Sanjeev Ahuja on fostering entrepreneurs

GrowthBusiness talks to Sanjeev Ahuja, president of the UK chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) about the best ways to promote entrepreneurship.

It’s a crowded market these days for entrepreneurs’ organisations. There have never been so many opportunities for business people to make new connections, share knowledge, be coached or mentored, seek support, or simply socialise.

Sanjeev Ahuja, president of the UK chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), is only too aware of this. ‘Since TiE was founded 11 years ago, we have continued to do good work, but a lot of organisations have been created that have diffused the original message we were sending out. We have now gone back to the drawing board, without giving up our core concept that we are an organisation for promoting entrepreneurship.’

Established in 1992 in Silicon Valley by entrepreneurs with Asian roots, TiE is not restricted by ethnic origin and aims to foster entrepreneurship through mentoring, networking and education. Central to its mission is the idea of giving something back, epitomised by the so-called charter members, of which there are 2,500 globally and 100 in the UK – including such luminaries as Tom Singh, who founded New Look, Cobra beer tycoon Karan Bilimoria and Topsgrup chairman Rahul Nanda.

‘Our charter members have continued to be our core asset,’ says Ahuja, a slick operator who was educated in India and the US before moving to Europe, where he founded and sold a business. ‘They give their time and experience, and actually pay quite substantial dues because they want to be involved in mentoring and coaching the next generation.’

Giving something back takes two main forms. There is a young entrepreneurs’ programme called TyE which sees charter members work with GCSE and A-Level students over six months to help them write a business plan. Another mentoring programme involves charter members working with more established entrepreneurs who have hit a roadblock in their business strategy and need help to move on.

Ahuja is involved himself in the youth programme, which focuses on inner-city schools, and is clearly passionate about it. ‘They [the students] are full of ideas, brilliant ideas. You almost regret that someone is not tapping into these ideas, because the product that comes out after developing them is really excellent, second to none.’

The surprising thing, he adds, is that this ‘talent, creativity and enthusiasm’ so often fails to transform itself into any real benefits for the young people themselves. ‘If they find themselves at a loss when leaving school, that is not an issue with them, it is an issue with the institutions, us, society.’

There’s a view of entrepreneurship that sees it as essentially risk-taking: those inclined by their personalities to take big bets are those best suited to starting and running a business. Ahuja strongly opposes this notion.

‘When we talk to these students, we introduce the idea of entrepreneurship as a profession of choice, no different from any other profession. There is this idea we want to allay that it is only for the risk-tolerant and requires a certain ilk of person.’

It goes back to the nature-nurture debate. While Ahuja recognises the importance of personality in business success, he is a strong advocate of the view that entrepreneurship can be taught, and is worth teaching.

‘There is a very definite element to do with nurturing entrepreneurship; can you educate someone into taking an idea to fruition? What are the steps to go through? Certainly, you can be successful by just having an idea and muddling through, but there is a definite process to follow from thought to realisation that can be taught,’ he says.

The TyE programme sees students enter a global competition for the best business idea with a $25,000 prize. The UK finalists last year were SpikNSpan, a team which planned to install and maintain vending machines selling wet wipes in public toilets. It was led by Hibba Khalid, who speaks in glowing terms about the experience: ‘I gained practical knowledge on how to write a proper business plan and present it to investors, and also improved my leadership and communication skills,’ she relates.

If TiE UK can achieve Ahuja’s goals of creating and fostering more entrepreneurs, that would certainly be something worth shouting about.

The TIE UK website contains more information about the mission and activities of The Indus Entrepreneurs’ UK chapter, and how you can get involved.

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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