The former businessman who teaches the Vedas to budding entrepreneurs in Bengaluru, out of a co-working hub, has become an unlikely member of the rapidly-burgeoning gig economy
Before he started teaching the Vedas, Ajay Ushakanth established The Baby Shop brand. His first two stores in Bengaluru were doing business worth ₹60 lakh a month; Image: Nishant Ratnakar for Forbes India
Born and brought up in Bengaluru, Ajay Ushakanth started his career as a diamond merchant in Mumbai in the late ’80s. Family trouble brought him back to his home city following which he set up a retail business of baby products in 1994. The 50-year-old also established a carpentry unit that made baby cribs, which were sold to five-star hotels and service apartments.
Amid the rigours of running his business, certain thoughts came to his mind that changed his outlook towards life. He began asking questions such as, ‘Why am I on this earth?’, ‘What keeps the body alive?’ and ‘Who am I?’ to himself. He found the answers to those in sacred Hindu texts such as the Vedas, which he now teaches to budding entrepreneurs for free at the WeWork co-working space in Bengaluru.
He speaks to Forbes India about the influence of religious texts on him and why teaching them gives him satisfaction. Edited excerpts:
Q: What made you quit your business and get into teaching the Vedas?
I was running one of the most successful baby stores, The Baby Shop, in Bengaluru. I had two stores and my business was roughly about ₹60 lakh a month. I had plans of opening 200 stores across the country. I opened eight stores in tier 2 cities of Maharashtra under the brand name The Baby Centre in partnership with two others. However, in September 2014, I quit and shut them. Everyone who wanted to take over the business from me wanted me to work for another two years, but I couldn’t commit to that.
Sometime in 2013, over dinner, my eldest daughter and I had an argument. I had been travelling like crazy and she wanted to talk to me about something. I would postpone the conversation to ‘tomorrow’, which never came. That night she asked me: ‘What is more important, money or family?’ I told her the latter, but she pointed out that my behaviour did not reflect that.
I explained to her that I needed money to pay her fees. Her counter question was whether I had enough money for my lifetime. I replied in the affirmative. ‘Do you think we can live comfortably?’ she prodded further. I said yes. ‘Then why do you need more money?’ was her next question. ‘For you and your kids,’ I continued. She was only 17 then, but she told me: ‘That means you don’t have faith in your upbringing’. That knocked me and got me thinking.
For the next six months, I planned how to live my life without having to work. I had to develop a passive income because I had lived a certain lifestyle and it was not possible for me to change all of a sudden.
Q: And the Vedas?
In 2000, I lost my father to pancreatic cancer. It made me think how a second before he stopped breathing he was a human being; the next moment he was only a body. That led me to search for answers to thoughts like: Why am I on this earth? What keeps the body alive? Whom am I? Coincidentally, I had then chanced upon the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Anubhavananda on television. I began to follow him; it answered a lot of my questions and brought objectivity to my life. However, I didn’t understand the Gita the way it is.
In 2009, I lost everything; I leveraged all my earnings in the stock market hoping to make a killing. The market tanked and I lost. I went back to the Gita and started studying the Shankar Bhashya, which is Adi Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Since then, I have been studying the Vedanta, taught to me by Swami Sadatmanandaji, Swami Shankaranandaji and Shravanji of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Coimbatore.
I got a chance to share my knowledge with a youngster suffering from substance abuse in 2015. A year after teaching him, he came out of his addiction. That’s how the idea of giving back came to me.
Q: What got you to WeWork?
I had started teaching the Vedas out of a friend’s office (at Church Street, Bengaluru). But I was uncomfortable; I was surrounded by people who only spoke about money. That’s when a friend of mine who represented WeWork when they were doing their tie-up with Jitu’s [Jitendra Virwani] Embassy suggested that I work out of there. I think I was the second member at WeWork.
Initially it was difficult as I’m extremely formal as a person. So to have young people say ‘Good morning, Ajay’ to me took me by surprise. I thought to myself, these kids are my daughter’s age and they are calling me Ajay! I guess that’s how this generation is. [WeWork Galaxy] has given me an opportunity to meet people who question me.
Q: Why don’t you take money for what you teach?
The knowledge has come to me for free from my teachers, so I share it for free. I think I have more [money] than what I need. When I needed money I chased it; now I don’t need it.