Reimagining India: A conversation with Naveen Tewari

| Interview

Naveen Tewari founded SMS-based search service mKhoj in 2007 before pivoting its business model to the emerging field of mobile-device advertising. Renamed InMobi in 2009, the company’s technology is now used by almost 700 million people across more than 160 countries and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s 50 most disruptive companies in 2013. In this video interview, Tewari explains why Indian attitudes toward entrepreneurs and start-ups must change if the country is to fully benefit from the technology sector’s ability not only to drive economic growth but to tackle India’s most pressing problems. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.

Interview transcript

Changing society’s expectations

The society in India does not necessarily allow you to do risky things. The society in India, especially in the early stage, works not on what you have built but where you have done it. It’s about where, and it’s about the brand associated with it. And as a start-up, when you’re trying to do something, you don’t have a brand; you’re building towards a brand.

And I think the societal pressures of trying to do this are a little hard to manage. I think it has changed over the past five, six years, but it is still, at large, a complicated situation. For a young grad who has come out of the best engineering school, the pressure that he goes under is the pressure of the society, of what his parents will answer to their neighbors, who have been their neighbors for the past 25 years—where does his son or daughter work? And I think that everybody wants a phenomenal answer for that question, and a start-up is not the greatest of answers.

As a country, we are largely a middle-class society. We have been taught to deal with things within our limitations. And therefore, our thinking is limited. We don’t think beyond our dreams. We don’t generally think big. Trying to own the world, trying to win across the globe, we think, “That job is for somebody else.” And that mind-set change is probably one of the biggest challenges, along with the societal challenge.

Creating global companies

India has the capability to build world-class companies. India has the capability to build companies that can change our trajectory, especially in the technology space, because it’s easier, it doesn’t have capital restrictions, it doesn’t have a lot of the barriers that many other industries have.

I think people are very limited by their thinking today because they probably haven’t seen something being built globally, and therefore they’re restricted in how they approach it. I would argue that once those two things start to change, a lot of people will fall into the bucket of trying to take risks. A lot of people will try and make large things across the globe. And if those two things start to happen, we’ll see a very different country ten years from now.

Solving big problems

We’re not going to solve the problem of limited education by the same methods we have tried over the past 30, 40 years. We’re not going to solve the issues around the efficiency of agriculture by doing what we have done over the past 30 years. All of these problems, I believe, will require technological solutions that are going to be very differentiated for our country.

Therefore it requires entrepreneurs to essentially explore multiple options out there and create solutions that will essentially solve these problems. If I were to say, “Can there be a solution that, 15 years down the line, 85 percent of the people in India will be educated?” Is that an unthinkable situation?

Well, in today’s terms, yes. But if an entrepreneur tries to solve for it and says, “OK, if that is where I want to reach—which is a huge goal—what is it that I need to do in order to do so?” I’m pretty sure they’ll come up with solutions which are very different. But I would also argue that it will be a solution that will have to be technology driven.

Therefore I am of the belief that over the next ten years or so, multiple such industries will go through changes in our country. They’ll have to be driven through a technology-led platform, and it has to be done through entrepreneurship.

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