Midlife Entrepreneurship

My first interaction with Rashmi was sometime in the nineties. One of my students, Gaurav Sabnis, was working at IBM, after finishing his MBA from IIML. Gaurav was one of the first Indians on the blogging scene. He blogged about a B School chain, headquartered in Delhi, who were making great claims about their placements in full page ads placed in almost every national newspaper. The reality was that the Pony Tailed gentleman, who ran this chain of B schools, was paying companies the salaries to pay to its students. Pony Tail ensured favourable coverage by the media, thanks to his humongous ad budgets. So Gaurav’s blog troubled Pony Tail’s PR machine – and they made life miserable for Gaurav. Somewhere Rashmi also got pulled into this mess of numerous court cases that Pony Tail filed to scare off these guys. Maheshwer Peri, then editor of Outlook, also got pulled in. Outlook was the only magazine that dared to write about Pony Tail. All is well that ends well. Pony tail shut down his B Schools. Gaurav is a prof in a B school in New Jersey. Meheshwar runs a very successful education website – Careers360. And that leaves us with Rashmi, whose story we will hear.

Rashmi is from Mumbai. Went to IIM Ahmedabad to do her MBA – finished in 1991. Did not quite like the corporate world – and so decided to opt out of placements to focus on her first love – writing. In the 1990s, she started a magazine for college kids – JAM. I remember it as the Indian equivalent of MAD. Both these gems unfortunately are no longer in publication. JAM grew up to 25 people strong, but at some point of time, Rashmi realised that her real calling was in effecting social change – not running a business. Ironically, the area she focussed to write on was, business. She has 11 books to her credit. One of the lasting lessons at IIMA was from the case studies. Rashmi was sure that when she started writing about business, it would not be in the boring, statistics filled style of a B School case. She finds strategy to be a hindsight affair. At the time of taking the decision, the businessperson has no clue about what will work for her. She simply follows her intuition. To quote one of her book titles – it’s only when you look back at the past, do the dotsĀ  connect.

Most of her books are about entrepreneurship. She started with IIMA MBA entrepreneurs – and then moved on to those from small towns, women entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs and the like. Of all the entrepreneurial varieties, Rashmi has a soft corner for the techie types. She quotes the IIT Madras incubation center as a role model for future tech based companies. In contrast, B School entrepreneurs are ones who give first priority, not to the need of the customer, but to the greed of the venture capitalist. One of the questions asked to her was about a perceived aversion to entrepreneurship in top B schools. She agreed. She feels that most folks who do their MBAs are lured by security. Fresh MBA graduates want to be in the news only because of the package that they will get in placements. Also, the burden of huge financial loans in B schools today dissuades starting off on one’s own. Coming back to Rashmi, she is now looking at expanding her genre and trying out fiction. Am sure Chetan Bhagat, her junior from IIMA, can give her a few tips about what Indian junta is looking at in English stories.

Some of the questions put to her were about switching to entrepreneurship at 50. She seemed to dissuade the oldies in such thoughts. Entrepreneurship should happen without a Plan B. So best done early. It takes about 20 years to get a business up and running. She talked about other ways that oldies can contribute. The easiest is self employment. She quoted an interesting example of her self employed friend, who specialises in advising only family run businesses. Another way is to become an angel investor – and live a vicarious entrepreneurial life through your investee companies. Her real recommendation was to work with companies and NGOs as a mentor, and offer just good advice – for free. She has Sunil Handa of IIMA as her role model on that. Sunil has mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs, without ever asking for a stake. Sunil used to run a fairly successful company called Core Parentrals. Our batchmate Nattu was associated with Sunil in the corrugated boxes business that Core had launched. Unfortunately, Core and the boxes part of it, shut down later. Sunil used to run an interesting school in Ahmedabad – Eklavya. Sridhar and Venkat, both 93 batch of IIMA, were involved in setting up the school. But they had to part ways with Sunil – as they had a differing vision on how the school should be run. Incidentally, Sridhar went on to start Educational Initiatives – one of India’s most successful startups in the education space. And Venkat got busy with GiveIndia – a popular NGO to encourage charity in Indian junta.

Rashmi was asked about the post lockdown world. She feels that there will be a change for the better. Indian culture talks of the different stages in life. She pointed out that today’s middle class seems to be in Grihastha-ashram mode till the time of death. Hopefully, more of us will retire to the metaphorical jungles – and not worry about our kids and property. She feels that capitalism may have a more human face post lockdown – and is optimistic that the future will be one with reduced inequality. In keeping with that is Rashmi’s new motto – Stay Humble, Stay Simple.