDiscoveri what it is, is its underlying philosophy. What I saw was a group of people full of dedication and great passion towards what they do, people with a purpose, who have decided to take charge of their lives and help others to do so. Teachers, psychologists, management experts, soldiers, photographers, rock-climbers, theatre persons and many others, who believe that every possibility exists for a child, man, or woman, who chooses to uncover what lies within. When I discover I, every fortune is conceivable, every dream a possibility, every community reformable. It’s about education that unleashes the full potential of every mind. I learnt that good work and good rewards can co-exist. iDiscoveri has been experienced by Young boys and girls, teenagers, college students, corporate executives, journalists, entrepreneurs, educators, CEOs… and over 15,000 of them. By Microsoft, Google, JP Morgan, Ernst & Young, Deutsche bank, ITC, Oracle, ING, Wipro, Motorola, GlaxoSmithKline, Bharti, the Royal Government of Bhutan, and more. What I learnt at iDiscoveri was invaluable in comparison to any other opportunity I could’ve got. Along with giving me my first corporate experience, it was also a truly eye-opening journey which demystified my many myths regarding social entrepreneurship. In effect, it was true experiential learning for me, and had I not experienced iDiscoveri myself, I wouldn’t have imagined the same otherwise. iDiscoveri is a journey that seeks to help make awakeful the lives of all those who take it. A journey that I took, and which I shall continue so forth…

And since you’ve reached the end of this journey with courage and patience, why not put a cherry on top with the earnestness and leave a comment!!!