November 04, 2007

Entrepreneurial Self Esteem - by Sanjay Anandaram

Social anthropologists have determined that the impact of a dominant culture on a constrained (either self-imposed or externally imposed or a combination) culture is such that over time the dominant culture so subsumes the other culture leaving it as a poor carbon copy version of itself. Indian culture too has been constrained and inhibited for several generations for reasons of history and bad policy. In the India of the 21st century, there’s rapidly growing self-esteem and great opportunity ahead- critical ingredients for original thinking and innovation.

One of the most critical attributes of an entrepreneur’s personality is self-esteem. The desire to achieve, the ambition, confidence, and drive all flow from this core personality trait. People with a manic desire to prove to themselves and to the world that they “can do it” are the ones who can weather storms, deal with crises and plug away at making their aspirations come alive. All great entrepreneurs are people with high self-esteem. They have found redemption through their world-class achievements. So strong is this need for redemption that they go into overdrive to make their own road to their own destiny and are unafraid of experimentation. They are not followers but learn quickly from others to create their own unique spaces. Cavin Kare (shampoo satchets), Nirma (low cost detergent), T-Series (remixes), and Air Deccan are some examples of entrepreneurial energy being unleashed by the desire to create a new product/market category where none existed. If these entrepreneurs had remained inhibited or just imitated others, they wouldn’t have achieved what they did.

On the other hand, people with self-esteem not as high want to seek approval and acceptance by being part of the general crowd. They want to belong to “success” and seek self-affirmation by adorning the trinkets and superficialities of “success”. They adopt the model, mannerisms, language, practices, and so on of the successful. In short, they copy. They imitate. They don’t innovate.

A couple of seemingly trivial examples from Indian media that betray this constrained mindset: Indian news channels keep referring to the Mumbai blasts of July 11th 2006 as the “7-11” blasts as if by emulating the usage of the American “9-11” (where the calendar month precedes the day), the news somehow becomes of international quality. Never mind the shoddy reporting and lack of attention to facts! A popular business paper recently wrote about how south Mumbai “zip codes” had a higher per square foot cost. Zip-code is an American term whereas we use the term “pin code”. Nothing wrong with “zip code” as a term but what’s wrong a “pin-code”? As if usage of the term “zip code” suddenly renders the news with a different halo. Never mind that a large majority wouldn’t know what a “zip code” means! Never mind the facts in the story!

Contrast this with say, American football which has dramatically innovated the traditional English game of rugby and made it all their own. So much so that they’re now exporting their version of “football” around the world.

But the way of the entrepreneur with high self-esteem is not blind copying of superficial issues but innovation around core issues of business models, customer insight, product creation, delivery and support.

I recently heard Kishore Biyani of Pantaloon say in effect: “We don’t believe that global retail models will work in India. We don’t think B-school case studies from the west will work in India. We believe that the Indian retail consumer & market is unique and therefore focused tailored solutions are the way forward in India. There’s no blueprint to learn from so we want to be the ones to create one. We want to learn by doing. We keep our eyes and ears open, listen and watch customers in our stores, and move quickly to execute. We are quick to adapt as new insights come in.” A classic case of a high class entrepreneurial self-esteem and confidence driving everything else.

India today offers unprecedented opportunities for entrepreneurs to grab with both hands. In almost cases, there are no ready made blue-prints and formulae. These have to be created as the journey is made. And those with self-confidence and self-esteem will be the ones who’ll win in the end.

Let me end with this apocryphal tale:

American tourist to the bell-boy in a London hotel: “I hope you have fast elevators in this hotel”. Bell-boy: “Yes sir, the lifts are quite fast”. American tourist: “They are called elevators not lifts. Y’know, they were invented in America”. Bell-boy: “But the language was invented here!”

What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at The views expressed here are his own.