Recently, I recalled a conversation I had with the much-loved late President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, when he visited Harvard, about a book he had written, Ignited Minds, a paean to creativity and its unbounded possibilities. I thought of this in the context of the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to jump-start entrepreneurship in India, to induce the creativity-for-incremental-job creation needed to absorb the net addition of over 10 million people annually (for the next decade) to the country’s workforce.
So, how does one ignite minds, and spur a movement towards entrepreneurship? We can learn from a list of attempts to spur grassroots movements surely. Among my favourites in the US are the Peace Corps — not without controversy on occasion, but generally aligned to do good all over the world — and Teach for All, an ensemble in multiple countries that grew out of Teach for America, where volunteer college graduates intern for a couple of years, teaching in under-resourced primary schools. Related to entrepreneurship, there’s TiE, The Indus Entrepreneurs, emanating from Silicon Valley, a movement of sorts to inspire entrepreneurs globally.
We are at a salubrious moment in the Indian entrepreneurship journey. Of course there are problems aplenty, but I’m optimistic because of the foundations that are coming into place. There are entrepreneurial clusters with creative ferment — Koramangla in Bangalore, Powai in Mumbai, Gurgaon. There is a business-friendly tone from the government in New Delhi, and a conceptual plan I had the good fortune to work on, as chair of a committee on entrepreneurship and innovation pulled together at the Niti Aayog’s behest in 2015. Our report’s insights — the creation of a time-based plan ranging from short-term actions to longer-term initiatives — have been incorporated into the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM, within the Niti Aayog), the apex body shepherding this journey.
Now, it’s time to layer atop this a grassroots movement to ignite young minds. Recently, AIM announced a network of 457 Tinkering Laboratories that seems to me to offer a perfect opportunity to do just this. What are these tinkering labs? They’re carefully curated open-innovation workspaces within existing high schools (targeting classes 6 through 12), selected from a careful competitive process run over past few months, that have simple equipment with which school children can play (think of measuring instruments, simple robots, a 3d printer). The notion is that individuals or groups of students can come together to work on simple ideas. In Tinkering Labs, imagination playfully meets science.
I remember my 13-year-old son working with a classmate in his Boston area school on a project to make a toy solar-powered car where they learned — viscerally, not through book learning — the physics of how energy is transmitted to enable forward motion in a car, the material science of a tiny solar panel, and the design and aesthetics of a chassis that could be supported by whatever minimal power the panel was able to generate. A high school kid from Panipat is working on a device to help convert breath into speech for the disabled.
Such efforts need minimal resources, though trained teacher support is vital, something I want to come back to.
The labs in urban areas will likely be better resourced, perhaps have trained teachers who can act as coaches for the kids using the labs. Even urban tinkering labs though will need much more support than that provided by the best intentioned teachers, and those outside Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities — and there are rightly several in such areas — will surely lack sufficient mentorship.
This is where our AIM committee report’s recommendation for a National Action Brigade is relevant. AIM will soon launch a Mentor India movement. If we have thousands of adult experienced volunteers agreeing to spend whatever time they’re able to with a Tinkering Lab in their vicinity, it could be a real boost to the kids, teachers and the overall movement. These mentors will be identified from the public at large, though I hope our corporates, universities and large non-profits play a major role in this by making it feasible for their personnel to participate. Mentors will bring simple but profound skills to the table — technical skills, but also the ability to work in teams, problem-solve, negotiate and resolve conflicts, all handmaidens of creativity-in-practice.
Of course many details will need to be ironed out by the labs, schools, mentors, and by the AIM. The selection of mentors, a basic training regimen to prepare and equip them, and a monitoring network to ensure that their intervention and behaviours are appropriate and effective, a reward system to recognise particularly successful mentoring, a technology-enabled platform through which mentors can communicate with a central entity and with each other within certain protocols, and so on. We will have to pay special attention to incentives for mentors — likely not monetary but recognition-based — as the initial euphoria of a “new” project will otherwise simply fade away.
The same Mentor India network structures can thereafter also be used to provide support for the networks of incubators — entities that allow adults to brainstorm and develop business ideas — that the AIM has supported across the nation. Those too lack adequate mentoring support, as my experience with the Bangalore-based incubator that I co-founded, Axilor, can attest.
The AIM report emphasised the bedrock foundations of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. A key piece of this is a groundswell of enthusiasm among youth at the grassroots, ideally technology-enabled. Catalysing the nation’s high school children to believe in their creative potential, and re-energising adults to help the children thus enthused, is a vital piece of these foundations.
Overall, as an adult professional, I think of participation in Mentor India to be a privilege, perhaps even a civic duty.
The writer is a professor at Harvard University, co-founder of the Bangalore-based incubator, Axilor, and chairman of the NITI Aayog committee on entrepreneurship and innovation