Innovating is More Guts than Glory

Let’s Talk Innovation

I’ve been thinking about (also reading, talking, questioning and exploring) innovation in India a lot lately (don’t ask why). As a result of all this pondering and deliberating, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in both absolute and relative terms, innovation in India does not really exist in any meaningful way. Just so we are on the same page, innovation involves applying an invention and creating a business out of it.

We can debate the conclusion I’ve reached another time (it’s best done over a bottle of fine vino), but let me put forth the reasons why I think this is the case –

1. A lack of adequate funding sources.

2. The number of examples of innovation successes in India: (sadly) negligible.

3. Few incubators or similar support systems across the country.

4. A lack of encouragement for innovation, starting with primary education (rote learning and memorization for exams are still par for the course – where from will arise any creative thinking?)

5. Scarcity of risk-taking and a general lack of appetite for risk among individuals, communities and Indian society at large.

Indian Society and Risk

While all of these reasons contribute to why there’s a dearth of innovation in India, I believe it’s worth exploring further why Indians who live in India have such an aversion for risk.  I qualify the geography because I have personally seen many Indians who live in the US who don’t exhibit the same quality (even when they should… 🙂 ).

Risk is (beyond a doubt) anathema to Indians.

Let’s imagine a well-off Indian middle-class family. What do they want for their children?  An excellent education followed by a secure job, preferably in a solid mid-to-large company. Let him become a doctor, an engineer or investment banker.  

Let him not pursue a vocation or follow his heart or creative talent. Let him not think of doing his own thing (that can be a hobby). All of this is drummed into them from when they are little, and there’s very little room for the children to maneuver around it or explore something different from the norm.

The problem with innovation and entrepreneurship is clear: there are no guarantees.

You have to take a risk.

You have to assume that there is a good possibility for failure.

And this is simply not tolerated in Indian society. So there you are – all by your lonesome as you try your hand at a risky venture, knowing that if you fail – you will be even more on your lonesome!  Perhaps even ostracized.

Where is the support system and what safe landing? So, why would one even bother?  It would not be too far from the truth to say that this is the thinking of 99.9% of Indians and who can really blame them?

A Few Famous (U.S.) Innovators

Consider these famous U.S. entrepreneurs and innovators – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen and Larry Ellison.  

Guess what they had in common?  They are all school drop-outs – at some stage or the other, each of them dropped out to pursue their individual dreams. I am sure these decisions were not welcomed by their families, but I doubt that they were shunned because of them either.

Can you just imagine the guts it would take for an Indian to drop out of school here? Whoa! Trust me, it would take an exorbitant level of mettle and fortitude…it would take a rare individual, indeed.

Will Things Change?

Yet, for all the truth and hype about India’s status as one of the great, emerging economies of the world, the sad truth is that this country will really miss out if the current (non-)innovation quotient does not change. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the country will be dealing itself a debilitating blow. 

There is no disagreement among world economists and thought leaders that innovation is a critical factor for a nation’s progress. It can accomplish all of the following:

1. Create a more competitive and healthy national economy.

2. Create jobs.

3. Create a better quality of living for its citizens.

Bill Gates writes an annual letter on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It so happened that his letter for 2012 arrived in my inbox this week. Here is just the first paragraph –

Throughout my careers in software and philanthropy—and in each of my annual letters—a recurring theme has been that innovation is the key to improving the world. When innovators work on urgent problems and deliver solutions to people in need, the results can be magical.

So, India

Here you are, packing such sheer numbers of people with boundless brainpower at their command – what an unfortunate wasted future if you don’t wake up and channel some of that human capital into INNOVATION.  Imagine what glorious innovation is possible if you unleash the potential of your sons and daughters!




Posted on February 2, 2012, in india and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for another fantastic post! I love the way you don’t shy from calling out the white elephant in the room.

    Indians study by rote, copy-pasting from book to brain and brain to exam answer sheet. By the time they graduate, most have learned merely to REPRODUCE, not CREATE from scratch. When they enter the job market the pattern continues. They REPRODUCE the job preferences of the previous generations, clamouring to be doctors, engineers and chartered accountants…rather than blazing NEW trails.

    That’s why, while Indians smugly think of the Tata Nano as one of our biggest innovations, it’s nothing but, as Thomas Friedman described, “cheap copies of the west’s worst habits”.

    Friedman (a big India fan, btw) rues the fact that Indian engineers, instead of creating the Nano, and further clogging up Indian roads, did not apply their brains to redesigning the mass transport system from scratch. According to him, that would have benefited not just Indian commuters and travellers, not just the environment, but even the engineers themselves, who could have sold the innovation to the developed world (who would have gladly bought it) and made lots of money that way.

    I hope the powers-that-be-in the Indian government and in the corporate world read this post carefully.

    p.s. I also hope that Ratan Tata reads this post, kicks himself in the rear and sends you a few million dollars for opening his eyes, even if a tad too late.

    • Thank you, Mr.Kabra. I’m glad you agree. I’m not sure how many Indians would. However, from everything I have seen and read (a lot!), I find evidence to support these observations. There are a few examples of innovation. There are a few incubators (such as SINE at IIT-Bombay) but they are few and far between. There is a lot of wasted potential in India. But it will take tremendous cultural and social change to transform this country. I just hope it happens over time.


      P.S. I would welcome Mr. Ratan Tata’s call – with or without millions of dollars!

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