Sunday, January 2, 2011

why do we become entrepreneurs ?

Reprinted with permission from Entrepreneur magazine, December 2010 issue

Why do we become entrepreneurs ?
I was recently invited by TED as speaker. I met the most amazing people who are doing game-changing stuff. I spoke on Why do we become Entrepreneurs and this was the text of my speech. Of course I used some very interesting visuals that were developed by my team to go with it.. The videos will be streamed shortly.
Why do we become entrepreneurs? This question fascinates me. Why do we let ourselves be drawn by this Circe, this enchantress, who tempts us, beguiles us, captivates us ? Whether we actually end up seducing her or not depends on our wherewithal, but attracted we certainly are.

Over these past five years I’ve mentored more than 500 entrepreneurs.  And I’ve heard all kinds of excuses as to why they became entrepreneurs. Please note, like Lawrence of Arabia, I’m making a distinction here between excuse and reason. Excuses have been many, some commonplace ones like : I like being my own boss or I like making loads of money. Some uncommon ones such as : I want to define my identity or I want to create meaning in society.  Some bizarre ones like that’s the only way I can avoid getting married or I can ask for dowry without feeling guilty. Some passionate ones like : not being an entrepreneur is not an option at all. Some touching ones like this 67 year old woman who came to me four years ago, and said I’m barely literate, I’m the wife of a very big industrialist and I want to be an entrepreneur because before I die, I want to see respect for me in the eyes of my husband and two sons.

All excuses that converge into one and one reason only, that we want to leave a footprint behind and in leaving a footprint behind, we are seeking immortality.

In the past we sought immortality through our sons. The Sanskrit word putra, which means son, comes from the word puth, which means hell, so putra means one who saves you from hell. In other words, one who makes you immortal. In the annual death ceremony, the son makes offerings not just to his father but to eight generations of his forefathers.  This certainly was a clever way to be immortal.

Times and climes have changed. Now we seek immortality by becoming entrepreneurs. Again, look at this beautiful Sanskrit word, Antarprerna. it means inspiration from within. That’s who we are, entrepreneurs, inspired from within, magical thinkers, like Prometheus who stole fire from the fire gods. And look at this sheer coincidence, both words look similar but their pronunciation is similar too, entrepreneur/antarprerna!
If entrepreneurs are inspired from within, does it mean they are born and cannot be made? I refuse to believe anything as profoundly impacting as this can be left to the caprice of a DNA. Can leaders  be made or are they all born? I think both. Some are born others are made. So too with entrepreneurs. How do you make them? By giving them knowledge, by up-skilling them and in doing both you are vesting in them the confidence to develop the right attitude. It’s like swimming right, you’re afraid of water till you learn about the pool, till you learn how to move your arms and legs, how to kick, how to hold your breath, how to stay afloat. Once you’ve learnt all of this, fear goes away and a water baby is born.

Why do we become entrepreneurs when we know that the lows are so abysmally low? Even at the risk of sounding facetious, I’d say it is because the highs are so intoxicatingly high that anything else is less and unacceptable. I mentor women in Afghanistan and Ethiopia in building micro enterprises and to say that life has been unkind to them is an understatement. In becoming entrepreneurs, they have now discovered the language of empowerment and the way they see it, nothing will make them give it up. The women in Afghanistan became entrepreneurs  when their husbands went to war over a decade ago. They haven’t seen them since. So one day I asked them : what happens if your husbands come back now and the answer was: Oh,  we will shoot them! Not because they don’t want their men back but because they don’t want their old life back.

The first time I went to Afghanistan, it was for audit purposes, my client had disbursed micro finance and although the payments had started coming in, he was worried that the money hadn’t gone where it was meant to. After a couple of visits, it dawned on me that if I did not mentor these women,  they may return the loan, but one or the other would happen. They would either lapse below the poverty line or remain livelihood entrepreneurs forever. I’m proud to say many of these women today have transformed their businesses from livelihood to opportunity based enterprises.

Why then aren’t more and more of us in India becoming entrepreneurs? I’ve figured it is because we don’t know how. It’s a strange paradox, the education system in India is such that it decimates creativity and independent thinking. To survive, you have to conform, and conforming means doing mindless, endless streams of activity by rote. And then suddenly when you’re done with your engineering or MBA and decide to become an entrepreneur, everyone tells you :  Aaah, you have to be creative!  So many challenges now, you have to be creative when they have killed your creativity, you have never worked in an organization but you’re expected to build one, you’ve just come out of school and you’ve not only no money but a hefty student loan, and you’re supposed to bootstrap your company, and you simply have no clue how to go about it. All you have is an idea in your head, passion in your heart and song on your lips, so what do you do?You find yourself a mentor. 

Who’s a mentor? To me it’s someone who can bridge the inexperience gap, who can open doors, who can hand-hold you, with responsibility, with accountability. There are times when my mentees call just to hear my voice. There are times when they call just so I can hear their voice. Nothing earth-shattering but just the comfort of knowing that there is someone whom you can go to, whose experience you can benefit from, whose insights you can make use of, someone who is on the same side as you, shares your vision, your passion, someone who will not say : your company, someone who will say, our company. And most important, someone who’s so well-connected that you get access to pretty much everything and everyone.
That’s why we founded our company CARMa, which is an acronym for Creating Access to Resources and Markets, so we can connect entrepreneurs to their natural habitat, thereby change their karma.  I’ve figured when there are more mentors in India, the head count of entrepreneurs will automatically go up.

Why did I become an entrepreneur? Let me tell you a story. There was this village school in Orissa that had introduced English language for the first ever time in class 5. The teacher was taking no chances so she had prepped her students for the final examination.. The question was: write an essay on the cow. So the teacher wrote the essay for them and asked them to learn it by heart. By some quirk, on d-day the question was : write an  essay on the tree!  Everyone was seen struggling with it. One creative kid decided to beat the system. He drew a cow and a tree, tied the cow to the tree and wrote : this is a cow. It is tied to the tree and my essay will be on the cow that was tied to the tree!

That’s me, my whole theory of entanglement is that everything in my life is to do with entrepreneurship. I spent twenty years in the corporate sector, pretty much on all inhabited continents and came back home five years ago. That’s when one of the biz schools invited me to teach and I thought, a little cockily if I might add, given the diversity of my experience, I should be able to teach pretty much anything. That’s when someone asked : why don’t you teach entrepreneurship, we never get anyone to teach that! And I said : why not. Even as I said it, believe you me, it was just another word in the dictionary. Little did I suspect that one day it would consume my whole being.
Why do we become entrepreneurs? So we can embark on this incredible journey of learning and discovering, not just of the world around us but of ourselves, of who we are, of strengths we’d never acknowledged, of weaknesses we never knew we had.

Why do we become entrepreneurs? So that when the white coats come to take us away, we can look them in the eye and say, hey! we’re the good guys, may our tribe increase!