1.2 billion inhabitants.
29 states and 7 territories.
22 official languages and hundreds of dialects.
India is the quintessential example of a pluralist country, with a wide variety of religions and cultures…but also an example of contrasts, where life is a surprising mix of tradition and modernity ; where slums are stacked next to skyscrapers ; and where poverty exists side by side with the excessive luxury of Bollywood.
India is also an emerging superpower. With 7.5% annual growth, it is currently the world’s fastest-growing economy.
This growth lies in the hands of the youth. The country has 600 million young people under 25 years old turning more and more towards entrepreneurship. The 5200 startups, among them 10 unicorns (startups valued at more than one billion dollars) make India the third-largest innovation ecosystem in the world, just behind the United States and the United Kingdom (Nasscom Startup Report 2017).
The young generation of Indians is leading this ecosystem and ready to make a difference.
Who are these young entrepreneurs? How have they been able to create such amazing success stories in a country with so many contradictions?
To answer these questions, I took my backpack, left for India and decided to take part in a unique journey, called the Jagriti Yatra.
The Jagriti Yatra (which translates to the “Awakening Journey” in Hindi) is a journey of discovery and transformation throughout India, to meet the role models and changemakers of the country.
Although it may seem like a conventional trip, it’s completely different from any other.
Take an authentic Indian train and gather 500 young Indians, boys and girls from all walks of life, aged from 20 to 27 years old. They are graduates of top management schools or self-educated; coming from urban or rural areas; speaking English, Hindi or Tamil; established entrepreneurs, young professionals or students….Some have left their villages and are taking the train for the very first time, while others may have flown back from the US, the UK or even Australia to be part of this adventure.
These 500 youngsters, who perfectly illustrate the country’s diversity, also share the same aspiration: to provide viable solutions to meet the social and environmental challenges that India is facing.
A few lucky international passengers were included among these participants and I was fortunate to be one of them.
Let’s get going! The adventure begins. Now, have the participants travel 8000 km in just 15 days to meet the country’s most inspiring entrepreneurs who have successfully developed viable business models to sustainably improve the livelihoods of local communities in different sectors (agriculture, water and sanitation, health, energy, education, industry, art and culture).
The mission of Jagriti Yatra? To inspire the young generation of Indians, help them gain an understanding of both the realities and opportunities that their country has to offer, while empowering them to build the future of India.
When the journey started, we were all perfect strangers coming with our own expectations and goals. Throughout the journey we learnt not only to live together in a 10 square meters sleeping compartment, but also to share our ideas, dreams and projects. Politics, education, global warming or gender equality — so many exciting topics where discussed while sharing a spicy meal and listening to Bollywood music playing in the background.
During the next 15 days, I observed my travel companions’ behaviors, hopes and motivations to try to discover the secrets to their success. I noticed among them a particular mindset marked by these different traits:
On top of the bunkbed of our sleeping compartment, Akshita, 23 years old, is trying to focus on her applications to enter a prestigious Ivy League American university. She left her hometown and her family to pursue Engineering studies in Fluid Mechanics. Passionate about science, she loves conducting scientific experiments for which she has published research papers. At the same time, Akshita seeks to gain more practical experience, participating in innovation challenges, volunteering as a mentor to students and taking a keen interest in environmental issues and the development of sustainable solutions to waste management. Although she misses her family (which she rarely sees), she’s willing to do anything to pursue her dreams.
I also share my compartment with Manek, a 25-year-old native of Gujrat who is one of the first girls in her community to pursue higher education. Despite constant pressure from her family to convince her to get married and start a family, her dream is to leave India to study in Canada. She knows that she will return to India after her studies to develop access to education for girls. Her achievements have already inspired several young girls from her community to follow her steps.
What stands out the most in these stories is the ambition that Indians have. From a young age, they have competed against one another in a frantic race for success. The places to integrate the best schools and universities being limited, the selection is tough.
Getting the best grades and winning prizes in science, art, sports and other subjects is simply not enough to get ahead. For this reason, Indians are continually involved in community projects, volunteer opportunities to gain more experience.
The word “resilience” is one of those buzz-words that I have been hearing quite often recently, but it finally made sense to me during this trip.
I found resilience in the Indians’ ability to come up with creative solutions despite adverse conditions and to see an opportunity in every challenge.
Infrastructure issues, social inequalities, poverty….there are a multitude of challenges which India is facing. Despite this complex environment, Indians are able to innovate and improve their local communities’ living conditions.
In Kanyakumari, our first stop in Southern India, I met Nishant, a 24-year-old from Rajasthan. He realized that many small street vendors (using stalls called kirana stores) were facing difficulties in billing, accounting, book keeping and filing taxes, but couldn’t afford to hire an accountant. He therefore decided to use artificial intelligence to make it easier for them to keep track of this, via a mobile application. He developed an AI-powered personal assistant. Using voice recognition, his app make it easy to keep up with bills, flawlessly incorporating inventory by its use of image processing.
This is a perfect example of what Indians call “jugaad” — a frugal, flexible, and inclusive approach to problem solving and innovation. With the rapid expansion of technology, Indians are using the power of digital means to solve the country’s most pressing issues.
The living conditions on the train were rather destabilizing at first and it took me a few days to get used to it.
Some of the challenges include making your way through the crowd to access the showers, queue for two hours for a two minute cold shower, getting used to the spicy food, going from 90°F to 20°F in the span of a few days from southern to northern India or being suddenly notified that the train is eight hours late…
Yet in the midst of this chaos, the complaints and protests from the Indians seemed far more subdued compared to what I would expect if the train were filled with my French compatriots. Indians keep calm and everything seems to fit into place naturally.
They also have an innate ability to see things on the bright side. Even the smallest achievement or victory is systematically celebrated and appreciated.
Some Indians will casually explain that growing up in such a challenging environment, being optimistic is their only way out!
I also met Vishnu, from Coimbatore in southern India. He started his entrepreneurial journey at the young age of 13 by writing blog posts on mobile phones and other computer accessories. His blogs attracted visitors from across the world as he ranked them in search engines in the first page. Upon generating leads and customers for his clients, he started offering SEO and digital marketing services to professional service providers. Given the success of his initial venture, he hired his first employee at age 14. To pursue his dream as an entrepreneur and scale his business, he dropped out of school at the age of 15. He flew to the United States at 17 to meet with potential clients, perfecting his English on the job. Without even realizing it, Vishnu was building a real success story. Today, his business, based in California and Tamil Nadu, employs 60 people and generates several million dollars a year in revenue. At the age of 23, Vishnu is now a successful entrepreneur, public speaker and also invests in young Indian startups.
He is one of those self-made entrepreneurs that I thought I could only meet in the United States. Yet I noticed that India is full of entrepreneurs who are just as daring, if not more …
Living in India implies being constantly surrounded by throngs of people, which is exactly what I experienced throughout this trip. Often a part of a large family or community, Indians thrive in groups and have a keen sense of mutual aid and collaboration.
Despite each individual’s differences, a sense of community belonging was quickly established on Jagriti Yatra. We learned to coexist, to help each other and eventually we formed a powerful cohesive group sharing the same energy.
When the train finally reached its final stop in Mumbai, I realized that all these encounters had given me a dose of inspiration and humility, but above all, a desire to share this experience with as many people as possible.
The upcoming generation of Indians live in conditions that are drastically different from the ones we experience in Europe. In spite of the constant chaos, the different issues and challenges that their country is facing, these young people take risks, are highly determined, accept failure when necessary, and show amazing determination.
So, shouldn’t we be inspired by them?
The Optimist Citizen collaborated with Jagriti Yatra, supported by The Schneider Electric Foundation, on its 10th anniversary as a Media Partner. Jagriti Yatra is a 15 day long train journey traversing 8000 kilometers across the length and breadth of India, to understand and build the India of smaller towns and villages through enterprise. In the coming days, we would be bringing forward similar impact based stories encountered during the course of Jagriti Yatra this year.