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Voices Entrepreneurship Without Boundaries

Starting from a train, 450 millennials build a new India

Shashank ManiChairman
Jagriti Yatra

Shashank Mani is the nonexecutive chairman of Jagriti Yatra and is the author of the book “India: A Journey through a Healing Civilization,” published by HarperCollins.

The TakeawayEach year, several hundred young Indians traverse their vast country by rail, developing ideas for new enterprises designed to create jobs and foster development. The founder and chairman of Jagriti Yatra reflects on the journey’s five-year track record — and offers a model for other countries that wish to promote youth entrepreneurship.

Every year, some 450 young Indians travel the length and breadth of their nation by rail, meeting social and economic entrepreneurs who are building a new India based on enterprise. This train ride incubates dozens of enterprises every year, against a backdrop of slowing economic growth, inequality, public corruption, and other social ills.

Since we founded Jagriti Yatra in 2008, more than 2,000 youngsters have taken this transformative journey. About 16 percent of our alumni have gone on to found their own enterprises. Another 20 percent have joined social ventures or commercial startups. A remarkable 99 percent describe the Jagriti Yatra as a “must-have experience.”

“The rationale of enterprise-led development is that young people feed on purpose and hope. If enough young Indians can channel their purpose and hope into productive new enterprises, a positive destiny for India is assured.”

Jagriti Yatra is a Hindi phrase that means “awakening journey.” Our young Yatris (travelers) are screened from 17,000 applicants to see if they have what it takes to propel India forward. A majority comes from “middle India,” a world of small towns and villages that is 600 million strong but often bereft of purpose and employment. Once selected, they set out to travel the country in a chartered train that will be their home for 15 days and 8,000 kilometers.

Along the way they meet role models like R. Elango, a legendary social worker based in Kutthambakkam village, near Chennai. Years ago, Elango left his engineering job in an urban area to inspire a village that was all but broken by alcoholism, caste segregation, and a dearth of economic opportunity. Thanks in part to Elango’s pioneering work, Kutthambakkam today is a must-see for those seeking models of rural regeneration.

In the state of Odisha, on India’s eastern coast, the Yatris meet Gram Vikas founder Joe Madiath, who has been bringing clean water, energy, and sanitation to impoverished villages for nearly 30 years. Madiath insists that each toilet constructed by villagers should have running water. Otherwise the new toilets make the lives of village women more difficult, as they must fetch additional water to flush them.

In Madurai, a town in Tamil Nadu, the Yatris see hope shining in the half-blind eyes of patients at Aravind Eye Care System, a specialized hospital chain inspired by the spiritual values of Sri Aurobindo. The hospital provides free eye care to thousands every year while earning a healthy profit.

Jagriti Yatra veterans form a close-knit network based on common experiences and a shared passion for developing entrepreneurial solutions to social challenges. Every year, former Yatris launch roughly 45 new enterprises throughout India. For example, a former Yatri named Jagriti Amit Kataria went on to launch ROSE Computer Academy, an enterprise dedicated to developing computer literacy in Indian villages. According to the company website, ROSE has trained more than 5,000 young people over the past three years. Some 1,500 graduates have obtained jobs in private companies and the public sector. And about 50 ROSE graduates have launched their own small enterprises.

The Jagriti Yatra has a way of bringing out unique entrepreneurial talents. For example, Kalyani Khodke is a small-town girl from Maharashtra who realized her passion for design when she embarked on the train journey. Touched by the powerful simplicity of Aravind Eye Care’s treatment processes, she went on to found Range Design Studio, a design and innovation consulting firm that creates educational toys as well as products for the automotive and health-care sectors.

The Jagriti Yatra has also spawned a number of entrepreneurial partnerships. For example, Vivek Khandelwal is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay who met his future business partner on a Jagriti Yatra train. In 2009, they started an innovative mobile-telephony company called Applied Mobile Labs (formerly Voicetap), which provides mobile education and business-lead-generation services and operates in India and Kenya.

Jagriti Yatra has adopted a three-pronged approach to achieving its vision of enterprise-led development. The first is the annual train journey, which has been successfully replicated by Jagriti alumni in countries such as France and the United States. We are also building the Jagriti Enterprise Network, a platform designed to help young entrepreneurs build sustainable enterprises in small towns and villages across India. Finally, we plan to create four Jagriti Enterprise Institutes that will provide entrepreneurial training and incubation support in the four corners of the country.

The rationale of enterprise-led development is that young people feed on purpose and hope. If enough young Indians can channel their purpose and hope into productive new enterprises, a positive destiny for India is assured. We hope that our Indian example will also provide a guiding light for other emerging nations.

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