Guts Matter, Caste Don’t

I was watching a talk on YouTube by Wow Momo founders Sagar and Vinod Kumar. The way they made momos (dumplings, sort of) into a successful fast-food chain in India, is really admirable. But what put me off in their talk, is something that seems to be a trend in the talks by many current generation startup founders in India. They proudly emphasized, like many others, about the caste/community they were from, which was portrayed as a reason for their success. Here, they are from a small, closely knit Sindhi community in Kolkata. For other similar talks, many other founders emphasize on their Marwari or Gujarati roots as a recipe to their startup success. My non-Indian readers must have gotten the drift by now. The Marwaris, Gujaratis and Sindhis, much like the Jewish community in the West, are known for their business acumen and ability to take risks. These communities and their caste networks made an enormous impact in the economy of South Asia for hundreds of years.

But do these caste networks matter in modern day startup scene? Well, the members of these communities are generally closely knit, have a wide network, and therefore safety net. They have traditionally nurtutred in the world of making money and taking risks, which helps developing a business acumen. While these are things that can give you a head-start in the world of traditional business, there are some invisible constraints, and culturally imposed rule books that someone from the community is supposed to play by. These rules have been put in place over hundreds of years as safety valves to keep the community and the resources and knowledge held within the community together. Whenever these unwritten rules are challenged, it created tension, and has led to reprimand from the community elders to restore the status quo and prevent the close knit structure of these communities from falling apart. So while as a member of these traditional business communities and caste network, you can have access to a safety net, some ready capital and a support network and the acumen to start you off, you have to be vigilant about playing by these unwritten rules so that you do not lose your support system. That, I think is constraining for a start-up founder who wants to break barriers and try things that are unconventional.

Since I love history, and I know you do too, I will give a couple of examples here when the status quo was challenged which led to reprimand, ostracization to restore business as usual. In the late 1850s, there was a murder in the small, very conservative and close Jewish community in Calcutta. This was the first murder widely covered by the press and the community and its values were shaken to its core. As a result, the community elders scrambled to convene in the nearby synagogue to ensure that the damage to the reputation and therefore, business of the community can be minimized as quickly as possible and return to “business as usual”. In a classic move of victim shaming, the family of the murdered was immediately ostracized and were made to move out of Calcutta. The family of the murderer was made to remove the name of the murderer from their family tree, much like Sirius Black’s family did for his, and take away his inheritance. The case was buried and status quo was restored.

The second example is from 1914, at the height of the Indian Freedom Movement. On 26th August, a group of Indian revolutionaries looted a large shipment of Mauser pistols and ammunitions from the Rodda Arms Company in Calcutta. The investigation churned out that a few young members of the Marwari community were involved in aiding and hiding the revolutionaries. This caused a huge tension in the status quo of the Marawari business community in Calcutta. The unwritten rule in the community being never to get involved in politics and always be in the good books of whoever was in power. These young members of the community had challenged that rule and the community now faced a crisis. Just like the elders of the Jewish community in the 1850s, the Marwari elders scrambled to manage the crisis and restore the status quo. The younger members involved with the arms heist were severely reprimanded, and a few of them were ostracized by the community and made to emigrate elsewhere.

Coming back to my original point. The modern startup world is all about breaking boundaries, taking leap to the unknown and doing the unconventional and especially not playing by the conventional rules. Conventional rules might make you comfortable in the status quo, but startups are all about challenging the status quo, and coming out of one’s comfort zones. So what matters most in the modern startup is GUTS, not CASTE. If you have a guts to make a difference, and to take risks, why not do that? Being from a traditional business family, community or caste can never be a barrier. When I started Immersive Trails, there were a lot of naysayers among my close family and friends who thought that being a Bengali somehow automatically prevents me from creating a successful business. Did that matter?

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Tathagata Neogi

Dr Tathagata Neogi is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Leader of Immersive Trails, a purpose-driven company based out of Kolkata, India that converts ethical, in-depth research into immersive experiences. Tathagata is a vocal advocate of empathic, ethical, community focused business practices.

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