With a billion people becoming connected via smartphones with the computing power of supercomputers, India has the ability to build a digital infrastructure that is as monumental as China’s Great Wall and America’s interstate highways. There are opportunities to create dozens of new companies as valuable as Reliance.
Just one thing could hold India back: That the people who should be availing themselves of these opportunities continue to believe that entrepreneurship isn’t for them but is the domain of young college graduates like those from Silicon Valley.
The reality is that even Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs aren’t young and don’t have special backgrounds. They merely saw an opportunity and seized it. Anyone can become an entrepreneur.
I know, because I made the same transition.
I was 33 years old. I had developed a revolutionary technology at First Boston, a New York-based investment bank, and IBM offered to invest $20 million in it — provided that we spun the technology off into a new company. I was asked to take the job of chief technology officer.
I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial family and starting a business was something I never even thought of. My father was an Indian government official; my mother, a teacher. I had no entrepreneurial aspirations and had a wife and two children to support. Taking this position would entail relinquishing a great job that paid a hefty six-figure salary, for a startup that could easily go out of business and didn’t pay well. So it wasn’t an easy decision; but I took the plunge.
Our startup, Seer Technologies, grew to 1,000 employees and had annual revenue of $120 million in five years; then we took it public. The IPO was fun, but the experience thereafter was like a nasty hangover. The excitement had gone. Sick of the big-company politics and the obsession with meeting short-term revenue goals, I wanted out.
Microsoft tried recruiting me, telling me it would offer stock worth a fortune, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of working for another big company. So I chose to start my own company again. Having tasted entrepreneurship, I had become unfit for the corporate world, and there was no returning to it. My only regret was having wasted so much of my life in it. I was 40.
Some people say that my transformation was a fluke; that entrepreneurs are born, not made. They also say that successful entrepreneurs are young and have special entrepreneurial traits. Research — including my own Duke and Harvard team’s — says otherwise. But my health suffered due to the stress of running my second company, and I had to switch careers. I still didn’t want to go back to the corporate world; so I became an academic. And the question of what makes an entrepreneur is one of the earliest I researched.
My Duke and Harvard team researched thousands of American entrepreneurs. We found that the majority, like me, did not have entrepreneurial parents and entrepreneurial aspirations at school or university. They’d started companies through tiring of working for others; they’d had a great idea and wanted to commercialise it; or they’d woken, one day, urgently wanting to build wealth before retiring.
We found that 52% of entrepreneurs surveyed were — just as were Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Naveen Tewari, and Vijay Shekhar Sharma — the first in their immediate families to start a business.
While in college, only a quarter had caught the entrepreneurial bug, and half hadn’t even thought about it by then.
Family entrepreneurship, prior interest, and extreme interest, then, hadn’t heavily influenced their successes. So what had? Tertiary education — though not which university they’d graduated from — provided a huge advantage.
But what about all we hear of IIT graduates’ dominating Silicon Valley? It is a myth. My research team found that only 15% of the Indian immigrant founders of tech and engineering companies were IIT grads. Delhi University graduated twice as many Silicon Valley company founders as did IIT-Delhi, and Osmania and Bombay universities both trumped nearly all of the other IITs. Education matters but not the school.
We also found that, in the tech world, older entrepreneurs are not the exception but the norm. The average founder of a high-growth company had launched his venture at 40. Most were married and had, on average, two or more kids. They typically had six to 10 years of work experience and real-world ideas; they’d simply tired of working for others and wanted to rise above their middle-class heritage.
There is no real difference between Indian entrepreneurs and American ones. So if anyone tells you that you’re too old to be an entrepreneur or that you have the wrong background, don’t listen. Go with your gut instincts; pursue your passions. You’ll come to wonder why you wasted your time working for your idiotic boss.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley and author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future
This article is published with permission from the author.