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Rashmi Bansal is an author, columnist and blogger. She is also an entrepreneur -- she runs youth magazine JAM -- is mother to a nine-year-old daughter and is a visiting lecturer at various colleges and institutes. You might say that she has her finger in quite a few pies, and you would be right.
"People ask me how I find the time," she laughs. "But the truth is, if you really want to do something, it just happens. Five years ago if you told me I'd be doing all these things I wouldn't believe it, but now when I'm doing them, it doesn't seem like that big a deal."
Shifra Menezes caught up with Rashmi to find out more about her latest endeavour -- Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, a book about 25 IIM Ahmedabad [Images] graduates who chose the rocky road of entrepreneurship -- her learnings and her future projects.
How did the book come about?
The idea was basically Professor Rakesh Basant's, at the Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) at IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA). But when I heard the idea I felt, that this was the book I really wanted to write. I was thinking of doing something similar, and so it was more of both the ideas coming together.
Since I've been an entrepreneur myself, I'm a writer and I have covered entrepreneurship as a writer, the idea was very exciting to me. It wasn't something I just did as a project.
The idea was to release the book at the IIMA Entrepreneurs Conference (the first of its kind) in June where a lot of alumni visited the campus. A commercial release was not really planned. It just so happened that when the book was ready and it was unveiled at the conference that it was much appreciated and it was felt that we might think of releasing it for the general public as well.
The original brief was to write a book to inspire young people towards entrepreneurship, basically people in the B-school community and in related fields. The idea was to present people who have ventured out as entrepreneurs and nurture the idea that you can too.
There was a lot of learning for us as well, through this exercise. It began with the small idea to focus on graduates of IIMA who had become entrepreneurs and use their story as an inspiration not as a management case study where we look at the company, look at the strategy or how they became successful -- that is already something we do very well as managers but that is not what inspires people to go and do it themselves.
How did you go about the list?
The initial idea was to look at the success stories and pick up the success mantras, that is what every one wants to know. So the first thing we did was make a list of all the successful entrepreneurs we know of. That was quite a long list. We looked at success as it is thought of in the conventional sense -- companies that are publicly listed or close to being publicly listed. That accounted for 10-15 people.
Then we tried to make it more broad-based by looking at a variety of industries. So we consciously tried to seek out people from manufacturing, services etc. Once we had that list we started looking for people in the younger age bracket, maybe social entrepreneurs -- where they use entrepreneurship to further a social cause -- being creative, innovative but in a social context.
We also looked for people who thought it is not necessary to grow that big, maybe running a smaller organization because there was more creative satisfaction in it. So towards the end of the book, there are people with a different model of entrepreneurship.
How has the book been received?
Well, the book launched in September and the response has been astounding actually. We did not expect it to become as popular as it has. It has already sold about 14,000 copies. I think it's because of two things -- one is the subject, a lot of people are looking for stories like these. While there are stories out there like that of Dhirubhai Ambani, they seem to be of a different era. While their story is inspiring, it is not in such a modern context. So there are people in the book that you can more easily relate to -- you can say, 'This could be me'.
Secondly, because the book has been published by CIIE and the motive is not to make a large profit, it is being retailed only at Rs 125 which is a good thing. Given the subject, people would buy it at a higher price, but here they don't have to think twice.
How long did it take to bring the book to fruition?
It took nine months exactly. The first interview happened in October 2007. The actual writing started in December. It was completed in May and the first release was in June -- the private release where we gave it to students at IIM and alumni. We then brought out the public edition that was released in September.
There's quite an impressive list of people you have interviewed in the book. Who has been the most memorable for you?
A lot of people have asked me this question and it's very difficult to say. The thing is when I met them, everyone has a great story. When you sit down with somebody and they very honestly, sincerely tell you about their ups and downs, there is so much to learn from them.
The one person I would say is Venkat Krishnan of GiveIndia. That is a story I found really inspiring. It is very important to make an economic contribution, and all the entrepreneurs covered have created wealth and done a great service, but I think what Venkat has done in terms of using entrepreneurship in the social context is something that is interesting.
Even the facts that he has shared about himself -- that he was a brilliant student but he whiled away his time and tried to undertake interesting things in college -- a lot of young people can learn from that. The fact that they do not have to be totally focused on the future is important. Right from Class X we are planning our success. I think to be successful it is necessary to have a lot of experiences, to undertake new and different activities in college -- it's not just about having a single point focus and running towards one goal.
Did you notice a common thread that strings these people together?
The three things I would say they have in common is patience, courage and passion. In most cases they have seen really low periods and managed to come out on the other side much stronger. It's not just about being successful in one, two, three years. It might be over five or 10 or even 20 years, but they really believed in what they were doing and they stuck to it. It is not as if the goal was their destination. The journey towards that goal was something that they enjoyed.
Several of them are very wealthy today, but I do not think that that is what motivates them when they get up in the morning. It's just about being passionate about what you are doing, learning to do it better, doing something new, contributing to society in some way. Nobody defines their success in terms of market capitalization. Today when the stock market is on the ropes does that mean they feel less successful?
So once you have achieved the basic quality of life, it's all about giving back in different ways. Many have started foundations and initiatives by which they share their wealth with their employees, stakeholders. For instance Renuka Sugars has made the farmers themselves part of the shareholding in the company, which was a novel idea at the time. Or in the case of Orchid Pharma where pharmaceutical companies unlike software are not in the practice of giving shares to the employees, they have.
So the learning is that it is a team effort -- so it is not only about sharing wealth but the responsibility and the privileges.
You interact with today's youth a lot, visit colleges and lecture, do you find that the youth demonstrate the spark that these entrepreneurs did?
There is a growing trend among the youth to look beyond pay cheques. Of course today the pay cheques are very attractive, but we see year after year about 8-10 students who drop out of the placements and start their own companies. We don't hear about them simply because the first 3-5 years are a struggle. So we'll probably hear about those success stories a few years down the line. Also a lot of entrepreneurs start out with one company and then somewhere down the line they move on to something else. So the path to success is not immediately clear.
Again now with the US crisis, I think there is more discussion and introspection about how this happened and what was the meaning of the work you were doing there.
But there will always be two kinds of people -- the people who prefer being safe, more suited to being a manager and those who are more keen on taking risks and become entrepreneurs. Finally even an entrepreneur needs to employ managers. So you do need both kinds.
I do think more people are venturing out though. The scenario is different now. For many businesses you don't need a license, capital is more accessible now, equipment can be acquired on lease or hire-purchase etc. Also there is more confidence that 'I can go back and get a job if things don't work out'. There are many examples of people who have shut down their business and have gone back to the corporate world yet have not been seen as failures. There are a lot of lessons to be learned even in failure and there is still a value addition you can bring back to the company.
Tell us about JAM. How did it JAM begin?
Jam is a magazine of, for and by the youth. Before I decided to do an MBA, I was thinking that there was space for a magazine like this, and this continued after I did the MBA, so that was the thought behind it. I was about 24 at the time.
I think when you want to do something, you just decide to do it and do it. The motivation was to produce a great product, something that people are going to like.
It started in a room in our house, with one computer. In 1995, things were very different. We didn't have the internet, technology was backward, we took a bank loan to buy a Rs 50,000 scanner. So things have really changed since then. But we had the advantage of coming in at a time when there was less clutter. Today, when you start something new, there are a hundred other distractions. Back then we created a big impact because there was nothing else like it -- it was fresh and different.
How is JAM faring now?
Now it is a national magazine, we sell about 35,000 copies every fortnight. Also now the internet is everywhere, so we have a vibrant website that is like a daily magazine since it is updated several times a day. We have a social networking platform in the website, where people can interact.
We have always been focused on being a forum where students, journalists can interact. So we do attract a lot of high-quality writers. Anyone who wants to get published for the first time thinks of us.
Plus people are looking for certain media brands where they are assured of quality. So that is another place we figure among the clutter on the internet -- information that is well-written, interesting, entertaining. That is what our readers look to us for.
Tell us about your blog.
The blog (youthcurry.blogspot.com/) is essentially about careers, education, any interesting trends in marketing among other things. The fact is that youth issues are so broad, that you could probably cover just about anything and get away with it.
The blog has become quite popular now, but I had only started it for my own writing pleasure, so I'm happy that people come there. But it's not like I have a set mandate.
What do you do in your free time?
Well, I read a lot and travel. Also I recently took up cooking -- as a hobby. So I'm experimenting with that -- it's been interesting.
Your plans for the future?
JAM has a whole new young team now of about 25, and they have a lot of plans. They will be launching an education portal soon.
I am basically now moving towards becoming a full-time writer. So I do have a few ideas for books in mind and hopefully the next book will take not nine but three months. The next project will again be non-fiction -- it's about 30 people under the age of 30 who have either done something different or have made a difference. So it could include social entrepreneurs, social work etc. I haven't shortlisted too many names yet. But I have complete faith that in this huge country, finding 30 people should not be too difficult.
There are so many ideas out there, but only when you narrow it down do you actually find the gems and the focus. Even with Stay Hungry Stay Follish, people ask why only IIM A, it's because it was a start, maybe in the future we'll look at a broader spectrum. The focus was the fact that they did not become successful because they went to IIMA but despite it.
So with the next book, there is this image of young people being lazy, selfish, materialistic, so the aim is to dispel that idea. It would be interesting to catch them at this stage.
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