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‘The Indian Startup Ecosystem Is Like The Caste System’

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The Indian startup ecosystem is like the caste system. The typical profile of an Indian technology entrepreneur is of a young person from a premier technology or management institute in India or abroad and with work experience in an MNC or overseas.

I did not tick any of these boxes. I was almost 50 years old. I went to a government college in Tirunelveli, a small town in interior Tamil Nadu, and I had never worked for an MNC or in USA. The investors were probably shocked at (a) how I could, with such a poor background and unimpressive profile, co-pioneer an industry and (b) how I still managed to be around for so long without raising billions of dollars.

Asking me to get out of my company was the best way of resuming normal service.

Most investors cannot evaluate a startup with perfect insight at the initial stage; so they resort to the easier option of pedigree investing. If a startup founder matches their typical entrepreneur profile, investors decide to put money in them. Further, most funds also employ associates, senior associates, vice presidents and managing directors with similar pedigree and, hence, today you have this nice closed loop where investors and entrepreneurs are all from the same batch of the same institute and before they can recall who won their hostel basketball finals, there’s a term sheet on the table.

Pedigree-based investing is not as clever as it sounds. Over 80% of venture capital funds are garnered by startups with a pedigree background. Over 90% of all startups in India will fail. Therefore, over 72% of all pedigreed startups will go down.

In reality, 72% failure rate is terrible. If you were averaging 28% in school, you would still be in school.

Pedigree investing has another drawback. It wrongly assumes that the country’s smartest young people are restricted to students of select engineering and management institutes. I have no doubt that we can find bright young potential entrepreneurs in arts and commerce institutes as well. I have the same complaint against the government’s ambitious Startup India programme – all their state centres are only in top engineering colleges. When India is trying to encourage entrepreneurship, we must spread the net much wider.

Betting on horses at the race course

When IUVP invested in Indiaplaza, they had already invested into Snapdeal, who, according to stories and interviews in the media, were now ‘pioneering’ the online marketplace in India, years after we had been running it. This was a potential case of conflict but since it was a fait accompli, I accepted the uncomfortable situation.

“Failing To Succeed” by K. Vaitheeswaran

But I believe investors should not be allowed to make competing investments because it gives them unbridled power
to mix and merge companies in their portfolio, even if it does not make sense for the startups. Many a time the entrepreneurs feel uncomfortable with the situation. I certainly did.

A VC once went to the races and bet some money on all the horses slated to run. After the race ended, he ran into the enclosure, took a selfie with the winning horse and in minutes, it was all over his Twitter and Facebook accounts. As the congratulations poured in globally, his long-time schoolmate and local struggling entrepreneur who had accompanied him asked curiously, “What’s the big deal here? If you bet on all horses, one will anyway win. Should you not be doing some analysis to figure out which horse is likely to win the race and then bet on that horse? That sounds more insightful to me.”

The VC, busy posting his picture with the winning horse on Instagram replied, “You think we have insights? What was your first clue?”

This betting on several horses allows investors to rig the races. An investor with stakes in several e-commerce startups has the option of deciding to back one instead of the others and in a sense decide the winner before the race is run.

Look at the statistics. VCs claim that one out of 10 investments will be a huge success, two will be modest successes and the rest will be below average in their performance or just shut down. In other words, a bunch of extremely smart people with pedigreed backgrounds work hard to deliver a success ratio of below 30%. If you were scoring below 30% in high school, you guessed right. You would still be in high school.

Hiring a CEO to replace me

Normally after a round of funding, entrepreneurs enjoy a honeymoon period with investors but mine never took off because I was busy appointing a CEO to replace me. I engaged with top executive search firms, met candidates referred by the investors and the final shortlist had no surprises at all: without exception they were all from premier technology and management institutes with significant work experience overseas or in MNCs, although none of them had any experience of working in Indian startups or e-commerce.

I was now stuck between a rock and a hard place. One set of investors preferred to hire a COO first who could take over as the CEO if he or she showed promise and results. The other group of investors wanted a new CEO on priority. By the time we shortlisted the final three CEO candidates, dark clouds were looming on the horizon. Positions and egos had hardened among the investors so much that no one was willing to see reason, and I was not just sandwiched but toasted too.

That’s when the penny dropped again.


The extract from “Failing To Succeed” by K. Vaitheeswaran has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.


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Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Hemant Mishra/Mint via Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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