Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Want To Do or Want To Be? (A bigger question than To Be or Not To Be)

I remember my primary school class. The teacher asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. And if anyone kept a tab, most of the class wanted to be doctors, engineers, pilots, IAS officers. There was also a smattering of train motormen and occasional policemen. I am sure most of you got a sense of déjà vu.

Don’t schools, parents and indeed the society at large expect you to become SOMEBODY? From the time a baby starts taking tiny steps it is confronted with this profound question which more often than not haunts the children till late into their adulthood. There is an insatiable curiosity or even pressure on the child to be SOMEBODY. A child’s impressionable mind then gets hooked onto this continuous struggle to be somebody.

It really got me thinking. Shouldn’t the question rather be, ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ Some may wonder what the difference is. Some might just say we become doctors or  engineers or  pilots so that we can earn loads of money, buy a house, a car or a fleet of cars, go on expensive holidays, wear expensive Swiss watches, designer clothes and generally live a good life. So why is the fuss?

I see it little differently. Take a pilot for example. You would love to learn to fly. Because, you may want to fly as a hobby, or to see the world, or to serve your country  or rescue people in distress. Or all of this together. Similarly, you may want to fly a hot air balloon, a paraglide, a micro lite plane, a big commercial airliner, a chopper or a single sitter supersonic fighter plane. So, becoming a pilot is just a means to help you fulfil your dream.

Sometimes we may just copy wanting to be ‘SOMEBODY’ because half the class wants to be that ‘SOMEBODY’. Don’t we all fall into this trap that is laid for us right from our primary schools? This urge or a compulsion of wanting to be SOMEBODY stays with us through our career. Is the young fellow happy after he becomes a doctor or an engineer ? Not really. The young doctor may then want to be the dean of the hospital where he works and the rookie engineer wants to be the CEO of his firm. Treating the patients or building the bridges (at least that’s what we thought when we were in school. All the engineers did, was built bridges) then just becomes means to an end rather than the other way around.

Now take a look at the folks who are generally famous around the world. (Not that less famous people don’t imbue similar qualities, it’s just easier to illustrate the point using names of the big guns). Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta trekked half the Earth because they were curious to see what this world had to offer.  Columbus set the sail westwards because he wanted to go to East and prove that the world is round. Alexander Fleming wanted to discover a microbe that killed bacteria that killed people. And his namesake Graham Bell wanted to invent a contraption that allowed people separated over a long distance to communicate. How can we miss the earliest Alexander? Yes,  certain Alexander the Great who wanted to conquer the world? Mother Teresa and Baba Amte wanted to shelter and provide dignified life to the desolate. History books are replete with the stories of stellar work of such giants. As a fact of matter humankind would not be same without these great souls across the myriad fields from Science, Technology, Arts, Literature, and indeed Humanities.  

I wonder if Alexander the Great wanted to be the biggest emperor so he can rule the world and Mother Teresa wanted to be a saint so that she could care for people. As far as I know she was bestowed sainthood long after she was gone. Neither did the other great Alexanders wait till they were anointed as the Chief Communications Officer or the Chief Scientist before they invented a telephone and Penicillin respectively. 

So how come all of us, rest of the lesser mortals, wait till we become SOMEBODY to do what we always wanted to do? Look around and you will find the corporate world littered with people who are stressed because they have been waiting to become somebody. The so called stress is then a self inflicted pain. I am stressed because I became Executive Principal Vice President (EPVP) instead of Senior Executive Principal Vice President (SEPVP) or did not become eligible for that larger cabin or did not become head of South East Asia and Papua New Guinea. 

Would you rather not pursue your passion to fly, to travel, to cook, to cure people of their ailments and yes to build those bridges?  Don’t you want to do things you always wanted to do?

(The pronouns he and his are used as gender neutral and also mean she or her)

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Saturday, 6 May 2017

And I Became an Entrepreneur

I still remember vividly, this discussion in one of the lectures of my rookie first semester class of the MBA in early nineties. The topic was entrepreneurship and the discussion veered towards the most flamboyant and glamorous of the satraps of JRD Tata. I asked the learned professor rather naively, if this gentleman had exhibited all these ‘enterprising’ qualities and has delivered the goods then why would he not qualify to be an entrepreneur himself? What set JRD apart from this particular gentleman and indeed all other illustrious satraps of the Tata group?

My prof looked as if he had heard this question dozens of times before and probably he did. He said in his opinion there are three qualities that together make an entrepreneur. 1) He has unbounded optimism, 2) he is an incurable punter and 3) he is mentally inured to any risks. Known or unknown. The professor went on to elaborate these traits as follows :

1      Eternal Optimist : Infinitely optimistic about the future opportunity and extremely uncomfortable about the present situation
2      Incurable Punter : Ability to punt one’s own capital (almost always) and/or convince others to “invest in the idea” without guarantee of the return
3      Inured Risk Taker : Unflinching belief in the infinite upside while accepting or simply ignoring the downside

Merriam Webster Dictionary says the word entrepreneur has a French origin in “entreprendre” which means to undertake. It defines the entrepreneur as a person who starts a business and is willing to take risk loss in order to make money. One who organizes, manages and assumes risks of a business or an enterprise.

Won’t you wonder that the same entrepreneurial strands of DNA must flow in the veins of explorers, discoverers, inventors, sea farers of yore and mountaineers?  All of them exhibit the same qualities and are driven by passion to go where none has trodden before. They seem oblivious to risks and are willing to punt that they will survive the mission and come back unscathed. I am not a molecular biologist or an anthropologist but if you said these traits could also be found in the blood samples of a gambler, I would readily agree with you.

Circa 2014. I was interviewing for a job at a multinational bank. The Global CEO of the bank asked me if I had entrepreneurial abilities. I remembered my prof’s words of wisdom and I confessed I had none. I wondered then and I wonder now. Really? Do employers really expect to recruit “entrepreneurs”? Or the right question should be, 'Do entrepreneurs want to work for a salary?' “Employed Entrepreneurs”. Doesn’t it sound oxymoronic? Can you imagine a Christopher Columbus or a Captain Cook driven by a missionary zeal only to earn wages and an annual increment?

Now don’t get me wrong. I have been an employee till not so long ago. More than two thirds of the people – including the CEOs – I have met in my career have been employees. They are all bright, innovative, risk takers, visionaries but no, they are not entrepreneurs. They all take risks but they all expect salaries at the end of the month, no matter what happens to the business they run.   

I never really thought I had it in me to make the transition. To make a switch and chase my passion and forego the comfort of getting a certain salary. I did not ever accept that I had those qualities – all three of them – in me which will push me to take the plunge.

Let me narrate a more recent anecdote. I was interacting at a startup camp with a bunch of young people in their late teens and still in an engineering college. One bright young man introduced himself as the CEO of his venture and pointed at a few other kids in the room as his CTO, COO etc. Barely had he started elaborating on his business model that the irrepressible banker in me jumped out. I interrupted him and with a very clinical analysis explained to him over next 10 minutes  why his business model was flawed. The indomitable young CEO listened to me patiently (out of politeness I am sure) and began as soon as I finished my expert critique. He started exactly at the point I interrupted him as if the last 10 minutes did not exist. His mind probably blanked out the endless list of flaws in his business model which I had explained to him. He then spoke for next 20 minutes completely ignoring what I had said. One may make a case that he should have at least considered the risk I pointed out and thought of some mitigating factors. Or he built some defenses to make his business less vulnerable to those perceived risks. But when a mountaineer climbs towards the peak he doesn’t care how many meters of the steep fall it would be. He wonders how many meters more to the peak.

I have accumulated vast experience as a retailer banker. I have built several path breaking solutions and launched new businesses in the career spanning two and a half decades. I have spent vast sums of money on new projects, invested large amount of capital in new businesses, employed people in the course of my career. But it was never my money. I have always been an employee, working for a fixed salary.

And then suddenly I experienced that mad rush of passion. The adrenaline rush of a sky diver. I thought of building a consulting practice to help banks and NBFCs and Insurance companies embrace the latest digital technology. To help new fintech startups. I felt if the skills, the knowledge, the experience and the insights I have gained are really that good then these must be put to use to help other organizations reach their goals. Like an experienced Sherpa, I want to help other climbers reach their summits. I have become an entrepreneur.

I was told consulting is a cut throat business. I was forewarned against entering a crowded field full of bigger, better, smarter consultancies. I was told of the pitfalls and the hurdles. I heard all the well wishers and yet set my own sail. I have the same blinding belief in the upsides and the same indifference to the risks just the same, like that young undergraduate CEO.

(I have used the pronoun “he” or “his” as gender agnostic to indicate a person. It also automatically implies “she” or “her”)