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In His Core Lies the Good Old IITian
Zoya Anna Thomas
Monday, October 5, 2009
When he helped found the IITs in 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister didn’t realize that he was giving his best gift to the nation. In India, most students, staff, and alumni look at campus incubators as the perfect launch pad for their business ideas. Easy access, infrastructure, and most importantly, mentoring are the advantages that attract most students to campus incubators. And leading the list of campus incubators are those of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

IIT is of course, as everyone knows, in a class of its own. This technology institute churns out more entrepreneurs than any other institute in India. Check any successful Indian company, and chances are there will be an IITian among its top executives. Talk about experienced entrepreneurs and successful organizations, and several IITian names crop up. Vinod Khosla (IIT-Delhi) the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and one of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley would be the best example.

So what is that extra zing that makes IITians different? What additional value do they add to build their companies differently and make them successful? The sprawling campuses, the world-class infrastructure, the best professors, or maybe the very talented and resourceful students themselves are the drive behind this. Speak to any IITian entrepreneur, and he will concur. However, a majority of them say that it is the confidence that IIT education gives, which makes them stand in good stead.

“There is one thing that you would come across as a characteristic in every IITian and that is immense confidence, which springs from a deep sense of self-belief. The very fact that every individual who clears the prestigious IIT-JEE examination knows what competition is and has toiled and has gone and grown through the tough times instils such confidence in him that he considers everything possible,” says Vamsi Krishna (IIT-Bombay), founder and Director at Lakshya.

It is this confidence that propels many IITians towards entrepreneurship. After coming into the IIT, they interact with different people, all from various backgrounds and from different parts of the country. Four years are spent with intellectual people who have mutual respect, because everyone knows that the people, who they are sitting with, also deserve being there.

Vamsi, along with three other IITians, founded Lakshya, which is an educational enterprise, conceptualized with a vision to make a visible change in the way education is imparted, learning is perceived, and teaching is delivered. Currently, operating in the engineering and medical entrance-training segment, it differentiates itself by having a strong online integration to its offline teaching.

IITians are also good at tackling problems. This is because of the way IIT education carves them as risk takers. As Vamsi says, IITians by nature are very strong in analytics. “I feel that IIT system and the kind of interaction IITians have among themselves makes them good problem solvers. All have a good ability to structure a problem in a better way and go about solving it in the most innovative manner possible.”

“In the case of a startup there are a lot of things that one does at the start, which defines the organization. At Lakshya, we tried to question the industry from the grass-root level and tried to analyze the very basics of some processes. For instance, the teachers in our industry were all recruited from experience. But we found that there were issues with it, so we changed the rhetoric and started getting fresh graduates, and to train them we conceptualized a very innovative training process. The advantage we found with this system was that the freshness of the institute could be maintained and culture could be propagated in a much better way. Many such examples can be attributed to the approach with which we used to organize our technical fest in IITs and the methodology of looking at a problem, brainstorming and analyzing deeply, which has now become a habit,” says Vamsi.

IIT incubators too have a major role to play in laying the foundation of a startup. Take for instance, Hexolabs, a mobile value added services (mVAS) company founded by Rajamanohar, an alumni of IIT-Kanpur. The company was built in collaboration with IIT-Kanpur at its SIDBI Innovation and Incubation center, in 2006. Today, its flagship product, Mobile Antakshari (a first of its kind speech applications app store product) has managed 1.1 lakh subscribers within the first three months of its launch. Ask Rajamanohar, how much the IIT education has helped in building the company and he says, “A lot. Our collaboration with IIT-Kanpur gives us the advantage of a strategic in-campus location for our Product Innovation Lab with access to amazing, newfangled technology. At the heart of our work is the state-of-the-art infrastructure and a secluded research environment.”

IIT allows its students to work on industry-based projects, giving them the necessary quality academic value. But it is not just the ‘gyaan’ (knowledge) that adds value to how they build their companies. The opportunity to work with the industry while pursuing their studies is an added value. “Apart from the academics, the extracurricular activities that involve learning problem solving techniques and lateral thinking also help in building confidence,” says Rajamanohar.

Perhaps it is the high standards, which compel most of them to average fewer than five hours of sleep a night, become masters at problem solving, and tread the path of success. After putting in years of hard work to get into this elite institute in India, who wouldn’t dream of building something big?

Aloke Bajpai and Rajnish Kumar (both alumni of IIT-Kanpur), co-founders of Ixigo, a travel search engine, were working in Amadeus (a travel technology corporate) when they decided to plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. “As IITians who had acquired key domain skills outside India, we could return to India and put them to use for value creation. We kept thinking – if we don’t go back and launch India’s leading travel meta-search engine, then who would?” says Aloke. In the last two years, Ixigo has become one of the fastest growing travel sites in the country without significant marketing – most of it has been word of mouth or organic growth.

The biggest virtue for an entrepreneur that these founders learnt at IIT was to be able to stay humble and have a constant hunger to learn more. “Before coming to IIT, everyone thought they were the big shots from their schools, but after meeting some really brainy people there, you realize that no matter what your credentials or education is, you have a lot to learn from everyone around you. I think entrepreneurship is a tough path – you often have to carve your own path on uncharted terrain, and only some unfavorable decisions, shifts, or external events can make the difference between success and failure,” adds Aloke.

The fact remains that today even as many of its alumni might be heading some of the biggest corporations in the world, there are very few who will not value the virtues gained at their alma mater. As Aloke puts it, “The things we learnt at IIT while not studying will remain with us for good – passion for what we do, persistence and perseverance to get to where we want to get to, and mixing fun with work to make work feel like fun.”
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