‘The Smart CEO’ features Dr. Ajay Kela

By May 19, 2015 No Comments

On The Right Job

The global philanthropic and non profit organisation, Wadhwani Foundation, aims to bring social change through economic acceleration. having proven its model in the country, the organisation now hopes to scale its initiative in India and globally by leveraging technology,building targeted networks and engaging state and central governments, as a result creating 25 million additional jobs by 2020.

Wadhwani Foundation, a global philanthropic and non-profit organisation, has recently announced an investment of US $ 100 million with an aim of creating 25 million jobs in India by 2020, through entrepreneurship and skill development. The Foundation expects this to impact India’s economic growth and fuel govt. initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’ campaign. This expansion will enable more than 500,000 new entrepreneurs and 1,000,000 MSMEs in India.

Founded in 2000 by Dr. Romesh Wadhwani, Chairman, Symphony Technology Group, who has committed most of his wealth to the Foundation, the Foundation drives job creation and job fulfillment in India through five Initiatives which includes National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), Skill Development Network (SDN), Opportunity Network for Disabled (OND), Research and Innovation Network (RIN) and Policy. It works through partnerships with like-minded organisations, corporations and governments which range from education institutes, NGOs, industry to state and central governments. At NEN, it has partnered with over 600 Institutes and 4000 mentors. SDN has worked with MHRD and six State Governments and close to 1000 Government schools. Its OND Initiatives have partnerships with various national training partners such as NIIT, AIF, ILFS and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to place 4,00,000 disabled into corporate jobs over the next three years. Similarly, on driving India towards world-class innovation we are partnering with IIT-Bombay and National Center for Biosciences, and finally our Policy Initiative has established key partnerships with CSIS in Washington DC and ICRIER in India.

The organisation in currently led by Dr. Ajay Kela, President and CEO, who has scaled start-ups and mid-stage companies to several billion dollar organisations during his 30 year tenure in the corporate world. He eventually moved into the social sector through Wadhwani Foundation. In this story, he talks to us about the foundation, its mission, challenges and future plans.

Q. The main mission of Wadhwani Foundation is to drive economic growth in India and other Asian countries through large-scale initiatives in job creation and skill development. How do you aim to achieve this?

A. As unprecedented demand for jobs due to changing demographics and absence of vibrant “job creating” engines is one of the most critical challenges facing India and other emerging economies. Wadhwani Foundation recognized this problem a decade ago which led to the idea of helping create Silicon Valley like job creating engines in cities around the world, across diverse sectors mapped to local needs. To help achieve this, the Foundation initiated the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) in 2003 and the Skill Development Network (SDN) in 2011 as two primary initiatives for job creation and job fulfilment in India. With a proven model in India, we now hope to impact the lives of millions by scaling our initiatives in India and globally by leveraging technology, building targeted networks and engaging state and central governments in our mission.

Q. What according to you are 5 things that India needs urgently to develop entrepreneurship?

A. High-potential entrepreneurship that drives jobs at scale are born out of a culture of risk-taking and innovation. In general, Indian parents dissuaded their children from taking risks. Our best and brightest chased careers in Government or established firms, impacting creation of high-potential start-ups. The norm was that only family owned businesses created new companies, which were few and far in between. The good news is that with the millennium generation this risk-averse culture is rapidly changing and we are seeing many middle class Indians starting companies spurred by the success of their compatriots. It is also highly encouraging to see that the top career choice now of graduating IITians is entrepreneurship.

On innovation, while India is par excellence at “jugaad” based innovation, a culture of systemic innovation that aspires for highest rewards (ala Noble prize) or global products is severely lacking. Even much smaller countries like South Korea have produced many global brands such as Samsung, LG and Kia. Indians on the other hand are highly innovative outside of India. Today, more than 30% of start-ups in Silicon Valley are created by Indians. We need to bring that culture of systemic and bold innovations within Indians in India.

Once the basics of entrepreneurship culture – risk taking and innovation is in place, the country needs to surround its entrepreneurs with a friendly and supportive ecosystem. Three such entrepreneurial ecosystems are critical – a) a vibrant financial ecosystem, which consists of Angel and VC investors, and government backed debt financing among others b) supportive government policies for ease of company creation and company closure, incentive for investors and supportive taxation, special economic zones for start-ups, less onerous labour laws, etc and c) a well-trained and accessible mentor network including accelerators and incubators that can maximize success of new enterprises through readily available knowledge and guidance.

Q. You have scaled start-ups and mid-stage companies to several billion dollar organizations during your tenure of 30 years and eventually moved into the social sector through Wadhwani Foundation. What are the personal traits that you had to unlearn or let go from your corporate career when you made this move?

A. Social entrepreneurship is a lot tougher than commercial entrepreneurship. In the latter you are primarily driving revenue and income growth. In the former, your success is linked to impacting lives and building sustainable ecosystems so that the system continues to function without dependency on a single organization. I did not only bring all the learnings from running commercial ventures but had to learn new traits operating in the non-profit world. For instance, large scale social change cannot happen without being able to sell your vision to stakeholders and in particular Central and State Governments and garner their support in participating in your venture and creating a sustainable ecosystem. Governments can have tremendous impact through policy actions and investments that impact masses. Selling an intangible such as your vision requires demonstrable models which you risk with your own investments followed by lots of patience and persistence to get other stakeholders to march with you. We run our Foundation more like a business measuring outcomes in terms of lives impact but then need to go beyond also attempting to create an ecosystem that will last way beyond the Foundation.

Q. You have mentioned in an article that India has a unique talent pool of an estimated two to three million educated disabled. What according to you should be done to increase the employability of this talent pool by the corporate India? And why?

A. Corporates in India have failed to recognize the business value of hiring educated disabled. An educated disabled in India not only comes with a basis skills and knowledge but has demonstrated tremendous tenacity and can-do attitude given the degree was required despite unsupportive transportation and learning environment for the disabled. We are attempting to get corporates to realize greater productivity and lower attrition from hiring the disabled and hence leverage this untapped segment of the population. At the Foundation, our strategy is to ease hiring of the disabled by corporates by filling the skill-gap between corporate needs and what academia produces through training of the disabled.

As corporates becomes more sensitised and see the benefits the disabled bring to their organizations, mainstreaming this population will come as second nature similar to many western countries or how India mainstreamed women into corporates years ago.

Q. Do share with us some of the challenges faced by you during the course of your journey?

A. The scale of the problems in India and other emerging economies are unprecedented. The Foundation concluded that it was important to pick few problems but address them in totality. We hope to achieve this by leveraging technology, building targeted networks and establishing sustainable partnerships, especially with the Central and State Governments.

The scale of the problem lends itself to multi-years of efforts and sustainable engagement. Government partnership being the cornerstone of our model also introduces the biggest challenge, given the dynamic nature of changing governments and even more transitory nature of the bureaucracy. Hence, to maintain continuity, building widespread and deeper roots within each ministry or departments was critical and also most time consuming and challenging.

On building networks, the challenge is primarily of reaching out to millions of stakeholders. Here again we leveraged consolidators such as academic institutes for entrepreneurship and skill development; industry bodies or wealth managers for mentors and investors, and lastly leveraging technology has been the lynchpin of overcoming this challenge to reach masses.

Last but not the least is in building technology solutions. The Foundation hired the best technologists from both India and Silicon Valley and has now built a 100+ member team of technology and education experts to build game-changing learning and dissemination systems.

Q. What is the roadmap for creating a support system of start-ups to strengthen India’s economic growth by 2020 and make it a world leader on global map?

A. Two key developments are redefining the startup ecosystem in India. One, entrepreneurship is fast becoming mainstream not only in leading cities but the smaller towns led by Nagpur, Ahmedabad, Kochi are also witnessing new age entrepreneurship. This shows widespread acceptance and embracing of entrepreneurship as a career alternative across India. Two, that entrepreneurial ecosystems are coming of age is reflected in the fact that in 2014 more than 5 Indian startups had more than a billion dollar valuation and two additional got added in 2015.

However, it is important to note that the risk averse culture in India still prevails and that the number of start-ups is still very small. We need to show our prowess in sectors other than e-commerce and VCs/ Angels need to surface in sectors outside of e-commerce. To realise the full potential of and provide a fillip to the startup culture in India, we need to address key issues involving education, innovation, policies, financial infrastructure, incubators and accelerators, mentor pool and talent.

Witnessing the direct Government engagement is encouraging. For instance, the Govt’s ‘Make in India’ campaign is encouraging newer companies and start-ups. To promote entrepreneurship and encourage additional funding avenues for small firms, the Govt. has announced INR 1000 crore in the Union Budget of 2015. Reformed business regulations in order to create a hassle-free platform for emerging businesses to grow and evolve, will be another good starting point.

Q. Where do you see the foundation heading in the next five years? What are your future plans?

A. In India, the Foundation has recently announced an investment of USD 100 million aiming to create 25 million jobs in India by 2020 in partnership with Government investment and engagement. We hope to achieve this by creating 100 city eco-systems that are entrepreneurial and innovation hubs and job creating engines. Leveraging our tried and tested models and technology enabling the dissemination of our model we hope to take entrepreneurship education from 500 to 5,000 institutes and mentors and investors from 4000 to 25,000 mentors. To drive innovation, we are working with the Government to setup Small Business Innovation Research funds that would make innovation grants on competitive basis to 20,000 small businesses. We envision taking our skill development initiative from 1,000 to 50,000 schools, 10,000 colleges with overall capability to train 3 million students a year.

Parallely, we hope to replicate the India model globally. We experimented with this in Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia last year and we are planning to launch in Africa this year. In the next five years, the Foundation aims to replicate the successful India model in 15-25 additional countries.

The Smart CEO – May 2015

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