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NRI entrepreneurs

Igniting the start-up spirit

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AT HOME: Vinod Chandran (left) and his business partner Jawad Ayaz. Chandran left his software job in the US and returned to India in 1995

In 2005, Abhijit 'Bobby' Bose moved to Bangalore from San Francisco. His move shocked many. As a second generation Indian-American, he didn't have any strong ties with the home country. But Bose believed that India had the potential and opportunity to replicate a Silicon Valley.

Bose, who has an engineering degree from Cornell University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, moved to India as the Asia-Pacific head of a company, but the entrepreneurial itch soon set in. He joined forces with ngpay, India's biggest 'mobile mall'.

Today, Bose is the CEO of the sevenmonth-old start-up Ezetap, a mobile payments solution company.

"Around 2004-05, the India story was becoming evident. Everyone was talking about the opportunities here, and the enthusiasm was infectious. It was something like the 1980s in Silicon Valley, a period when some very iconic companies were created in the Bay Area. There is a similar excitement about India now, and it makes it difficult to stay away, " says Bose.

India at this moment, perhaps, is at its entrepreneurial best and the start-up enthusiasm is being driven by both by NRI returnees and locals. The IT sector best illustrates this point. Estimates by consulting firm Zinnov show that 1, 126 software product businesses were formed between 2006 and 2010, more than double the 539 formed between 2001 and 2005. The number reached a peak of 297 in 2007, and remained at about the same level in the following year. In the subsequent years, the number dropped to nearly half that. But this year, early numbers indicate that the product start-up enthusiasm may be rising again.

Most of these start-ups follow the Bose mode. Indians rarely drop out of college to start a business. The preferred route is: work at a large company, gain relevant experience and then venture out with like-minded people. Starting a business is still seen as risky in India and there are many instances where one spouse continues to hold down a corporate job while the other pursues the startup dream.

But the demonstration effect is strong in this field. The success of their peers in Silicon Valley - the billion dollar valuations, the instant celebrityhood, the lionising in the media - acts as a powerful motivator. A lot of ventures leverage NRIs contacts and access to markets with local engineering and execution.

"NRIs we have encountered, especially the many who have spent time in Silicon Valley and who engage in entrepreneurship activities, bring a lot of experience with the entrepreneurial culture that makes young companies successful, as well as the nuts-and-bolts of running an innovative, fast-growing young business. They add a lot to start-up teams, allowing them to rapidly move up their learning curve. It's often a powerful combination to have a mix of the right NRI and local experience on a team, " says Laura Parkin, co-founder and director of the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). Most importantly, NRIs exposed desi entrepreneurs to the joys of venture funding. "Many of them (NRIs) came from strong entrepreneurial environments and attracted venture funding. They made start-ups here realise they didn't always have to depend on family money, " says Vijay Anand, creator of the Indian entrepreneurial network Proto. in and currently CEO of start-up accelerator The Startup Centre. NRI entrepreneurs also drove the formation of world-class networks such as The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) which benefit start-ups in numerous ways, he adds. Serial entrepreneur Vinod Chandran returned to India after nine years of working in the US software industry in 1995, "long before it was fashionable", as he puts it. Along with business partner Jawad Ayaz, he founded two companies in the telecom space before moving to the Internet trend du jour, online retail, with www. 20North. com. Chandran is passionate about creating wealth for India and Indians and feels Indians who have worked abroad have considerable and unique experience that can be used to do so. "With the right government policies and tax incentives, Indian companies can capitalise on the growing Indian consumer demand and have the local needs met by domestic companies rather than those from abroad, " says Chandran. Lakshmi Pratury, host and curator of the INK Conference, who organised India's first full-fledged TED conference in Mysore in 2009, echoes Parkin when she says real innovation happens when people from different cultures and with different levels of sophistication mingle. She calls India, with its 20 years of liberalisation, a young adult in global terms. "There are certain values that we as Indians need to learn, for instance achieving perfection for its own sake and taking real pride in one's own work. Entrepreneurs who have been exposed to global practices tend to understand and appreciate the importance of such values, " she says.

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