My experience while building an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Through this piece, I want to share my experiences around entrepreneurship and my failures, successes and learning while building a bottom-up entrepreneurial ecosystem in Deshpande Foundation India.

Introduction

By the end of my college life, I had two small stints with a startup and an Algo trading firm. I liked the work but couldn’t excite myself to work at either place. After some reflection, I realised I follow my heart more often and have the courage not to follow the herd (probably explains why I chose to study as an undergrad in aerospace ). So in my placement sem, without thinking much, I decided to take a course on Technology & Public Policy taken by a retired IAS. It was pretty different from my regular classes. I truly enjoyed the discussion in this course and learning about the complexities of building and scaling innovations in India. Since it was towards the end of my IIT life, I thought of it just as good exposure. I knew it was time for corporate life now, as that’s where people usually land up after placements. But I guess there were other plans for me. After not getting any offer for eight days, I applied with little hope for “D_Foundation”, cleared GD, cleared two rounds of interviews (mainly talking about that course I took) and got an offer to join a new team being set up in an NGO in Hubli, Karnataka. I wasn’t much aware of the role but thought I could only take such a risk at this age and career stage.

Journey to Hubli

The organisation is philanthropy, with Desh and Jairshee Deshpande as benefactors. Still, unlike other philanthropies, it has built a direct trust with its beneficiary in the region of North Karnataka with Hubli as the centre of operations called “Sandbox”(read this HBR Case study for more). The organisation believes in catalysing the entrepreneurial energy of farmers, students, SMEs and your not so usual tech-entrepreneurs from non-metro India, enabling innovations at grassroots levels, thus delivering a sustainable social impact.

I joined here in 2018, with ten other young folks, to set up the innovations vertical and compliment the transition the organisation was undergoing after a decade of operations in India (and now, just after three years, it’s going to for an even bigger leap!). Two weeks after joining, I found myself in the same room with Desh, the most humble person one can meet. He left us on one thought, how IQ has hugely driven our lives and success till now, but EQ and empathy will be their key drivers from now onward. I thought I got the lesson then but only realised much later in my journey here while leading projects and taking critical decisions.

Our Team with Mr Desh and Prof. Shushil Vachani

Our team setup was highly experimental. We had the freedom to design and execute tasks as long as they aligned with the vision. I started working with micro-entrepreneurs, people constrained by resources but not by passion or drive; these could be your SMEs, Women selling homemade products or traders from across India. We were building a program that exposes them to entrepreneurial thinking and supports their business development. After understanding our beneficiaries (customer/user in usual jargon) and few iterations later, we were able to pilot and restructure key initiatives for market access, mentoring and forming a collective. We went back to the whiteboard multiple times during this process, and incorporated our learnings and iterate for an improved version.

Improving margin & Providing a market for such handmade products

Within a year, we received additional CSR grants to pilot these programs and built a monitoring and evaluation framework for expanding the program. During this time, I grasped the basics of the development sectors and creating market-based interventions, used analytical skills acquired during my IIT days and learned how central empathy is in leading a change in the real world. This added a new dimension to my thinking, and my approach moved from problem-solving to solution building.

By the end of this project, I realised I like working on the intersection of impact and entrepreneurship and enjoy looking at the big picture.

For my next stint, I was looking to work closely with risk-takers, use my training in technology and work on scalable solutions. Luckily, I was able to find that within the organisation.

Transforming to my current role

In my next role, I was trusted to set up an investment practice for Deshpande Startups and lead investment seed-stage startups solving for the “Bharat” market (this quickly became the talk of the town in 2019).

While I had no background, in particular, I was curious to work on this. It involved speaking to passionate founders, listening to their pitches, building investment thesis, doing the business model evaluation, and finally presenting them to IC for investment. I realised there was much autonomy in this role, and the responsibilities enormous, with a steep learning curve to climb. This role demanded that I transform my personality into more extroverted, embrace and be comfortable with uncertainty, and make decisions with insufficient data (the hardest one for me).

Our investment in MedTech Startup

I gradually developed confidence as the effect of constant mentoring and a safe space to make mistakes. While doing industry deep-dives and financial analysis were relatively easier to grasp, I had to overcome my fear of networking. Reaching out to people for expanding my understanding of specific sectors (tip: people are usually nicer than you imagine) and building deep conviction by constantly updating my knowledge and incorporating evidence as I moved along finally diminished my impostor syndrome!

During this time, I evaluated and led the investment in 13 deals across MedTech, SME SaaS and IIoT sectors. Some examples include working with a consumer electronics company to build their 0-to-1 journey, preparing projections for energy management startups and speaking to potential investors for an early-stage manufacturing marketplace. I learned most while building analytics and charting growth to get PMF for a social media app. I believe such non-metro India innovation truly capture the digital needs of our complex societies. Their interplay for content, community and commerce is a model of building products for growth in “Bharat” in a frugal manner.

As time passed and Covid hit, few portfolio startups grew faster than anticipated, but a few had crises of their own. Some ran out of cash or were unable to scale, or the founder decided to part ways. At those dire times when you need to take a tough decision, asking the entrepreneur to reduce cash burn or do a hard pivot, Desh’s guidance on leading with empathy helped the most. Seeing our entrepreneurs’ “live to fight another day” attitude always filled me with energy and provided an unparalleled meaning to my job.

Concluding

To summarise, the experience has been unique in every manner, and it has transformed me. From learning about grassroots development to building an investment practice in a second tire city, my days were filled with venturing to new areas with little knowledge but high curiosity. My biggest takeaway is

Aspiration always attracts resources.

I know it’s just the tip of the iceberg that I have scratched. The learning would never stop. Now more than ever, we need entrepreneurs to reimagine our future and build an ecosystem to support them. I am grateful that I have ventured early in my career to the world of entrepreneurship and investment with such a wide range of experiences.

Fun Fact: I have met 4 Billionaires during my time here.

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Siddharth Lahri

Siddharth Lahri

Space for me to share, create and off-load stuff (read crap) from my mind!