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When schoolchildren dream of start-ups

Saritha Rai Posted online: Mon Dec 31 2012, 03:15 hrs

Entrepreneurship is steadily becoming a desirable goal for the middle class

There were groups making block-printed cloth bags, coasters from recycled material, miniature toys, chocolate-frosted cupcakes and office stationery. They talked of modest venture capital, marketing tactics, and balancing expenses and income. But the most arresting feature of the presentation? The budding entrepreneurs were a roomful of energetic, enthusiastic 11-year-olds.

Just as striking was the fact that the exercise was being replicated across eight branches of the National Public School, or NPS, a Bangalore-headquartered school chain that has built a brand around grooming its students to ace the IIT and medical entrance exams and more recently, the SATs for admission into American colleges. The event is amongst the early signs that the traditional Indian education system, long criticised as being designed to create only employees and a "workforce", is poised for change.

Through slick PowerPoint presentations that morning, the students described their projects. They had worked collaboratively in teams of five or six to come up with ideas. They would draw on available material, buying only limited items, and all the products would be handmade. To get started, they would each tap their parents for a couple of hundred rupees, which would be their venture capital. All profits from the sales would go to a charitable cause.

One sixth-grader said her group was inspired by Abdul Kalam's statement that India needs job creators, and not job-seekers. Teased by an audience member on whether that meant creating work for their parents, the girl shot back, "I want to first create a job for myself so that I don't have to work in a boring office."

India is poised on the brink of change, as there is a generational shift in students' thinking on entrepreneurship, said Bindu Hari, who steers the NPS school chain founded by her father, K.P. Gopalakrishna in 1959. "At one time, the top goal of a student was to find government employment and later, it was an MNC job," she said. "But the current generation is willing to take risks and go out to grab opportunities."

Even parents were more amenable to kids branching away from conventional career paths, Hari said. On 11-year-olds grasping the concepts of starting up a venture, she said she was often amazed by the maturity of fifth and sixth graders today. It is necessary to sow the seeds of entrepreneurship at a young age, said Hari.

The school first worked on a pilot project before transplanting it to all schools in its chain, including a school each in Chennai and Singapore. It works with four modules: raising capital, designing the product, marketing and understanding the balance sheet. "The most crucial part is that students work in groups and the exercise becomes as collaborative as entrepreneurship is in real life," said Hari.

Entrepreneurship is becoming a more acceptable option amongst India's middle class, said Ravi Venkatesam, the parent of an 11-year-old NPS student. "In the last two decades, many traditional, middle class Indians have turned successful entrepreneurs, not just in information technology, but in a variety of other fields," said Venkatesam who runs his own BPO consulting practice. That NPS was running a module on entrepreneurship was a reflection of what middle-class parents seek for their children, he said.

The interest amongst youngsters in the world of business and in entrepreneurship is startling, said Subroto Bagchi, co-founder and chairman of outsourcing firm MindTree and author of the book, MBA@16. "Business is not the taboo word it used to be when I was growing up," Bagchi said. While researching his book, he was surprised that the teenagers did not have a uni-dimensional view of entrepreneurship. "A lot of them were interested in entrepreneurship as an agent of social change."

While his book only deals with an urban sample, Bagchi said entrepreneurship as is also spreading to small-town India. The recent demand for translations of the title into Indian languages such as Hindi and Telugu is evidence, said Bagchi.

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