How can 'Silicon India' innovate like Silicon Valley?

India's startup scene has flourished and created a ton of jobs, but no Indian cities feature in the top 50 most innovative ecosystems. What's missing is the mindset

Anirudh Narayan
Updated: Feb 27, 2019 03:27:59 PM UTC
Image: Nishant Ratnakar

Think about innovation, and the first place that comes to mind is Silicon Valley. Started in the 80s, the Valley gained prominence and worldwide recognition in the 90s, and is home to billion-dollar companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google today.

However, it’s great to see that we are seeing more cities around the world become innovation hubs. Be it Tel Aviv, New York, Singapore, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, along with San Diego and Montreal, all these cities are innovative in their own way because they have all the right ingredients to become an innovative ecosystem. However, what’s pertinent to note is that not a single Indian city makes the list. In fact, according to a Business Insider report, neither Bengaluru nor Mumbai makes it to the top 50. We’re a resourceful country with some of the sharpest minds in the world––so what needs to change?

I was born and brought up in India, and I have lived in the US, South America, Europe, SE Asia. Now that I’m back in India, I genuinely believe that we’re not too far off––and I’m saying this from not just working abroad or reading about it on the internet, but from my first-hand experiences.

Truth be told, we’re blessed with all the key ingredients. Take Bengaluru, for example.

  • Since 1999-2000, the startup scene has flourished and created a ton of jobs, which has seen an immense pool of talent flock to the city.
  • There’s terrific support from the ecosystem in place. For example, co-working spaces like WeWork have not only made it easier for startups to get their own space, but have also facilitated community building and collaboration.
  • Furthermore, accelerators like Shell or Target are swiftly setting up shop in India. A bunch of government led initiatives like Startup India or Make in India that can be tapped into as well.
  • Apart from having a lot of money ourselves, there’s scope for VC funding from abroad too. The Accels and the Softbanks of the world, for example, are more than willing to pump money into the Indian economy.
  • India also boasts the second most number of startups in the world, most of which are located in Bangalore.
  • And lastly, our gross domestic product (GDP) growth is consistently set at 6 percent. So from an infrastructure standpoint, everything in place for an innovative boom.

The only thing we seem to be missing, is the mindset. We have to understand that the world is becoming smaller, and believe that you can start impacting lives in Romania, Kenya or the US while working out of a small cubicle in Bangalore. But how do we go about it?

  • Be more daring: Say you have what you believe is an unconventional idea. The chances of failure are high, but if you succeed, it’ll be a groundbreaking innovation that will change the world for the better. Truth is, 90 percent of us would not take the leap of faith––and therein lies the problem. We have to create a culture where it’s okay to fail. If we have more people at the top of the funnel willing to take more risks, we’ll produce more entrepreneurs who’ll take the leap, knowing that there’s enough money, talent, and resources available to help you change the world.
  • Spend time by yourself: The US believes that it’s the number one innovator in the world, because by design, it is setup for innovation. Think about it. The country is three times the size of India with a population of just 300 million people. This creates space between people––literally and otherwise––and allows you to be by yourself, giving you the time you need to reflect. In India, a country of 1.2 billion people, everyone has an opinion about everything you want to do. What’s important is to move away from the herd mentality, and to unlearn a lot of the things that we’re taught growing up. Even if it’s just 30 to 40 minutes in a day, use it to think about your place in the world, believe in your abilities, and back yourself.
  • Consider moving out: Sure, it’s a huge part of our culture to live with our parents, and it makes sense in some ways too. For starters, you save rent, and a lot of your physiological needs are taken care of. It allows you to focus on innovating––and if that’s the case, then fantastic, you’re on track. But personally, I feel like my survival instincts have kicked in and I lived life in the fifth gear only after I moved out and lived by myself. You’re not comfortable when you’re alone, and thus, you don’t have a choice but to grow up quickly because you have to make ends meet. Innovation stems from creativity, and when you’re forced to think about survival, you’re definitely at the top of your game.
  • Stop ‘adapting’: One of the reasons why the US is ahead is that people are not okay with the status quo. A simple example would be the way they order Starbucks. ‘Can I have a Cinnamon Dolce Latte with no sugar and two shots of espresso please? Thank you.’ They know exactly what they want, and if it’s not available, it’s not okay. And in India, if things are not the way they should be, we muse. It’s chaotic, but we’ll adapt to it. The fact that we’re okay with settling––the infamous ‘chalta hai’ attitude––is what’s holding us back when it comes to innovating, because we have to learn to inculcate the habit of wanting to improve both our lives, and of those around us too.
  • Realise India's global worth: 300 years of colonialism has made us feel inferior, and the influence of Western media, where everything seems lavish and hunky dory, doesn’t help our mindset. But if you spend time abroad, you realise that while you might have different accents, cultures, and skin colours, they’re still, at their very core, fundamentally human––with exactly the same needs as you. So we need to understand that products you create can hold the power to influence lives everywhere.
  • Don't peg everything to a degree: We need to stop giving into conventional wisdom that education is the only way to succeed. Education will not necessarily make you a good entrepreneur––you'll be trained in a structured environment, where you’re taught to deal with everything that’s predictable. Entrepreneurship is all about unpredictability, so while India seems to be creating great managers but to be innovative (pardon my French) you need to be 'ballsy'. Step outside your comfort zone, hustle, collaborate, and gain some education from real life experiences––the results will follow.
  • Brand ourselves better: We need to get better at selling ourselves, and thinking about ourselves in more ‘premium’ way. If you’re an immigrant who moved away to study, and you’re not happy with your job, take your learnings, come back to India, innovate, and let your creativity flourish.
  • Change the system: Adopt the Flat Structure model if you work in an organisation, and give more people ownership. Encourage people to make more decisions by themselves, and that it’s okay to make mistakes and fail every now and then.Secondly, as a country, we need to invest more in research, and also make it easier to set up a business. We pump in just 0.89 percent of our GDP back into research, while in the US, it’s as much as 2.8 percent. Sure, we’re still a developing country and our priorities are different, but innovation has to start at the academic level, and investment in research will help us grow faster.

The author is a growth specialist that has helped over 1,000 aspiring entrepreneurs and 50 startups in US, Latin America, Africa and Asia with launching their idea, reaching product-market fit and scale.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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