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What Matters for Entrepreneurship in India

March 12, 2012

Kul Razdan, '78, shares insights from a career that spans continents

It's not a secret: with its burgeoning middle class, 10-figure population, and large youth demographic, India is poised to become a leading global business center, sooner rather than later. That's why the country is ripe for entrepreneurs who know how to look at the problems and changes unfolding in India and across the world and see untapped opportunities.

The key to recognizing and seizing these opportunities is methodic problem solving, simplicity, and maintaining a global perspective, said Kul Razdan, '78, founder of both an environmental sustainability firm in India, and Techknow, a Chicago-based engineering and architectural-planning firm that specializes in transportation and educational and industrial facilities.

Razdan, who came to the United States from India in the early 1970s after working in software development and start-up, spoke to a group of Booth students at Gleacher Center on February 25. His presentation was hosted by the Booth India Club, a part-time student group that aims to help Booth students explore business and career opportunities in India.

“If we talk about entrepreneurship in India, we must talk about entrepreneurship in general, as well its uniqueness in India,” said Razdan, who described the country's different populations that will look to entrepreneurs to fulfill their unmet needs - the products and services that accommodate higher standards of living for the growing middle-class and wealthy populations, and the services and goods the government is unequipped to fulfill for the large rural population.

Entrepreneurship is a boot camp, the ability to smile even while the ship may be sinking, to learn from mistakes and find ways to stay dynamic, Razdan said.

However, according to Razdan, typical reasons for pursuing entrepreneurship, such as a desire to be rich and your own boss, won't be enough to succeed. As an entrepreneur, riches from one venture cannot be guaranteed, and everyone is your boss, especially customers, employees, suppliers, and partners.

Rather, sustainable entrepreneurial success requires the ability to “find solutions in a space within constraints,” he said. “Sometimes it helps to have constraints because it focuses you on providing innovative market solutions.”

Once a need and a viable market are discovered, the key is to continue to simplify the product or service until it can't be simplified anymore. “If you are fulfilling a need and it's not simplified enough,” Razdan said, “someone else will simplify it, and you will go out of business.”

Razdan gave quick bites of advice on the basics, such as choosing an accountant - “choose one based on what you will do in the future;” selecting a banker - look for the one who will look out for you when he moves up; picking a lawyer-pay them for an hour or two and see who does the most talking, and hope it's the lawyer; and make sure your family understands how much starting a business will demand.

Some of India's opportunities are in building the country's infrastructure, such as its health care system, roads, power supply, and water. However, Razdan also suggested that real estate, human resources, and education are untapped markets for entrepreneurs.

These industries are undergirded by some of India's unique advantages, such as its large population of youths and English speakers, cheaper labor costs, and the country's high number of management and engineering institutes. There's also the country's growing film industry, thanks in part to the global popularity of Bollywood.

Some aspiring entrepreneurs, Razdan noted, might find that corruption faced when dealing with government agencies, high real estate costs, and different cultural attitudes about conducting business are a challenge.

“India is an exciting place, but it has problems,” Razdan said. “Remember, as entrepreneurs, problems are opportunities.”

Razdan's honest observations led Evening MBA Program student Ravi Desai to talk to him after the presentation. “In a truly Indian way, he was able to bridge the old and the new in equating sustainable entrepreneurship to the notion of selfless work - a concept from ancient Indian scriptures,” said Desai, who grew up in India and is a project manager at Siemens Healthcare, USA.

“Mr. Razdan has seen ebbs and flows in this path. His insights were very enlightening, particularly in setting the right expectations, keeping all stakeholders informed, and getting a buy-in from family and friends.

“I am keen on exploring an entrepreneurial path and building on my business education at Booth,” Desai added. “My one takeaway from Razdan is that 'entrepreneurship is no bed of roses until you know where the thorns are.'”

—Kadesha Thomas