THE UNLIKELY ENTREPRENEUR

By Vikram Subramanya

Moneymaker and shrewd – undeniably the first two words that we often instinctively associate with an entrepreneur. Depending on where you come from, these traits assume with equal ease either positive or negative connotations. True to our collective imagination, the entrepreneur has lived up to the expectations across time (from Antonio, the Merchant of Venice in the 15th century to Bangladesh’s son Mohammud Yonus of Grameen Bank in 2010) and place (from Apple’s magician-cum-CEO Steve Jobs of Cupertino, California to the dedicated Dabbawallas of Mumbai, India).
This essay, as you may have guessed from the title, is not about entrepreneurs. Rather, it is about their relatives, who I’ve dubbed Unlikely Entrepreneurs. Seeing as how I coined the term, it’s my duty to define it:

An Unlikely Entrepreneur is “one whose act of entrepreneurship is an unintended/inadvertent consequence of doggedly pursuing a goal/passion that is either completely unrelated or only peripherally related to the enterprise or innovation it kicks in, and/or the market potential it unlocks.”

The Unlikely Entrepreneurs described in this piece share several common features with entrepreneurs. Here are some of the traits that characterize them:

1. Most individual personalities, if not all, are erstwhile entrepreneurs prior to taking up causes/issues that push them into this list. As a result, they bring to the table the same qualities of risk-taking, innovation and the self-drive [1] that an average entrepreneur would.

2. They are also found in the cream among their industry peers — typically the richest, the most famous, and the most intelligent. It’s not uncommon to find them putting their riches, fame, and intelligence to good use to doggedly pursue their agenda.

3. While maintaining such a high-profile status would mount public pressure on them to succeed, the sheer complexity of the issue they try to champion would give them just enough legroom to wriggle out when the situation demands.

4. The “ultimate decider” for their inclusion on the list, however, is revealed in the conclusion of this essay.

The second class of Unlikely Entrepreneurs is made up of formal institutions or informal entities. The individual members of the community may not be entrepreneurial, but are, as a group, a force to be reckoned with. They attain fame and popular acceptance through their high-profile opponent or through the high stakes involved in their faceless operation/struggle.

But what ultimately qualifies these persons or communities as Unlikely Entrepreneurs is that they have accidently unlocked potential to a previously unknown or untapped market.

The rich, famous and intelligent in tech and politics—i.e. Sergey Brin of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Nandan Nilekani of Infosys (pictured left), Nobel Laureates President Barack Obama and Al Gore—make it to the list despite, and not because of, their proven entrepreneurial skills. As you move further into the essay, you will find some surprise community inclusions as well: from Iranian anti-government protesters to Chinese Internet authorities. Unlikely Entrepreneurs indeed…

Govern-trepreur: Entrepreneur stepping into corridors of power… (July 2009)

World over, democracies have rarely elected governments with the efficiency, efficacy and trustworthiness of a private enterprise. The enlightened citizenry in developed countries are eternally worried about the reach and growth of government, while cutting slack to the reach and growth of big enterprises. The emerging democracies are particularly vulnerable, since big government is the rule rather than the exception and most governmental initiatives get stuck in bureaucracy and corruption. What happens when an entrepreneur decides to enter the government? Will the buzzwords like efficiency and efficacy follow him/her into public office? Is the public more likely to patiently hear out the ideas of an erstwhile entrepreneur than those of a politician?

These questions have become especially pertinent in the wake of the perceived “material success” of nations with non-democratic forms of government—most notably in China. I will begin by investigating India’s celebrated technocrat and entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, who tried to shape the public policy of an incredibly complex nation of over a billion people.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call India the most successful experiment in democracy to date. Its vibrant political parties, freedom of speech and secular Constitution seem incompatible with its diversity, poverty and location. Sadly, effective governance is nowhere to be found. It is not without reason that India is called a “sleeping giant”. Citizens find their elected governments in limbo, and are caught in a web of red tape the moment they have to deal with local, regional or national administration.

By early 2008, Nandan Nilekani was a satisfied man, having just given up his position as the CEO [2] of Infosys Technologies (IT), arguably India’s finest tech jewel. Retreating into the background, he began writing about his idea of a new emerging India, and published a book loaded with policy prescriptions to tame India’s bureaucracy by using IT. He proposed awarding a unique identity to every citizen of the country as a way to check pilferage of taxpayer coffers in the name of Public Distribution System (PDS) and to tackle a national security issue arising out of illegal immigration across India’s highly porous eastern borders. The crux of his argument was that the governmental benefits would reach the intended beneficiary only when the avenues for middlemen to divert funds were plugged.

When his book, “Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation,” was published in 2008, it caught the attention of India’s intellectual elite, but the media and political leaders largely dismissed his proposals as the babblings of an intellectual without a sense of reality. Providing a unique biometric identity to each of India’s billion citizens was described an implementation nightmare, for there was no precedence even in the most developed of countries. Only the most naïve would have argued that any government had the wherewithal to even glance at the proposal.

As of today, one year and an election later (that surprisingly threw up a stable coalition with a forward-looking economist Prime Minister at helm in New Delhi), Nandan Nilekani is no longer associated with his $4.6B company in Bangalore. He has instead assumed a full-time role as the Chairperson of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) at the Centre. Projected to cost upwards of $6B, multinational tech giants including Microsoft, Google, IBM and Yahoo! have publicly vied with each other to grab a share of the bounty, and have lobbied with Mr. Nilekani’s office and with the Prime Minister [3]. The entrepreneur in Mr. Nilekani seems to have carried the efficiency with him into the government, and the authorities are set to roll out the first batch of UIDs this year, and hope to hand out an estimated 600 million people in next five years [4].

Forbes magazine has rightly hailed him India’s very own Govern-trepreneur [5]. His work after Infosys may not qualify as entrepreneurship, but that does not mean it is any less risk-taking or innovative. I would not hesitate for a moment to call Mr. Nilekani an Unlikely Entrepreneur.

Googling in China: Poles apart, but both Unlikely Entrepreneurs (Jan 2010)

My next case is a topic that’s currently being hotly debated right now. What I go on to show in this section is that both parties involved have indirectly helped nurture the spirit of entrepreneurship.

Sergey Brin

Google Inc’s spectacular public disclosure of the hacking attacks originating from China, and its defiant posture on Internet censorship ever since have fueled a series of analyses—aimed at dissecting the possible repercussions on three actors: Google, China, and the Obama administration’s China-centric foreign policy. For the purposes of this topic, I will consider only the first two.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, American media seemed to conclude that Google, or any company with ambitions for a globalized world, couldn’t ignore China without impacting its bottom line. Although Google’s current revenue from China is insignificant, China’s online population is believed to hold the key to future revenue sources. The media led by The Wall Street Journal [6] speculated that Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin pushed for the public confrontation with China. While this was hailed as momentous in some quarters, others saw it as hypocritical [7, 8].
Until recently, when Shanghai University researcher Scott Moskowitz [9] hinted at the changes that might be occurring at Ground Zero in China’s technology industry space. It is a popular belief among western companies that political patronage is a pre-requisite to prosperous business in China. Even some Chinese companies lack access to the full potential of the Chinese market, for the government’s willingness to ensure a level-playing field is inadequate. Mr. Moskowitz hopes Google’s high-profile episode will level the playing field by pacifying wary foreign investors.

If this indeed happens in the near future, I think Sergey Brin’s insistence on sticking to Google’s values may inadvertently become a blessing in disguise for fledgling Chinese entrepreneurs and those hoping for an open competition and a market slice. Wouldn’t that be an example of Unlikely Entrepreneurship on Mr. Brin’s part?

China’s Internet authorities

On the other end of the spectrum is the Chinese government, whose credibility lies in ensuring economic prosperity and inclusive growth. To achieve this, the government has enforced strict regulations on the Internet over any content it deems to be potentially politically destabilizing. There have been media reports [10] that popular services offered by Western companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been banned across the country for indefinite periods of time as a way to control societal unrest and populism. Should Google start defying government censors in its search results, it could be next in line to face the ban.

Do these bans mean that Internet users in Chine are inconvenienced? Yes. Is this inconvenience enough to trigger widespread outrage against the government? Perhaps yes in some other part of the world, but not in China. Most of China’s Internet users rely on homegrown services. From Alibaba to Baidu to Taobao, the products are tailor-made to meet local needs. Western companies have found this, combined with the users’ sense of pride in using these services, very difficult to surpass. Consequently, the inevitability of a Facebook or a Twitter in a Chinese user’s online life is, at best, limited.

What created such a thriving environment for the local tech industries? In the neighboring India, which also has a massive number of online users, people are used to the offerings of American companies. Though India has been seen as the prowess of Information Technology over the last two decades, no homegrown companies have been popular enough to last. This is due to governmental actions, language and culture issues, but most importantly for the following reason:

While the developing countries slept through the early years of 1990’s when it came to promoting technology companies, the IT revolution took place in the US. The US rightly took credit as the world’s IT superpower, and Silicon Valley and Redmond employ the most talented engineers and most daring entrepreneurs in the world. By late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the hard work of these partnerships was bearing fruit in the form of Windows/Mac Operating Systems, Microsoft Office Suite, Google Search Engine, etc. Next in line were services like Facebook, Twitter and the new age of social media.

By the time China and India realize the strategic benefits of creating such technologies themselves in the late 2000’s, it was already too late. Their tech-savvy citizens were already reaping the benefits of the products outsourced Silicon Valley and Redmond “for free,” meaning without the investment and hard work that they (or their fellow countrymen, or their governments) put in to create those marvelous products.

From a world without any of these technologies, taking the very first step to a world with Google, Facebook, and Twitter is hard. The US had taken the first step to claim the title of IT superpower. China dreamed of being one too, but was faced with the challenge of having to take the second step — the US had already taken the first on China’s behalf too by providing access Chinese citizens. Taking the second step calls for radical rethinking of how these technologies serve their respective purposes.

But the policies of Chinese authorities in charge of Internet monitoring have proved a real savior for Chinese entrepreneurs. A native developer of Baidu—China’s equivalent to Facebook—no longer had to face competition from Facebook (which otherwise could have easily deterred him from his business). Whenever Facebook was frequently banned or disrupted, its users turned to his service. Google.com lost a vast chunk of its customers to Baidu as the government gateways slowed down the site to check for banned results.

Inadvertently, the government-imposed restrictions on certain Internet services have propelled the growth of indigenous industry. Chinese Internet monitoring authorities qualify as being Unlikely Entrepreneurial.

Iran’s Twitter Moment (June 2009)

As the results of Iran’s June 2009 presidential election were announced, protesters took to the streets of Tehran in unseen numbers. With their own newly elected government determined to use force against them, perhaps the last thing on the minds of the protesters was the monetizing problems of a fledgling company in Silicon Valley.

In their air-conditioned offices in San Francisco, Twitter engineers suddenly saw a massive surge of incoming requests from Iran, almost squeezing their barely floating network infrastructure. Then came a request from U.S. Department of State to postpone a planned upgrade to the site to coincide with the late night in Iran [12]. And with it a market potential to those who cared to see it – Twitter had the potential to supplement the call center industry, if not entirely kill it [13]. That was especially true of the calls that cried for emergency help. San Francisco City Government [14] has already adopted it to reduce its customer care call volume. Will others follow suit? We know Haiti did in January 2010 [15].

Sandwiched between the warzones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the anti-government protesters in Tehran are our Unlikely Entrepreneurs.

Unlikely Entrepreneur-in-Chief President Barack Obama (November 2008)

My final example in this essay is perhaps the most obvious one for anyone who closely followed the extended US presidential campaign of 2008. While there were many firsts to the campaign that added to its novelty for the American voter, the presidential campaign managers would rate the enterprise shown by Obama’s campaign as the most memorable takeaway. He scaled new heights with each online donation, and was a game changer when it came to accountability in spending. The tight discipline of his campaign was one of the many reasons that endeared him to voters.

Then, there is philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who, by pouring massive sums of his wealth into healthcare across Africa and India, has awakened similar response from governments around the world. Nobel Laureate Al Gore single-handedly brought the issue of global warming to the national forefront. In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama said the country that leads in CleanTech or Green Entrepreneurship in the next decade will lead the world.

The list here is by no means exhaustive, but the ultimate defining factor that qualifies one as an Unlikely Entrepreneurs is that the entrepreneur must possess immense passion and expend energy to achieve their goal, working not for money, but with the core beliefs and value system necessary to carry them through the thickest and thinnest times.

References

NOTE: This article was written in February 2010. A limited version of this text was submitted to St. Gallen’s Symposium 2010 Student Competition. The author can be contacted at vikram.s3@cs.ucsd.edu.

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