Now, the likes of Airtel, Infosys and Wipro help you turn entrepreneur

02 Dec,2011

By Peerzada Abrar


When Sanjay Mittal, an employee at Bharti Airtel, decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge this year, his employer was happy to provide him infrastructure, mentoring, funding and even a year’s salary. Bolstered thus, Mr Mittal (not related to Bharti Airtel founder mr Sunil Bharti Mittal) launched UCIT Managed Services, a company that manages video and audio web-conferencing services. His company now employs 35 and Mr Mittal resigned his job as senior vice-president at the telecom company this year.


“I was surprised when Airtel offered me this kind of partnership,” said Mr Mittal, 44, an alumnus of Delhi College of Engineering and Punjab University. Airtel let Mittal pursue his passion, as the company recognised his contribution of starting this type of unified communication business from scratch, while working at the firm.


Bharti Airtel, which has 238 million customers globally and revenues of over 65,315 crore for FY2011-2012, owns no stake in the start-up, but Mr Mittal says his company has a mandate to grow the audio and video web services business and manage the complete infrastructure for Airtel.


He is also in talks with Airtel’s rival telecom operators to provide the service. Six other Airtel employees have also launched their own start-ups, with assistance from their employer, since it came up with a policy seven months ago to nurture entrepreneurial ability among employees. A board comprising Airtel senior management identifies, funds and guides potential business ideas from employees, who want to leave the company and start on their own.


Apart from this, programmes such as Sparkplug help employees turn their ideas into businesses inside the firm. Other programmes like Zing Labaratory and Start Up Weekend are open for outside entrepreneurs to turn their business ideas into reality.


According to Mr K Srinivas, president for the consumer business at Bharti Airtel, the initiative’s aim is to encourage business plans from within or outside the organisation to create new product ideas. It is particularly important now as Airtel ventures out to data services and applications. “This is not going to happen only through Airtel’s efforts. Building entrepreneurial spirit is vital,” said Mr Srinivas.


Observers said that such corporate ‘intrapreneurship’ initiatives could become hothouses of innovation. “Take Google, for instance. Gmail, Google News and Adsense resulted from its Innovation Time Off programme, in which employees are able to devote 20% of their work day to independent endeavours,” said Mr Krishna Tanuku, executive director at Wadhwani Centre for Entrepreneurship Development at the Indian School of Business.



While Mr Mittal left the Airtel fold, another employee, Mr Moloy Kumar Mukherjee, came up with an idea that was turned into a business by a senior team within the telecom company. The product iFasal, which was developed within Airtel, provides real-time access to the prices of crops, seeds, pesticides, weather information and farming advisory to farmers.


The subscription-based service has spread across states such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand. Mr Mukherjee, who hails from a farming family, thought about the idea when he saw small farmers suffering supply-chain losses and being exploited by middle-men. “This is because they don’t get the information at the right time,” said Mr Mukherjee.



Other organisations, including IT firms such as Infosys, Wipro and Microland, have also started initiatives to drive innovation.


“This entrepreneurial culture allows employees to think big and bring new ideas to the table,” said Mr Vishnu Bhat, vice-president and global head for cloud computing at Infosys, India’s second-largest software exporter.


Wipro, India’s third-biggest software exporter, has opened up various technology challenges at the firm, which involves open invitation for ideas to solve critical problems. “This itself is driving the innovation culture and the entrepreneurial shift in the organisation,” said Mr Anurag Srivastava, chief technology officer and senior vice president for Wipro’s global IT business.


The intrapreneurs helped Wipro develop a platform made for the Indian garment industry, which will bring down operational costs and help compete effectively with rivals from Bangladesh and China.


Mr Srivastava said if the business plans of employees do not succeed, they are still valued highly in the organisation because of the risk they have taken.


Mid-tier firms, like Bangalore-based IT infrastructure services provider Microland, are also following a similar path. In Microland, an executive team headed by chairman and managing director Mr Pradeep Kar selects ideas from employees. VM Kumar, chief marketing officer at Microland, said customers these days do not pay for the resources like manpower and infrastructure. They carry out transactions based on the business outcome. “For that, we have to innovate, which needs an entrepreneurial mind-set,” said Mr Kumar.



Corporate entrepreneurship has been successfully adopted by some of the world’s largest technology corporations such as Intel, Microsoft and IBM. US-based Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp has started an innovation initiative called Cognizant Capital in India. It follows a venture capital model within the company, where it incubates innovative business ideas suggested by employees. The main objective of the model is to create new types of IP-based service offerings that are complementary to their business model.


There is an internal board that screens business plans and allocates funds in a staged model patterned after Silicon Valley venture capital firms, said Mr Sukumar Rajagopal, SVP and Global Head of Innovation at Cognizant.


“Innovation in the current context is increasingly important because customers are going through structural shifts in their business,” said Mr Rajagopal.



Mr Jagdish Kini, former CEO and executive director of Bharti Airtel’s mobile phone operations in India, feels though these are good initiatives to boost the ecosystem, large Indian firms should consider entrepreneurs as partners. “A professional approach is required. They should not portray they are providing some kind of help,” said Mr Kini.


An entrepreneur, who did not wish to be named, was collaborating with Airtel to provide value-added services for entry-level mobile users. However, he said, he had to close down the start-up due to differences with the management at the telecom major. A spokesman for Airtel said that they are trying their best to grow the ecosystem, but it is not necessary that every business scales up and becomes successful.



Airtel has now also built a ‘Zing Laboratory’ that helps outside developers and entrepreneurs to test, experiment and simulate various mobile technologies revolving around the 3G platform. Started last year, around 21 entrepreneurs and developers have set up applications that they tested prior to the actual deployment of the solutions in the market.


Last month, Airtel also announced the ‘Start Up Weekend 2011’ in association with SingTel Innov8, a corporate venture capital arm of telecom major SingTel Group. This competition invited individuals to participate and share their new start-up ideas.


Jobs Bolega, a voice-based social network for blue-collar workers, won the competition. The team will join the SingTel Innov8 2012 boot camp in Singapore and get seed funding as well to make their ideas a reality. Tanuku of ISB believes corporate entrepreneurship, which is still at a nascent stage in Indian companies, needs faster adoption.


“A few years ago, if you would do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. But now it is not possible to even keep what you have unless you drive innovation by having entrepreneurial culture inside the firm.”


Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2011, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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