Wealth Issue 2016: Essay

The Originals

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The smart-up generation in 10 portraits

THAT A SOJOURN in India should form some of the most profound reflections of the world’s most celebrated whizkid, Steve Jobs, is often considered enough to justify claims of this being a land that inspires ideas worth more than their metaphysical weight in gold. Here is Apple Computer’s late founder, in his own words: Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do [in the West], they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work….

Coming back after seven months in Indian villages, I saw the craziness of the Western world as well as its capacity for rational thought. If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in a moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.

Steve Jobs’ fabled ‘divination’ of how people would fall in love with technology in the infoyug can be attributed to intuition, and the ‘discipline’ he was talking about is what’s familiar to us as meditation, but to see this as the be-all and end-all of Apple’s success as a startup—it all began 40 years ago in a garage—is to fall into a ‘reality distortion field’ of the man’s myth. It is far more rewarding to focus on the outcome of his yogic exertions: the clarity of his actual vision and the originality of his enterprise. Keen to make computers ‘for the rest of us’, he ripped out software that restricted their interaction with humans to an arcane code language, and came up with an interface easy enough for grannies to use. No less crucial was his chutzpah in setting out to smash the prevailing market paradigm, encapsulated best by Big Brother’s screen being shattered to bits by the brand in its 1984 TV commercial. What Steve Jobs did to mobile phones was only an echo—at least in essence—of what he’d already done to larger contraptions a quarter-century earlier. At its core, the story of Apple is the story of his mantra: ‘Think Different’.

As it happens, it’s also the mantra of a heartening wave sweeping India, evident in the utter diversity of enterprise abuzz across the country, led by a generation raring to dare convention, look risk squarely in the eye and startle us by making money off the unlikely. On the pages that follow, Open features ten profiles of young entrepreneurs with extraordinary startups, selected less for proof of success than the audacity of their ventures. Some will breeze along, market-willing, while others may have to sweat for every rupee earned. But all of them serve as inspiration in a country full of neglected needs that the ‘animal spirits’ of a free market—and its promise of profit—ought to uncover and satisfy. All of them address gaps in quirky new ways. And they are all originals.

There is Akash Agarwal of New Leaf Dynamic, whose ‘off-grid’ chillers reduce the perishability of food in places where power supply and cold chains are both patchy. There is Vivek Mohan of Bisko Labs, which turns mobikes gearless at the cost of a few petrol refills and is working on a safety earpod that sends out distress signals. Bilva Desai’s Mokshshil offers professional funeral services, all aspects of a shock departure taken care of. Ankit Agarwal of Help Us Green recovers flowers cast ritually unto the Ganges and uses them to make ‘flowercycled’ stuff like compost and incense sticks. Kunal Gandhi of Logic Roots has let mice and frogs loose to teach kids their Math. Ajit Narayanan of Invention Labs has an app that helps autistic children communicate with ease. Kaushal Sanghvi of Breathing Room has an online service that lets out unused office space by the hour. Geetansh Bamania of Rentomojo urges tenants to feather up their homes by taking furniture, furnishing and appliances on rent. Vipul Singh of Aarav expects to have Indian airspace humming with flying objects out on truly worthy missions. And Ashwini Asokan and Anand Chandrasekaran of Mad Street Den have an artificial intelligence gig going that turns phones into shopping assistants with a sensibility.

An Indian apple of originality has been bitten. May its creative juices flow.

The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of portraits of the Smart-up Generation, click here