To beat your Monday blues, edex presents a round-up of promising ventures from this year’s INK fellows
Uplifting children of sex workers, removing communication barriers, supporting young entrepreneurs, popularising teas, giving a boost to small and medium-sized enterprises through the world of internet and giving a fillip to agriculture — these are the milestones achieved by these entrepreneurs. With most of their projects being self-financed, these promising youngsters stand tall in the face of adversities. Into the world of Robin Chaurasiya, Sunil Khandbahale, Karthik Reddy, Snigdha Manchanda, Ronak Samantray and Sanvar Oberoi as they share their tales of triumph and the hurdles they overcame on their journey to the limelight
Sitting opposite Manchanda for an interview has its awkward moments. What do you ask a tea sommelier when you don’t even know what it means? Fortunately, Manchanda is used to people quizzing her on her choice of livelihood. “In a country that is slowly coming to terms with what a wine sommelier does, I am not surprised,” she starts off. The 29-year-old graduate of Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, worked as a communication professional for eight years. It is interesting as to how Manchanda stumbled upon what she calls her calling. “Taking a sabbatical from work, I chanced upon my father’s old trunk where I had collected about 100 varieties of exotic teas throughout my teenage years. That was when it hit me,” she rewinds.
Battling disappointment of having not come across a single tea institute in the country despite being one of the biggest producers of the world, she packed her bags to Tea Sommelier Academy, Sri Lanka, in 2011, where she spent a blissful six months picking up the nuances of tea tasting, categories of teas, etc. In June this year, Manchanda started Tea Trunk and initially started off by conducting tea workshops and events spanning two hours. Operating out of Goa with an office in Mumbai, Tea Trunk now ships across the country varieties of home-blend teas. “South India is where most of our traffic comes from. You would be surprised thinking they are big on coffee,” she shoots a rather reproachful look. Her range of teas include Vanilla, Lemon (“there are actual bits of lemon,” she says excitedly), Chilli, Rose Oolong, Moon White, etc. On the career perspective, she says, “The growth could be slow. You need a lot of patience and it may even be five-10 years before you make it. Yeah, if more people could be aware of what a tea sommelier, it could be useful,” she winks. Details at www.teatrunk.com.
With a strong view that venture capitalist industry was imported to India from the US with little regard for adaptation or recognition, this angel investor started Blume Ventures in 2011 to inspire and facilitate young entrepreneurs. Hoping to instigate a re-imagination of startup financing, Reddy says, “Blume is an angel and seed venture fund that backs startups with both funding as well as active mentoring and support. We fund startups through multiple rounds eventually leading up to larger institutional rounds like Venture Capital firms,” begins the 40-year-old, who’s an engineer from IIT Roorkee (1994) and also holds management degrees from IIM-Bangalore (1996) and Wharton School of Business, USA (2001). Reddy invests in ideas that can dramatically improve the way a certain product or service is delivered. Blume either fully invests or co-invests in certain cases. So far Blume has helped around 50 companies disbursing `100 crore and most of their portfolio falls under digital media/internet/mobile category. On the milestones, he has achieved so far, he says, “We are the first privately managed venture fund in India that’s completely raised from domestic Indian investors. With respect to the number of investments in India across all stages for three years running now from inception, we are the most prolific fund releasing startup.” Over the next few years, Blume hopes to cover almost 1,000 companies. Not surprising since the hopes of its founder is to connect geopolitical and socioeconomic dots. To know more about Reddy, visit www.blumeventures.com.
There was a time when Sunil Khandbahale couldn’t spell his name in English and this spurred him to create a mobile dictionary of 12 languages. Before we come to that, we will go down memory lane with Khandbahale to understand how it all began. Educated in Marathi medium in a Nashik village, Khandbahale due to financial reasons found himself in a diploma course, though if he had a choice, he would have enrolled for an engineering degree. “There was just three of us in a class of 60 who were quite alien to the lingua franca of the world. Predictably when the first semester results came, all three of us failed. The other two quit but I persevered. When one day I couldn’t take it longer, I approached a professor to do something about my handicap of English. He looked at me as though I was mad and said cooly, ‘Why don’t you use a dictionary? Of course, I didn’t know what a dictionary meant.”
Resuming his tale, he ploughs on, “Gradually I made friends with the dictionary and to my wonder I also topped my class. Of course, there were minor hurdles; a dictionary is pretty much a traditional way of learning new words and not to forget, it’s time consuming also.”
Egged by his success, Khandbahale started compiling dictionaries in vernacular languages and also finished his MBA from Pune University. His research took several months and in 1998, a first-of-its-kind digital mobile dictionary in Marathi came into being in the market. He later branched into other Indian languages like Gujarati, Tamil and Telugu. It was the mobile revolution in the early 2000 that helped his cause a great deal. “But still to my dismay not many people were flaunting smartphones and also my target was to reach the ones with basic phones, how can they learn without downloading or installing programs?”
Khandbahale had his Eureka moment when he tied up with several telecom operators and offered mobile dictionaries via an SMS. Determined to keep it a social project rather than commercialising it, Khandbahale uses his own resources while “several people like linguists and language experts have rendered free service.” Flushed with a great deal of success already — 10 million people have used his mobile dictionaries — Khandbahale believes he has a long way to go. “Developing technology is child’s play for me, but there are still many challenges in effectively implementing them,” adds the 33-year-old. His future plans include compiling dictionaries for all the 22 official languages in India (seven are underway) and working on foreign languages and Indian dialects, some of which are dying at a rapid pace according to the lexicographer. Khandbahale lives with his wife, who assists in his work and two children in Nashik. Follow him on www.khandbahale.com.
Kicked out of the US military for coming out, Robin Chaurasiya made Mumbai her home three years back. A victim of child sexual abuse that extended well into her teens, Chaurasiya knew what she wanted to do — rehabilitate children of sex workers in the Maximum City through Kranti. Being fatherless and with a mother battling a severe mental illness, Chaurasiya has only been spurred further to take up the cause of the underprivileged. “Kranti, started in 2011, empowers people from red light areas to become agents of social change. We help them finish their education, also try to get their moms to give up the world’s oldest profession...,” trails off the 28-year-old Chaurasiya before excitedly adding, “One of our students recently procured a place in Bard College, New York. This is a huge step for us.” Mostly funded by donations from abroad, Kranti houses a home for 10 girls with Chaurasiya staying with them. She has initiated programmes to deliver mental health and therapy for children and the kids are also sponsored to take this further by participating in workshops and such. “The curriculum we have designed touches upon social justice, caste, religion, gender sexuality, dalits, etc,” she explains. Chaurasiya’s ambition is to work around the system and ensure that sex workers have a go at ‘normal’ life and aren’t considered a burden on the society. By 2014, Chaurasiya wants to ensure that Kranti becomes self-sufficient, build a home, a school and a community centre and also branch out and tackle issues like trafficking and drug abuse that are plaguing the society. “Even the poorest of the poor understand that their daughter or son aren’t doing anybody a favour by enrolling into public schools that help them little to achieve their ambitions. Our school should be a befitting answer,” she concludes. Details at www.kranti-india.org.
The innovation n knowledge (INK) story
INK was founded in association with TED in 2010, with the objective of staging India’s foremost thinkers and innovators before an audience that would turn their ideas into meaningful impact. “When I brought TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) to Indian shores in 2009, the rationale of bringing ideators from diverse domains under one roof was to bridge America and India — to spur innovation right from the grassroots to technology,” says Lakshmi Pratury, host and curator of the INK conference.
On how INK fellows are chosen, she says, “At INK, we look for people who think out-of-the-box and who have the courage of conviction to back their passion. Their stories must have the potential of inspiring people and bringing about a change in mindset and existing paradigms. The focus is on identifying new age thinkers, innovators and achievers from emerging economies. The reason being that these are countries where ideation is in a constant phase of evolution. The aim is to create true innovation through cross-pollination of ideas — an artist learning from a technologist, an author learning from a social activist and so on. This year, we received a whopping 700 applications from 45 countries for the INK Fellows programme of which 29 people were chosen based on the parameters of their vision, uniqueness, demonstrated intent, ability to articulate and communicate their work succinctly and their capability to enrich the INK community. They are then mentored through the year and given a stage at different forums where their ideas can be amplified.”
Applications for INK 2014 will open on April 1, 2014. In order to be eligible, you need to be between 18-40 years of age, the fellows are preferred from young economies though people from any locale are invited to apply and you can upload your work via a questionnaire or upload a YouTube video. For specific details, visit www.inktalks.com/fellows/apply.
If co-fellow Sanvar Oberoi is disinterested in the internet business, Samantray has been trying to breathe life into it through NowFloats, which he co-founded in 2011, after quitting Microsoft. Understanding how big a change the world of internet could do to startups, NowFloats helps entrepreneurs set up and update their websites entirely through SMS. Not only this, Samantray has also worked on a number of independent projects, the most prominent of them is a Speech Glove, which can recognise finger gestures and convert them to speech. “Most people assume that if a company has an internet presence, they can rake in the moolah. This urgency perhaps has led to most sites ending up being mere web pages providing just ostensible value. Being online should be good value especially for small and medium-sized concerns,” he says. “A NowFloats website can be created and updated via an SMS or a mobile app. We have made the process of content creation easy and ensure the site is fresh and relevant. More than 2,000 business owners are witnessing added value to their business and our customers range from boutique shops to multi-store chains like Nokia.”
Samantray believes it is critical to optimise websites for local search in developing countries like India as consumer behavior is primarily ROPO (research online purchase offline). Our automated Location-Based-SEO helps attract local search traffic (purely organic). For example, people searching for ‘designer sarees in Hyderabad’ see NowFloats’ sites ranked highly in search results,” beams the 26-year-old. A notable feature of NowFloats is ‘Subscription’ (via SMS/Email) for existing customers of a business, which helps them be up-to-date with the latest content. “The business owner can know in real-time what search queries are bringing visitors to the site. This is an innovative feature which helps them understand and improvise,” he says.
Grabbing opportunities before him a is way of life for the engineer from CET-Bhubaneswar (2008). During a snack session at KFC, he noticed two speech-impaired people, doing the obvious, communicating via gestures. “Trying to imagine if I could talk to them, I wondered how I can do it without learning the sign language myself. Speech Glove was born in May 2011 while I was trying to solve this problem. A glove fitted with flex sensors that can generate a voltage difference when bent so that it could track finger movements. I used five flex sensors (one for each finger) and connected them to the processing unit. The processing unit parses the voltage inputs from these sensors and identifies the gesture pattern. The gesture is then mapped to a speech which is played by a mic module attached to it. The entire unit was built using ‘Net Gadgeteer’. Speech Glove also has Bing Translator integration so that the speech can be converted to any language,” he explains. Details at www.nowfloats.com.
Though not hailing from an agricultural background, Sanvar Oberoi decided to do something about agricultural entrepreneurship — a lot of attention being paid to e-commerce, according to him, also acted as one of the catalysts. “Conceptualising the idea of working in agriculture to reform it by using and advocating the use of modern methods, practices and technologies since 2010, I undertook immense research and capacity building to be ready to implement a mammoth and potentially game changing idea of Industrial Hemp (used in production of cotton amongst other things) through my concern BOHECO (Bombay Hemp Company),” begins Oberoi. Quitting his corporate job, Oberoi started work on BOHECO in September 2012. The 23-year-old completed his graduation and postgraduation from HR College of Commerce, Mumbai, and is currently pursuing his PhD from University of Mumbai. With respect to BOHECO, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Oberoi. “The problems we faced, and still continue to as a company are quite unique and challenging for a startup — primarily because there was absolutely no hemp ecosystem in the country. The central government themselves did not have a policy or framework for the industrial use of certain low-THC varieties of cannabis plant, there were no laboratories to conduct THC tests (THC is a psychotropic substance that gets people ‘high’ and is the benchmark differentiating varieties of species under the Cannabis family from being legal to illegal), there were no supply chain operators willing to transport raw or even post-processing finished goods of the crop,” he says.
Oberoi takes pride in BOHECO’s journey which has created a hemp ecosystem in the country by bringing together global hemp companies, government and policy makers, scientists and researchers, local farmers, industry and supply chain and B2B B2C consumers all onto one platform. “We need to break preconceived notions and prevent marginalising the super crop, assist local farmers in cultivating the crop by providing optimum seeds, ideal and best practices in cultivation techniques and elevate the socio-economic conditions entailing poverty alleviation, sustainable rural development and employment of farmers and rural communities by building the industrial hemp value addition ecosystem and elevate the living standards of society by providing innovative hemp products,” he says in one breath.
Oberoi is also at the helm of The Thincquisitive Foundation, where he has been working with the United Nations Information Center for India and Bhutan and developing projects. Details at www.boheco.org.