India’s New Age Investor, Inspired To Create A Global Brand
India has been referred to as a ‘hotbed’ for social enterprise and startups. Millennials are turning to careers in tech and innovation, launching their own ventures instead of signing up for ‘9-5’ careers. But the ecosystem to support these entrepreneurs is still very weak in the subcontinent, says Rajesh Sawhney (@rajeshsawney), the former CEO of Reliance Entertainment. So he’s decided to break away from films and return to tech by building an Indian incubator with global reach.
GSF Accelerator aims to identify the best of India’s tech startups and help them scale and create social impact.
Esha Chhabra (@esh2440), writer and social entrepreneur, caught up with Sawhney about venture capitalists in India, impact investing, and mobile innovation.
Why is the venture capital space in India so lacking? What is holding it back?
The issue is that VCs in India don’t dream big. Initial setbacks have forced many to focus on smaller opportunities and seek average returns rather than funding local innovation.
I believe the VC industry needs to change its mindset and get back to seeking exceptional returns by backing the exceptional ideas of exceptional entrepreneurs.
GSF is partnering with global institutions. Why not just focus on the Indian market?
It’s tempting for many entrepreneurs and investors to focus solely on India because the opportunities are ripe for the picking. However, extending this market to the world is a far greater opportunity.
Technology and the Internet have leveled the playing field for smart entrepreneurs around the world. It’s by no means easy to build global companies, but I believe talented entrepreneurs in India have a chance of succeeding and should seize the opportunity.
India also has a lot to offer the world in terms of innovation. Here are two huge opportunities:
Mobile Digital Economy: In five years, India will become one of the leading “mobile only” digital economies in the world. India has added a billion new mobile phone users since 2000. In the next 5 years, 500 million new Internet users will come online, primarily through smartphones and mobile technology.
Frugal Innovation: Indian entrepreneurs are inherently frugal with resources. As the world adjusts to falling incomes, Indian companies will be called upon to share their innovative solutions and lean business models.
Your focus is on tech-based solutions. Why simply tech?
I believe it’s important to focus on what you are passionate about. I enjoy working with technology start-ups and leveraging the positive power of technology to find solutions for some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Is there much interest in impact investing in India?
The impact ecosystem is still nascent in India, but it’s rapidly evolving. In the last five years, we have seen the emergence of specialized venture capitalist/private equity funds in this area. The next stage in the evolution is the formation of seed funds and impact accelerators. My concern is the lack of institutional capital to support an early stage ecosystem as well as the lack of interest from angel investors.
At GSF, we have incubated 25 companies thus far, 20% of which are addressing high impact challenges. We have focused on mobile-based healthcare solutions for rural areas and transportation solutions for densely populated Indian cities.
What do you think about the criticism around the capacity of incubators to create world-class companies?
Relentless experimentation is what leads to innovation, and smart start-up eco-systems reduce the cost of trials to zero and enable this to happen. We shouldn’t fear failure; in fact, we should welcome it.
Like start-ups, many of the incubators themselves will fail. Only a few will become effective at attracting the best talent and building great companies. At GSF, we obsess about attracting and surrounding ourselves with the smartest people.
What inspires you to tackle this monumental challenge of building India’s start-up scene?
As I mentioned before, the rise of mobile digital economy in India and the emerging world is a huge and transformative opportunity. The second thing is the shifting attitude of Indian young people. In contrast to previous generations, they are willing and able to experiment and take risks. They are smart, globally-connected, aspirational leaders. They inspire me.
The combination of these two realities will open up a new world of possibilities. These possibilities are inspirational to me.
What advice do you give to young Indian entrepreneurs just starting out with their first idea?
- Dream big. This world is as much yours as anyone else’s.
- Experiment, travel, seek and create new experiences.
- “Open your doors” and the world will “open its doors” to you.
What book that you’ve read in the last few years has impacted you and your philosophy?
There are actually two I should mention:
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell had a profound impact on my thinking and evolution. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to change the world.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins is a fascinating tale of the medieval King Alobar and his quest to stay young forever.
Photo courtesy of subject.
This post originally appeared on partner site, Forbes.com.