Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Startups at the heart of India's transition: John Chambers

Cisco's executive chairman makes first major investment in Indian startup, keen to coach others to scale up and create an impact on job-creation

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Dec 11, 2017 07:08:57 AM IST
Updated: Dec 8, 2017 10:41:54 PM IST

Startups at the heart of India's transition: John ChambersJohn T Chambers has picked up a stake in Chennai’s Uniphore Software Systems
Image: Madhu Kapparath

India’s revving startup ecosystem has found a backer in John T Chambers, the executive chairman of America’s Cisco Systems, who, in November, picked up a little over 10 percent equity stake in Chennai’s Uniphore Software Systems, a speech recognition technology specialist. This is his first major investment in a startup in India.

For some time, Chambers has been ramping up his involvement with startups in Silicon Valley; now he’s keen on bringing his entrepreneurial savvy to India. His intent is evident from the designation—Pramukh Guru—printed on his Uniphore visiting card.  

“Uniphore is my first one, and I’ll be coaching a number of startups in India,” Chambers tells Forbes India over the phone. “India’s changing, you’re catching the market in a transition, startups are at the heart of this.”     

“Startups are where job creation happens… I want to be involved, as I move out of the Cisco role,” the 68-year-old adds. “Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up a couple more startups, give the government some feedback on how to scale, what needs to be done differently.”

Chambers sees his involvement going beyond mere access to money; it will be to help startups successfully manage the rapid growth they will need to become large global businesses. And if the experiment succeeds, it could serve as a role model for other executives and investors to step in and mentor many more Indian startups, he says.

However, in order for startups to make a real impact on GDP growth, they have to grow at a faster clip, says Chambers. He quoted the India Employment Report 2016 to emphasise that the country’s ‘demographic dividend’ is predicated on creating and sustaining at least 16 million jobs a year, so that the young, who are migrating to the cities in the millions, can be gainfully employed. Indian startups should play a much bigger role in generating a significant portion of these jobs, he adds. (The report has been authored by Ajit K Ghose, an academic at the Institute for Human Development in New Delhi, who is helping the central government hammer out a plan to generate the massive number of jobs needed in India.)

“The business-to-consumer startups are doing okay, they can do better, but the business-to-business startups aren’t scaling quick enough,” he says, referring to how India’s software products startups show promise, including in the US market, but none has grown to become a real phenomenon.

Indian software products companies making pay-as-you-go cloud-based software for large businesses around the world could see their value rise to $50 billion by 2025 from $3 billion, Google and venture capital firm Accel estimated in March 2016, in a report they released on the global opportunity for Indian SaaS startups.  

(This story appears in the 22 December, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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