In India there is a lot of stigma around making money. I regularly speak to young entrepreneurs in mentoring sessions or while just catching up with friends who are starting up or considering starting up their business journey. What I hear often is a deep seated sense of guilt about making money. Turning a profit. The guilt comes from the fact that the society, especially society in Bengal, where I am from, tells you since your childhood that businessmen are evil incarnate. They tell you how, in business, you cannot make money without cheating someone. Making money in business, and turning a profit is almost always equated with the cheating your customers out of their hard-earned cash. Our folktales, media and now, social media are flushed with stories of dishonest businessmen. This is the narrative that we grow up with. As a result, we see traditional entrepreneurial communities like the Marwaris, Sindhis and Gujaratis as morally corrupt, and which leads to many unwanted stereotypes.
This happened to me as well. I grew up in a communist leaning family, with a hefty dose of propaganda against consumerism and capitalism. I developed these stereotypes too as a child. But then, as I grew up, I started questioning them and the false equivalences fell apart. When my wife and I decided to dodge the usual academia and established Immersive Trails (then known as Heritage Walk Calcutta), sneers and glares were everywhere we looked. Academic colleagues sneered at us because we chose to establish a for-profit business. We were “prostituting” our academic training they said, for the sake of earning money! As if they teach for free, and donate all of their hefty tenured salaries at the end of each month. You do not get to judge if you do not act your preaching! Society in general sneered at us, because we were charging for our services. They should be free, or very cheap! Even the business community sneered at the funny combination of an White American and a Bengali starting a business. Bengalis are renowned for their apathy towards business community, and often for the apathy to their own businesses, when they owned one. All these stereotypes tried to define and judge us and classify us in their own ways. If we were not careful, it was very easy to take us down a guilt-trip wormhole and we would spend more time, money and emotion justifying our decision to ourselves and the society than running the business we founded.
Being anthropologists, and knowing how society and stereotypes work, we realized very early on that these ideas exist for some historical and cultural reasons. These stereotypes nothing to do with us. It is NOT personal. People looking at you and judging you through the tinted glass of these stereotypes are THEIR problem, not yours. They are probably not your right customers anyway. Making money, we realized, is not a problem. It is how you make the money you make, matters. If you make money ethically, with a lot of empathy, and if what you are doing makes the lives of your customers better, and makes them more enriched, then make as much money as you want! Making money unethically is the problem. The thing is, we fear that the stereotypes will end up defining us. We fear that one day we might slip and end up becoming what the society wanted us to become. This fear stops us from realizing our full potential. This fear kills our ideas before we have even started. You need to realize that nothing pre-determines your actions. So be mindful of what you do, believe in your idea, have empathy, make money the ethical way, and you are all set!