India – A nation of entrepreneurs: How its people (and its traffic) are laying the foundations of a global powerhouse

I’d like to ask you to stop for a second, close your eyes and think of India.

I want you to think about which sights, sounds, sensations, tastes and scents come to mind and why?

If you are lucky enough to have visited India, no doubt you will have vivid impressions which have imprinted themselves on your psyche. 

Even if you haven’t visited, then it is still likely you will have a strong sense of what India could be like.

Maybe that comes from stories you’ve heard from friends and family, maybe it’s from watching Bollywood movies or it could simply be from making regular trips to your local “Indian” restaurant. 

Images of India, perhaps, are particularly embedded in the minds of the British.

Our cultures and histories have, after all, been inextricably intertwined since the days of the Raj and long before. Many British people can trace their heritage back to India and Indian culture has seeped into everything from art and pop music to TV shows and, of course, that oh so delicious – food. 

In January, I had the immense privilege of spending a week or so In Ahmedabad, a city that’s approaching nine million people in northern India with a booming tech industry.

View of Ahmedabad from my hotel window – a megacity with nearly 9m people

I was there on business, meeting with a company called Vedlogic which provides outsourced software development services for businesses like mine that cannot find enough of the right skills locally.  

I had never visited India before. Yet, I had a cache of information in my mind which I identified as ‘Indian’, built up over years of reading, listening to music and watching films and documentaries. 

One of the pictures of India which has stayed with me the most (possibly because I once saw it in pages of something like National Geographic) is of a beautiful young woman in a red sari carrying a jug of water on her head by a well.

During my time in Ahmedabad, it took my breath away when I turned a corner one day to be confronted by just this image; a young woman with a jug of water and a crimson sari. It was as though a premonition had become real.

Oh so much food, so much to choose from – and all, by and large, vegetarian

This was just one example of the reality of Ahmedabad reflecting my ideas of India back to me. It is a place where so many of my expectations were confirmed. 

However, I was also constantly challenged to reimagine the ‘India’ of my mind, as I grappled with so many things that were troubling and paradoxical to my western sensibilities.

In a place where there is no hint of a ‘welfare state’ there is the potential of meteoric social mobility. While many Indians are becoming more and more wealthy, others live next door in abject poverty. 

This was outside our office in Ahmedabad – a fairly normal day in India

India is a firework display of colour; gleaming incredible temples, palaces, a kaleidoscope of clothing, jewellery, flora and fauna. Yet it is also a place of great deprivation. 

It is somewhere where you can feel as though you have stepped back in time but which has the power to become an economic powerhouse which will lead the world. 

This power comes from its people. People for whom entrepreneurialism is often a necessity in order to survive. To see why the spirit of the entrepreneur comes as standard in so many Indian people you have to look no further than the traffic.

How driving in India prepares you to be an entrepreneur

During my experience of white-knuckled driving around Ahmedabad we encountered scenarios moment by moment which would be considered so hair-raising in the UK that you would inform the police (or at least dine out on the anecdote for some time). 

It feels like Indian drivers seem to consider speed limits, lanes, stop signs – in fact any rule of the road – to be distant concepts invented for other people. They seem to drive wherever they want, whenever they want at whatever speed they like. 

(The video above shows one of the slower, safer, junctions!)

Death-defying undertaking and overtaking take place at such proximity that you can smell the cologne of passing drivers. Lorries bear down on tuk tuks with seemingly murderous intent. Buses honk through the melee laden with crowds of cross-legged passengers balanced on the roof. Motorbikes piled high with produce swerve to avoid holy cows.

This road chaos, which is replicated across the entire country, claimed 19 lives per hour in India in 2022 and the level of courage, steely determination, faith and fatalism required to enter the fray is unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world: It is a crucible for forming the fundamentals of being an entrepreneur. 

Learning to live with risk

Sitting in the back of the car, I wondered how I would perform if I was behind the wheel, preparing to pull out into the throng of traffic on the streets of Ahmedabad. Would I have the tenacity to engage and commit to the flow, or would I be frozen to the roadside with fear?

As a founder and entrepreneur, having a level of comfort with risk is essential. The world is an uncertain place. You can never control everything. These unknowns can seem (and sometimes are) potentially disastrous when you are trying to breathe life into a fledgling business or make committing decisions to grow an existing venture. 

Just as an Indian driver, surrounded by an unpredictable sea of traffic, must have the confidence to put their foot on the accelerator despite all the things they cannot control, an entrepreneur must avoid becoming immobile through anxiety. 

In the face of what appears to be a very dangerous situation you have to just go for it. There will be close shaves. There may even be collisions. You will have to keep your wits about you and be prepared to twist and turn but ultimately it is the only way to compete and progress. 

Because, as stressful as it may be, if you want to grow then making a decision is always better than doing nothing.

Entrepreneurs sometimes have to let go

During the first couple of days in Ahmedabad I was simultaneously thrilled, stressed and terrified by each outing onto the roads. 

At times, I was gripped by a strong desire to lean over and grab the wheel, while at others I felt relief that it was the job of the driver to negotiate their way through the mayhem rather than mine. 

Just being driven from location to location was mentally exhausting and actually risked distracting me from the main purpose of my trip. I was there to make important decisions which would affect the future direction of my company. I needed to be present and focused, not mulling the trauma of a near miss with a truckload of chickens. 

It actually took me back to the early days of Alertacall. 

I began the business with just myself and the support of my wife Jo. I designed the software, the hardware, produced all the marketing materials, coordinated mailshots and made phone calls to check on the safety of older people from dawn until dusk. All this while driving the length and breadth of the country selling and installing.

As the business grew I was able to delegate more and more tasks to different staff members. However, my relief at being able to remove some of the workload was mixed with anxiety over losing control. 

Would my team do as good a job as I had? Would they sell as passionately? How could they possibly understand, articulate and fulfil the company’s purpose to the same level as me?

I was facing another familiar founders’ crisis: The conflict between letting go to move forward and the desire to micromanage. 

Then, as in India, the best decision for the business and for myself was to trust in the ability of others.

This was too important a business trip for the CEO to spend all his time fretting about the hazards of the Ahmedabad road system. I had to concentrate on my work and let the driver – whoever that was at any given moment – do their job. 

Founders’ thresholds for what constitutes doing a good job are often very high. One of the reasons that companies struggle to grow is because the leader can’t allow themselves to have faith in other people. 

When the leader should be focused on laying out a clear, compelling vision for the future, they are mired in the day-to-day running of the business and looking over people’s shoulders. This is an approach which again risks resulting in stasis (not to mention disgruntled and unfulfilled staff).

It is important to distinguish between when someone is doing something wrong and when they are just doing something differently from the way you would do it.

Worrying about something which is outside of your control actually clouds your ability to think and make clear judgements on the things that are. 

The amazing palace in Udaipur – a few hours drive from Ahmedebad

How India supplies software developers to the world

Getting around Ahmedabad became a much less stressful experience once I was able to sit back, put myself in the hands of whoever was driving and focus on what I had gone there to achieve. 

This year will mark 20 years since I first began Alertacall.

As the company has grown we have taken on a number of fantastic software developers, some of whom have been with us for nearly a decade. But as an organisation that is absolutely committed to continuous development we still need to grow our software development team. 

Finding the required number of skilled staff locally has proved impossible.  Very few computer science graduates in the UK go on to become software developers.

Those who do are usually snapped up by large businesses – or private equity funded startups – which can afford to outcompete SMEs on pay. 

The result is that a company of our size faces an almost impossible task finding and recruiting the software developers we need. Despite advertising for three software development roles over the last year in the UK, we have managed to fill only one.

At the offices of Vedlogic – With Gaurav, Simon, Vivek and Nirav

India, by contrast, has invested heavily in producing tens of thousands of computing graduates every year. Ahmedabad alone has at least four universities and colleges teaching software development, producing hundreds of highly skilled, highly motivated computer programmers and technicians each year. 

When you combine that with the relative labour costs it is a complete ‘no-brainer’ for companies like ours to outsource our software development to India, helping to provide jobs for a huge population of young people and elevating them almost immediately into India’s growing middle class.

I was in Ahmedabad to build a relationship with a company that employs just under 100 technologists and which hires, trains, leads and manages software developers who are then made available exclusively to third party companies overseas. That company is called Vedlogic. Four of them are now working remotely with Alertacall with another handful due to join by the end of the year.

They are working in modern office complexes which would make many British workers jealous, with great internet speeds, many western style benefits – with a layer of management focused purely on pastoral care and making sure they are happy. 

James and some of the the team from Vedlogic – on a night out to an amazing restaurant

There used to be a ridiculous stereotype that Indian workers need a large amount of direction but, in reality, their initiative and ability to make decisions is equal to any Western developer I have encountered, and certainly better than many I’ve interviewed here. 

The company we are working with is just one of many providing a similar service across Ahmedabad. Tens of thousands of new homes and offices are being built around the city, specifically to be filled with people and companies working in the tech industry. 

Becoming a global powerhouse

Tech is just one sector where India and its people are striving to supply the world and grow its already booming economy. This is a country which is only just getting started. 

Maybe it is an unavoidable consequence of rapid economic growth that the disparities in wealth and living standards seem all the more stark. India is a place where modern developments, the beautiful homes of ‘tech millionaires’ and fabulous restaurants sit alongside families struggling to feed themselves and groups of children living rough. 

However, if India’s economy continues to grow it can only be hoped that the 100 million people estimated to live below the poverty line will come to benefit, contributing their own growing wealth to its prosperity. 

A nation of salespeople

The qualities of entrepreneurialism are not only evident on India’s roads. 

Wherever you go you are met by people trying to sell you something. The same drive for commerce is evident in the street vendors selling small clay cups of delicious, sweet masala chai, all the way through to those CEOs of tech startups.

It seems obvious to me that India has the potential for another 100 years of rampant growth and the mind boggles at how influential it may become in the world during that time and the huge part it seems set to continue to play in human history. 

A colourful Indian street market

The picture of a young woman gathering water from the well was one of the many images I had in my head before my visit to India. But the reality of seeing the vision will stay with me forever. Because, as the woman walked away with the jug of water skilfully balanced on the crown of her head, she reached into her sari to pull out a cellphone, the light of the screen glowing from her hand as she stared into it.

As a new generation applies the Indian aptitude for inventiveness, hard work and commerce to the ever-expanding sphere of technology, I wonder how different her life – and the lives of so many other children like her – could be in years to come. 

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