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Author of the book `Building Golden India', Shail Kumar's exclusive talk with Merinews on start-ups
We can build a golden India by unleashing the potential of its 1.3 billion people and transforming its higher education system, is what Shail Kumar has said in his book. Shail is former president of the IIT Foundation; co-founder of Pan IIT alumni movement in the USA; co-founder and CEO of two start-ups; and was an executive in several Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley-based corporations.

In exclusive interview with, Shail shared about his experience on writing the book and also talked about the start-ups and the scope of start-ups in the educational sector and the way government can encourage start-ups and the education system in India. 

Question (Q): Tell us something about your book?

Shail Kumar (SK): The book is about India, and the future of the nation, its people and its higher education system. I believe we can build a 'golden India' by unleashing the potential of its vast population of 1.2 billion people, and by transforming its higher education system. When we think about unleashing people's potential, education is the key. It's been well researched, documented and talked about, but what is less understood is that higher education sits at a critical junction of the society. It's actually the master key.

So, the first point in my book is that education is our master key or nerve center, therefore if you fix the higher education system, or if you transform the higher education system, it will affect every aspect of the society. The second point is how is our higher education system doing? The point I make is, it is in crisis, and obviously it's a vast complex system, and there is a lot of diversity. And the last and final point is what do we do about it? So, I say it's time for a great revolution, which is basically essential, urgent and promptly required for comprehensive reforms to the system. So, what should be the vision, it is excellent education for all.

Q: Why did you choose this subject to write on?

SK: My father was an officer in the Indian Army, so I grew up around the county, where there was a very visible outward display of patriotism. So, since I was brought up in such an environment, my love for the country was embedded there. Then I went to Kendriya Vidyalaya School and there were some songs that we used to periodically sing in our school, those were about bringing back the golden days of Takshshila and Nalanda back. Then I went to IIT Kharagpur, where there was written, that the institute is dedicated to the service of the nation. So, my love for India developed from the time since I was a child. Also it was very clear to me that I was a part of a middle class family, which meant that education was the only way to go anywhere, and now looking back I feel that I am who I am, because of my education, especially higher education.

When I look at India, and the opportunities and the challenges, I get really concerned and want to bring back the glory to India. And my deep belief is that higher education is required, not just for the Indian people but for the entire Indian society. So, in June 2014, I decide that I must do something about this, so I brought the love for my country and my deep belief and passion for higher education together and this is what the whole book is about.

Q: Do you think the ambition, with which you were writing the book has been achieved?

SK: This book, the end being transformation of higher education system in India, I have just started on it.

Q: As your book is on education sector and you are also a co-founder and CEO of two start-ups, what scope do you see for start-ups in the education sector?

SK: See the book is not just about education, it's about India, and its people. So, when I say that it's the nerve center that affects every aspect of society, I want to think that this book is transforming India and transforming the higher education system in India. The end outcome is really about India. So, I don't want to club it narrowly into education or higher education, it's totally about India.

Having said that, colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to spur research, innovation and entrepreneurship, in some ways they are connective. What really happens in other parts of the world is that when you do research, it's really about making an impact; it's about finding new ways of solving a particular problem. That might lead to a paper, or that might lead to a pattern, or that might lead to a start-up, so it's all connected. Therefore, I am strongly a big believer that colleges and universities are playing a big part in it. In my book I have written one chapter on Stanford, and what makes Stanford so unique and special is that it has become an incredible power-house of innovation and entrepreneurship. And the implications of that to the regional economy, the nation and to the world are immense.

Q: Any start-up that comes up into your mind, when we are talking about the education sector?

SK: While I talk about education sector, I am really thinking in a broader perspective of education. The one which we all could relate to is Google. Sundar Pichai is now the CEO of Google and he is a fellow alumnus from IIT Kharagpur. We all feel very proud that in less than 45 years of age, he has become CEO of one of the most popular and highly valued company like Google. It was actually stated by two students of Stanford.

Q: Tell us about some visible and invisible challenges that start-ups are facing in the country.

SK: See my start-ups are all US-based, so my perspective on Indian start-ups is based on meeting with friends, who have began start-ups in India. One thing that I want to share in this discussion is that I actually attended a panel discussion on Indian start-up situation. In the panel there were basically two start-up people, and two-venture capitalists who were investing in companies that were started in India. What was very striking was that the majority of the discussion was on how to find talent? Now, see even with half a billion people below 25 years of age, the start-ups cannot find talent in India. It's a big red signal, it is sort of a core point that I had pointed out, that something is wrong with the system. Not financing issues, not regulatory issues, not xyz, but finding talent.

Q: What are the key expectations that start-ups have with the government?

SK: You know what makes Facebook and Google so exciting and powerful are its people. Ultimately, the success of any organization comes down to its people and I would say that the government can help significantly. I will make it even broader, the digital India initiative, the start-up India initiative, the make in India Initiative, all need people. They don't only need people, but well trained people, the only thing that the government can do is to help transform the higher education system, because that will fuel everything.

Q: What will be your suggestion for new start-ups or students/youth planning to take up entrepreneurship?

SK: I believe that start-ups are the most innovative and game changing experiences of life. But they can also bring in the toughest experiences of life. There is no guarantee of success as such, highs are higher and lows are lower. So it is not the journey for the weak and the timid, but it's a journey where you have to be deeply passionate about what you have to do and why you want to do it. So, I highly encourage people to rethink deeply, as it is very risky but can also very rewarding.

Q: In which sectors the start-ups in India should look into?

SK: It's a very large country and there are so many opportunities to add values. India is facing significant mega challenges, when I say mega-challenges; it is the challenges affecting 100 million people. This can range from things like extreme poverty to corruption, to interrelated issues of energy, health, water, issue of climate change. So I would encourage start-ups to look at these mega-challenges.

Q: Would you like to speak about some start-ups that have impressed you?

SK: I believe that all start-ups are exciting start-ups, because of the fact that somebody took that extra step to create a new value, irrespective of whether they were successful or unsuccessful. We need more entrepreneurs, so I don't want to name one or the other. I think every start-up is a great initiative.

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