Entrepreneurship 

At Harvard Business School, we pride ourselves on immersing ourselves in the phenomenon of interest.  In my case, this is understanding how entrepreneurs can contribute to economic and social progress across the developing world.  In effect, my preoccupation is with how creativity can be used to address the well-being of 6 of the almost 8 billion people of the world today. On this page, I’ll describe my own forays into building ventures, commercial and non-profit, across the developing world, and one policy making endeavor. 

 

Over the past decade, I’ve had the privilege of cofounding numerous ventures with, usually with students who have emerged from the Cambridge ecosystem (Harvard, MIT and numerous wonderful nearby institutions), often my own students who’ve stayed in touch sometimes over decades thankfully!  I’ll describe two examples here, Aspiring Minds, www.aspiringminds.com, a machine learning talent assessment company, and Chaipoint, www.chaipoint.com, a technology-powered, consumer retail brand for tea, offering very affordable but high quality consistent tea to cater to most forms of desired access. 

Aspiring Minds


Aspiring Minds was one of my first ventures, a firm that developed state of the art machine learning algorithms to help assess a range of capabilities (from general analytic and logical skills to competence in a range of specialized domains, blue- and white-collar) easily, cheaply, and accurately (often using mobile phones, tablets, in secure testing setups). I’m proud that the company tested millions of youth and helped ‘make the market’ for many who lacked degrees from fancy institutions but could analytically demonstrate their skills. At the time of our selling the company to a UK based assessment company, Aspiring Minds had offices in New Delhi, Beijing and San Francisco.




Chaipoint


Another one that gives me a window into consumer behavior is Chaipoint, India’s largest organized tea retailer (chai), serving several hundred thousand cups of hot tea daily, through a network of stores, delivery-mechanisms, and through what I prefer to call chai robots installed in office complexes across India. There is a lot of algorithmic thinking that lurks behind the scenes of the quotidian task of serving a cup of tea to millions, reliably and consistently. In fact, I’d say it’s the technology and the ethos that has allowed Chaipoint to have amazing brand recognition for a relatively small though fast-growing company.





There are several others that haven’t been as successful, which is par for the course in being an entrepreneur. They’ve all been amazing learning experiences, attempts to work on big problems in diverse spaces - medical diagnostics for chronic diseases, developing distance learning algorithms, providing financial literacy to inexperienced mass populations – and in many geographies (India, but also Boston, Dubai, Beijing). 

 

And, of course, I’m still at it!  Some current founding teams with which I’m immersed are tackling a clean electric bus transport company in Delhi, making another attempt (after Aspiring Minds) at assessing and skilling and deploying blue-collar workforces at very large scale using modern technology, and exploring some more medical diagnostics.

 

One other way I’ve been immersed amidst talented young teams is through being a co-founder of Axilor,www.axilor.com, an entity dedicated to incubating and accelerating technology ventures in Bangalore, but with the express aim of using our global connections to also upgrade the quality of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bangalore.

Axilor


As I’ve often said in my writings, there is unlimited ferment in Bangalore, and it’s a magnet for talent, but the system still hasn’t matured to the point where it can invest in really risky technology development, nor can it price intangible assets very well. So, as in most developing countries, the ventures tend to be either copycats of things seen elsewhere, or those that have more tried-and-true templates (read software writ large). A lot of areas are relatively (or entirely!) neglected – medtech, agtech, cleantech, edtech, and so on – because the experience base doesn’t yet exist, and the ‘soft infrastructure’ needed to nurture and value such assets hasn’t matured yet. Axilor’s self-assigned mandate is to crack this chicken and egg problem.





The other is a more nascent enterprise, Crossroads, an organization I co-founded in Boston and Dubai three years ago, with my Harvard colleague Karim Lakhani and a Harvard alum Goulam Amarsy in Dubai. Very encouragingly, it reached 97 countries in just its first three iterations and is poised to grow faster.

Crossroads


It aims to extend a helping hand to very talented first-in-family-to-college kids. https://mittalsouthasiainstitute.harvard.edu/crossroads/ Such kids, as talented as those we find in the Ivy Leagues, lack the networks and capital (monetary and social) to access mainstream economic and career opportunities in all walks of life in society. Thousands of applicants take a battery of increasingly difficult tests – quantitative, qualitative, face-to-face interviews – and get access to curated materials to slake their intellectual thirst depending on how far they get in the process. As the pandemic passes, we will resume our initial model of taking the top 1% of students for an in-person extravaganza to Dubai for a week as the capstone experience, and provide a significant number of ‘finalists’ with a stipend to thereafter address a big challenge that will launch them in their professional lives.





Nor is entrepreneurship, in my mind, confined to commercial ventures. I’ve always thought of entrepreneurship in a ‘big tent’ way, as something that encompasses all forms of creativity in solving the world’s biggest problems. Some of the most creative individuals I’ve run into in my professional career have built and are running non-profits (the biggest of all, and one of my favorites, is Bangladesh’s BRAC, www.brac.net, which is now in multiple countries). 

 

Here are two in which I’m involved. The first is PRS Legislative Research, www.prsindia.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing better information and non-partisan, analytic research to India’s elected Members of Parliament (MP). (For those familiar with the US federal system, think of the Congressional Research Services office in Washington).

Aspiring Minds


Aspiring Minds was one of my first ventures, a firm that developed state of the art machine learning algorithms to help assess a range of capabilities (from general analytic and logical skills to competence in a range of specialized domains, blue- and white-collar) easily, cheaply, and accurately (often using mobile phones, tablets, in secure testing setups). I’m proud that the company tested millions of youth and helped ‘make the market’ for many who lacked degrees from fancy institutions but could analytically demonstrate their skills. At the time of our selling the company to a UK based assessment company, Aspiring Minds had offices in New Delhi, Beijing and San Francisco.




Chaipoint


Another one that gives me a window into consumer behavior is Chaipoint, India’s largest organized tea retailer (chai), serving several hundred thousand cups of hot tea daily, through a network of stores, delivery-mechanisms, and through what I prefer to call chai robots installed in office complexes across India. There is a lot of algorithmic thinking that lurks behind the scenes of the quotidian task of serving a cup of tea to millions, reliably and consistently. In fact, I’d say it’s the technology and the ethos that has allowed Chaipoint to have amazing brand recognition for a relatively small though fast-growing company.





Last, and a very important learning experience for me, I was privileged to lead the Government of India’s Expert Committee on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, whose final report to the public is here.  One outcome was the formation of the Government’s Atal Innovation Mission, an apex body to provide policy making support to encourage entrepreneurship across the country https://aim.gov.in/  This is a gift that keeps on giving under the leadership of the government think-tank, Niti Aayog.  It’s resulted in a network of upgraded incubators across the country, thousands of ‘tinkering labs’ (maker spaces in high schools to encourage creative pedagogy in science), competitions and challenges to spur effort in targeted fields, and a rethinking of some of the enabling entrepreneurship-related rules and legislation in the country.

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© 2020 Dr. Tarun Khanna