Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The New Seed-Keepers

A few days ago, this film The Seed-Keepers totally blew me away, and that I've already blogged about. A valiant group of Dalit women in Andhra, keeping an age-old custom of a diversity of seeds alive from year to year, so that the nextgen - both of the seeds variety as well as children of these families, blossom and prosper.

On Sunday, the IITB e-cell organized an e-summit on entrepreneurship, where the Venture Capital muscle was out on display. To facilitate and 'incubate' the next-gen of the top end of young entrepreneurs. Names such as Canaan, Sherpalo, Helion, Seedfund, GlobalLogic, DFJ and many more. With India the flavor of the season, the hardened Silicon Valley 'seed-keepers' were here in full strength. I attended all day, and have come away with thoda sa queasy, thoda sa theek-thaak feelings. We students of IITB did not have to pay a penny ultimately, though the initial 'you can attend' mail told us IITians had to cough up teen sau rupaiya for lunch. Wow, was there a big outside contingent willing to pay much more, to attend the proceedings of the day. Yet, the thing is, I just did not feel completely gung-ho, in spite of the amount of money that sponsors had been willing to throw at this event (free lunch got added later, comprende?) , the media presence - that all went to indicate the general hope in the air of prosperity and riches.

And that precisely is what I am feeling odd about. No one says VCs are expected to be philanthropists. Sure, they are here to make money. But why did I get a feeling that reminded me of vultures swooping in for the kill? Talking of payback in 4 to 6 years, seed capital of 2 to 5 crores, IT this and IT that. Bade bade baatein. Oonche oonche nazar.

One fellow in one of the multiple sessions, from the audience, clad in a kurta, asked a pertinent question - in Hindi... Why is it that VCs do not 'micro-finance' entrepreneurship. Pay out Rs. 5 lakhs, 10 lakhs to hundreds of people - as versus seeking to pay out in crores to a few dozen. Why not a more 'social entrepreneur' role... I am not sure he got any clear answer.

And of the 'speakers' / 'mentors' / 'panel discussion members', the less said the better. The hype overshadowed the content. A great idea the e-summit, that got jacked by some strange folks who participated as speakers. But first, the good bit : Among the guys who were phenomenal, in their scope of thinking, were Ashish Gupta, of Junglee fame, and said to be one of the original 'seeders' of Google, and Sharad Sharma of Yahoo. Their two-man session sparkled, wit, gyan, food for thought all compounded wonderfully. A total pleasure and joy to behold. Total paisa-vasool. Ultimately, to all potential entrepreneurs, this is what one aims to be - that 'all-is-well' with the world, that bone-deep confidence.

In other sessions was Manik Arora, full of polite postures up on the stage, and while on camera to the media, and otoh, totally unwilling to give the time of day to genuine questions when I overheard him being asked outside - with a brusque "I don't have the time". In other words, if you are not a potential entrepreneur who I can make money out of, bugger off and do not disturb me. (And come to think of it, does doing a top-level job in an entrepreneurship company make one an entrepreneur?? Aka Manik-man as well as some others... Hitesh Oberoi who came in from Naukri for example (I thought that was Sanjeev Bhikchandani's baby??) ) Vivek Bhargava, another chap, so called entrepreneur made an ass of himself up on stage by using 'real' parenthood as versus adopted parenthood as a metaphor, that he was actually clueless about. Perhaps he should be reading today's newspaper item about this child who is hearing handicapped and has found a loving home with this couple in Bhopal.

Sab baccha party entrepreneurs, green behind the ears (behind the years?) - as we would say. This brings upfront the inherent contradiction... Ajit Balakrishnan of rediff (in the first panel discussion of the day) felt there was a need for many more mentors of the 45 to 60 year age-band variety. Kahan hai, bhai??

Rajendra Mishra arrived - if his name did not mean much, his intro in the booklet said 'Serial Entrepreneur' . If that still did not mean anything, his face (rather than his name) said 'RK Mishra' - Ah!
He was, justifiably, on a euphoric high, enjoying his 15 minutes of fame. This then is the guy who had just won the Lead India the previous evening, and was splattered across the front page of one - merely one (not others, of course!) daily. In today's world, 'news' is not common news - it is branded news - the papers decide who will be on their personal front pages.

Anyway, what he did - and good for him! - was that he generally threw a necessary spanner in the works - by demolishing the entire line-up of 'stars on display' at the summit as an unnecessary 'dotcom' e-venture.
Why is it, he asked, that all the speakers here are from software? If that is what IIT is about, you should just halt all other departments and only keep Computer Science. And where is the 'giving back to society' within all these talk of crores and billions?

Perhaps Mr. Ramadorai, the TCS head had the last word in his first words (he was the keynote speaker) - India had 13 million retail outlets. That tells you about the power of entrepreneurship in this country. The entrepreneurial spirit rather than the making-big-money factor.

Which is a theme, I think, that the e-cell organizers, need to do next year. Invite some grass-roots folks - banie ke dukan wale hi sahi; vegetable vendor hi sahi. In fact, we sorely need a reality check of a session that can no way be conducted in English. Yet of the success stories that keep this country rooted. And there are the top-end folks such as Dangayach of Sintex; that guy who's in the new rupee billionaire list - what's his name, from IIMA, who makes those sugar factories in Belgaum and so many more... Narendra Murkumbi, I think...Connected to the land, not flying up there folks. Most real (and really big) entrepreneurs always display a certain amazing quality - of not working for the money, and yet the money comes rolling in. These guys then channelize most of the funds in very interesting social ways. ... These are those who have understood the Swami Vivekananda diktat of 'Those alone live, who live for others' even as we take our country forward. It is time to move away from making the Ambani brothers our icons - who we only hear of, in terms of rocks worn around their necks or Gulf-Jets given as birthday gifts... More stories of folks like Dangayach who keeps insisting he is not a entrepreneur (if he is not, God knows who is!), the Subhiksha guy, our IIT's Dunu Roy, Shailesh Gandhi....

And of course, we would all gain by watching 'The Seed-Keepers' - the real seed-keepers that is! To begin with, those who missed the film , might as well read a bit about it.

Last word: I thought, paediatricians use 'incubators' only if a child is born premature? :-) :-)

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