In times when tech founders are romanticised, valuations are tom-tommed and starting up is par for the course, it’s easy to fall prey to the notion that entrepreneurship is new-age creed that began in the era of the internet, smartphones and rapid technological advances. Not quite.
Today’s startups are mostly fuelled by dollops of venture capital; the few that are bootstrapped and viable earn our awe. Venture capital is at best a four-decade-old phenomenon in India, coming into its own in the post-internet era when ‘have-an-idea, here’s-the-money’ came into vogue.
Now consider all the first-generation businesses that were born pre-economic reforms, pre-1991—at a time when venture capital didn’t exist, banks were reluctant funders to smaller businesses and debt to them was available, at best, in dribs and drabs. The licence raj before 1991, when government go-aheads were needed for everything from producing to expanding to shutting down, ensured that building a business was a challenge, more so for new entrants. Or startups, as we now know them.
It’s unsurprising, then, that only a handful of business families shot into prominence post-Independence. Families like the Tatas, Mahindras and Godrejs, among others, along with a clutch of public sector undertakings played their part in nation-building, but really came into their own post-1991.
The startup hysteria notwithstanding, family businesses are the lifeblood of the Indian economy; various studies estimate that Indian family businesses contribute between 60 percent and 70 percent to annual GDP.
In this Family Business special, Forbes India decided to move the spotlight away from the storied billionaire families to those that have silently but surely been building businesses over the decades away from the public glare—a few of them from Partition when they entered India on a wing and a prayer.
This fortnight’s edition is packed with stories of 10 families handpicked by our intrepid storyteller Rajiv Singh. These are stories of businesses that originated out of non-commercial outposts like Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and Morbi in Gujarat, making everyday products that have stayed relevant over the decades, from bathware and sarees to helmets and packaging solutions. These are stories of resilience and reinvention to keep pace with the changing times. As Singh puts it, “These are mostly stories of businesses that have been around for more than half a century, and the journeys that the next-gen embarked on to adapt to new generations of consumers and their needs.”
In startup parlance, you would be tempted to prefix these businesses with the word ‘bootstrapped’, growing largely through cash generated internally, and overcoming the inevitable setback along the way. Dive into ‘Family Business: The Untold Stories’ for more; a few of these cash-generation efforts may well put many of today’s unicorns to the blushes.
If family businesses are the bedrock of economies, they are also at the forefront of giving back to society. Or at least should be. Of late, family philanthropy—of the rich and super-rich—has actually contracted. But, as Divya Shekhar writes, there may be hope, courtesy a new network of family philanthropy. And, here too, it’s not just the usual headline makers that are lending a hand. Consider, for instance, the Jetline Group, whose patriarch rebuilt the business post-Partition. Today, the third-generation Rajan Navani is a digital entertainment and tech entrepreneur who is not just giving his money but his “time, skills and expertise” to social impact initiatives. As he tells Divya: “My daughter has already started thinking strategically about social problems and their solutions with a global perspective.” For more on that story of hope, turn to ‘Giving, The Family Way’.
Editor, Forbes India
Twitter ID: @Brianc_Ed
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(This story appears in the 12 August, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)