The Hindu | Thiruvananthapuram, July 17, 2015 | |
Academic and innovator Rajesh Nair on his hands-on approach to turn engineering students into entrepreneurs through the ‘MIT-Make in India’ project.
Entrepreneurs are being made in Chirayinkeezhu, a quiet coastal town in Thiruvananthapuram the district. Twenty students of engineering, 10 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States (U.S.) and 10 from colleges in India are being mentored by Rajesh Nair, an academic, entrepreneur and innovator, who is convinced that entrepreneurs are made and not born. The first of its kind, Rajesh hopes that the project will encourage colleges to create employers and not only employees. The founder of the decade-old TechTop, a contest for innovators among students of engineering, Rajesh says with missionary zeal that his dream is to create at least 10 to 20 per cent entrepreneurs in colleges in India. A graduate of MIT, 54-year-old Rajesh is Director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at the Asia School of Business, Kuala Lumpur. A visiting scholar at MIT-Tata Center, he also heads Degree Controls Inc., his company that has been operating in the U.S. for 17 years.
Excerpts from an interview with the professor at his tharavad.
What it the ‘MIT- Make in India’ project about?
Under the auspices of MIT, the 20 students are being taught how to apply what they learnt in college to address real-life situations, to identify what the community needs and come up with solutions to help the community and thus nurture their potential entrepreneurial talent.
What happens during the four-week course?
We visited various places in the locality such as a Kudumbasree unit, a hospital, a fishing village and so on, saw the lives of people at close quarters and learnt about their problems. They chose what they felt could be turned into viable projects through innovative projects that help the people too (see box).
How did this project come about?
A mid-life crisis took me back to MIT, not to gain degrees but to see what impact I could make, to see if I could catalyse a positive change. That is when I got the MIT-Tata Center fellowship at MIT from Ratan Tata who wanted us to go to India and study problems of resource-constrained communities and come up with solutions. So I studied issues concerning water, health and so on. I found that India is rich in innovators who had come up with solutions to many problems but it stopped there. There is a dearth of entrepreneurs to take those innovations to the community. It is a cultural bias that is preventing youngsters from maximising their potential.
You are saying that entrepreneurship can be taught?
Yes. Unfortunately, the currency of many of our colleges is placements and not training job creators. Most colleges and universities don’t teach kids to apply what they have learnt, to approach a problem, find a solution and make it viable for the community. Nobody buys technology for technology’s sake but we pay money for technology that creates solutions for problems. Problems are basically opportunities in disguise and students must to taught to identify those problems and come up with solutions to those. It is those students who contribute to the wealth of the country.
How do you hone the skills of potential entrepreneurs?
Primarily I work to build self-confidence in my students. Actually there is no difference in intelligence between a student in a college in a small town in India and a student of any highly ranked colleges anywhere in the world. What makes the difference is the exposure they get. A student of MIT sees her friends setting up companies in the hostel room and negotiating deals. That becomes her benchmark and her ecosystem. Unfortunately, many of our colleges in small town India lack resources and many faculty members themselves are kids just out of college, some of whom have taken up teaching without practical experience.
Can the project change that mindset and unleash the potential and imagination of youngsters?
My professor at MIT wanted me to prove my theory that entrepreneurs can be made, by training students in a small college on innovation process. I began the experiment in Mar Baselios College in the city in December 2013. At the end of it, more than half of the students came around to the idea of beginning to work for themselves as a possibility. I wanted to see if it would work in another college. So I went to colleges in Muzaffarnagar and Warananagar in Maharashtra and each time the results were impressive. Many start-ups emerged from this experiment. If you don’t show them the right path now, 20 years later, these kids will be stuck in the same place. Their own artificially constructed cages prevent them from tapping their potential.
Is that why you began TechTop?
I have been coming to India often for the last 27 years. You see many TV programmes for dancers and singers but nothing for innovators. So I began Tech Top in 2005 with a prize money of Rs. One lakh to promote innovators in small and rural colleges. When MIT wanted me to begin the programme for them, I requested them for 10 of their students. I posted on Facebook inviting applications from Indian students. My family generously allowed me to use the premises of my ancestral home. I wanted the students to live and work together because these lessons cannot be taught in a classroom or online. There is no fixed schedule. This place has a Fablab equipped with 3D printers, electronic fabrication facilities and so on.
One of the groups visited a Kudumbasree unit making soaps. They felt that the locally marketed handmade organic soaps had the potential to be marketed in the U.S., Japan and Europe. I invited the women to show them the process and the students tried their hand at making the soaps. Calling the brand Kadha – The stories within (storywith.in), the students are highlighting the fact that each soap empowers a woman financially and tells a story of her journey in search of empowerment. They pitched it to a group of upmarket hoteliers who have promised to help them. They are starting it as a venture now. That is the kind of initiative we are hoping to inculcate in the students. Courtesy