The purpose of this story, which is partly fictional and partly based on the personal experiences of the author, is to illustrate the nature of the entrepreneurial temperament. The commentary which comes after the story, tries to look at the story in the light of ancient Indian insights on the subject based on the concept of the Vysya.
Connecting with people; spotting opportunities and embracing risk; social sensitivity; steering growth; Indian concept of Vysya.
Connecting with People
I was an engineer working in a big public sector firm, one among many thousands of engineers, a small fish in a big pond. Our industrial township was situated in one of the most arid regions of south India. But the climate and the soil are favourable to cashew plantation, which is the only fertile patch in an otherwise arid landscape.
Twice in a year, during holidays, I used to visit my parents who were in other parts of South India. I had to travel in a bus which went through many villages with small cashew nut plantations which dotted the side of the road. During one of my travels, when the bus stopped in a village, a handsome young man, more or less of my age, boarded the bus. He sat on the vacant seat next to mine, looking at me with a smile. After placing his luggage above and making himself comfortable, he turned to me and introduced himself with a warm and cheerful demeanor. “I am Harchand from Surat, Gujarat”. His spontaneously affable nature instantly softened my inborn reservedness towards strangers and soon we were chatting freely as if long-time friends. When I introduced myself and told him I was an engineer in the giant public sector firm, Harchand asked, “Are you married?” I said, “No” Harchand joked loudly with a guffaw “Then you must be one of the most eligible bachelors in your community”.
Spotting Opportunities and Embracing Risk
When I told Harchand about our township, he started asking curious questions. What is the population? How many employees? How many workers and how many officers? What are the salary levels? How many shops, theaters? And many such questions. After gathering all these information, Harchand commented thoughtfully “your township has a lot of business potential”.
I asked Harchand what I guessed “Are you a businessmen?” “Yes”, said Harchand, “Your guess is right. I run a fast-food restaurant in Surat”. I asked further “What brought you here all the way from Gujarat”. Harchand said “I came to explore a business opportunity. One of my regular customers to my restaurant belongs to this place. He told me about cashew plantations here and lack of sufficient processing and trading facilities for farmers. Instinctively I felt a business opportunity. I thought why not go over there and make a personal assessment”.
But to my nine-to-five, risk-averse, and office-goers mentality Harchand’s attempt appeared audacious. What does he know about this place or people or the language or the business environment? He has no experience or knowledge of cashew-nut industry. How can he venture into an unknown business in an unknown land relying on a vague hunch?
But concealing my skepticism, I asked “So what is your assessment”. “I feel” replied Harchand “My first instinct about this place is right. All the processing and trading centers are in Chennai. They are big and wealthy industrialists and traders who exploit the small farmer here by buying the cashew fruit for a very unfair price and make huge profits. So I feel there is a gap here which can be filled profitably. There is here a definite scope for a cashew nut processing and trading business.” “It seems” I told Harchand “You have almost decided to set up shop here in this remote village”. Harchand nodded his head energetically and said, “Yes, almost” and asked me “What do you think about my decision? If you were in my position what will you do”. I said frankly, “I am not of the entrepreneur type like you. I will not take such a big risk in an unknown land and in an unknown business. I appreciate and admire your courage. But don’t you think you will be minimizing the risk if you expend in a familiar territory you know well, like for example the restaurant business in your own place.” Harchand laughed and said, “Familiar territory is saturated and not very interesting. There are too many fast-food restaurants. They are springing up like mushrooms in every street corner. And also I find the restaurant business not very exciting.” The young entrepreneur added further, “New and the unknown do not frighten me, rather I like them. I like to meet new people, new place and the new environment. By nature, I am the friendly type who can get along easily with all types of people and environment”. “Yes”, I replied “I can see that.”
There was a pause and after a few minutes of silence Harchand said, “There is one more important reason why I want to set up shop here” and said this with a great intensity of feeling, “Money, business and profit is not all. Unless you give and contribute something to the society life has no meaning. People here are poor, there are no schools or hospitals. The small farmers are exploited. Here there is not only a business opportunity but also for making some meaningful contribution to the society. If I set up my business here, I can provide a better deal for the farmers than what they are getting now and I will definitely make an effort to improve the living conditions of people here.” He said these words with such a feeling, sincerity and conviction, they touched my heart deeply. With a spontaneous gesture, I took Harchand’s hands and said with all my heart “I wish you all the best in your Venture”. “Thank you” said Harchand “Thank you again for your sincere goodwill which I can feel in your hands.” I asked Harchand “What is your future programme here.” Harchand said, “I want to have a look at the surrounding towns. I would like to come to your township and your house.” I gladly gave him my address and said, “You are most welcome”.
Harchand got down in the next town where he was staying in a lodge. But he didn’t visit my house as he promised.
Days and months passed and Harchand passed out of my mind. After six months, again I made the trip to my parents place. The bus passed through many villages, stopping at each village, taking and leaving rural folks. For someone like me born and brought up in an Indian village, it was a familiar but pleasant pastime to look at the passing snap shots of rural India from the window of a speeding bus. All of a sudden, the familiar terrain was interrupted by a concrete structure with the sign board “Harchand Industries, Cashew processors and Traders”. The name rung a bell in my mind and all the old memories of my meeting with Harchand during my previous trip returned vividly to my mind. I exclaimed to myself, “Boy, this fellow is swift and smart”. Within six months, he was able to materialize some of his dreams!
After a month or so I had a surprise visit from Harchand. We spent many happy hours together. Harchand said that his cashew business was going on well. He wanted to go round our township to explore business opportunities here. We hired a taxi and Harchand insisted on seeing every nook and corner of the township. After the trip Harchand narrated with great excitement and passion his future plans – expansion of cashew processing facilities, trading centres, sweet shops and fast-food restaurants in our township and nearby towns, cashew toffee factory, schools and hospitals in villages, cottage industries for giving employment to rural women and many others.
Many years passed, at each trip to my parents’ place, I saw Harchand progressively materializing his vision. It was now more than five years since I first met Harchand in a bus. Today Harchand Industries is a well-known and diversified business group in our district. And Harchand is a prominent citizen of our community. Harchand group has at present six cashew processing centres in three villages employing thousands of people. Harchand Sweet shops with in-house fast-foods restaurants are extremely popular centers in our district, especially in our township. They are well-known for excellent quality, reasonable prices and quick and pleasant service. The specialities of Harchand Sweet stalls are a variety of cashew delicacies. Harchand Traders are one of the largest distributors and exporters of cashew in Tamil Nadu. Harchand Charities runs schools and hospitals in six villages.
More than five years have passed since I met Harchand first in a bus. I met Harchand many times in some of the social gatherings like the Lions Club, temple festivals and cultural programmes and we became good friend. In these five years both of us have climbed our own respective professional ladders. But my progress in my career as an engineer is nowhere near that of Harchand’s meteoric growth as the entrepreneur. While I slowly and laboriously climbed the complex hierarchical ladders of a huge public sector organization and managed to arrive at the middle management cadre, Harchand was blazing off to become a leading industrialist of our district. There was obviously a status differential between me, an engineer in the middle-management cadre, and Harchand, a top industrialist hobnobbing with the top executives of my organization and the highest officials of the district. But in his relations with me, Harchand never displayed his better status. He was always his warm and friendly self.
I met Harchand again in one of the social gathering. We were having a pleasant chat, when Harchand asked me suddenly “Why not you come to my house today for dinner”. I hesitated and mumbled “not today some other day…” But Harchand smothered my hesitation with his friendly insistence “No, you are coming today. Don’t worry about returning. I will drop you back in your home.” He put his hands over my shoulder with a warm-smile and virtually pulled me towards his car. Harchand’s house was one of the elegant houses in the town. As I stepped into the house, I saw Harchand was living in great style. The house was decorated with a fine aesthetic sense. As he took me around the house, I saw the house was equipped with all the luxuries money and modern technology can give. I was treated to a sumptuous and delicious dinner and spent some happy hours with Harchand and his family. Harchand said, “You see, I am not a yogi but a bhogi, I like to enjoy life to the utmost.”
The Indian Concept of Vysya
The story illustrates in the living example of a young businessman with some of the important qualities which makes an ideal entrepreneur. The first quality is an inborn friendliness or in other words temperament of a natural friend; friend of people, friend of Nature, friend of environment, and friend of life as a whole. Ancient Indian thought laid a great emphasis on this need of a right temperament to become a businessman or an entrepreneur. According to Indian thought a businessman should be a man of mutuality and harmony, called Vysya. Vysya is someone who has the natural and inborn intuition unto the commerce of life and the ability to harmoniously adapt and flow with people, things, events, circumstances and environment. Nothing or no one is a stranger to a Vysya. He is not of a reserved or brooding type. A thinker, philosopher or a scientist can be reserved but not the businessman or the entrepreneur who has to interact with life. The Vysya or the business man has to be not only not reserved but able to break into the reservedness of others and establish working relationship with all types of people.
The second quality of the Vysya is the ability to take a calculated risk based on intuition into an untapped potential or opportunity in society.
The Vysya has a visceral hunch into the dormant material economic and social needs of a community and how to fulfill this need with a perfect sense of mutual advantage for himself and others. As we have already indicated, this mutuality is the essential motive and quality of the entrepreneur.
The Vysya is neither a man of excessive self-interest of the ego-centric materialist nor of absolute selflessness or self-giving of the saint. This is an important point to be kept in mind in evolving the ethical culture and values of Business or “Business Ethics”. A Vysya is capable of generous giving but cannot entirely obliterate his self-interest or in other words he cannot give without expecting anything in return. He can give or serve voluntarily or generously but he always expects something in return for his giving or service. To give generously but also to take and enjoy generously is the natural urge of the Vysya.
This brings us to the other important natural quality of the Vysya, the urge to enjoy life. The Vysya is predominantly the child of Life and not of the Mind or Spirit. To take delight in and enjoy all the good things of life is a dharma of the Vysya. The Vysya should not be denied the pleasures and luxuries of life; they are needed for his growth and development. So an ethic of bare simplicity or “high thinking and simple living” is not for the Vysya. Such an ethic may be good for a thinker, philosopher, poet or a saint, the Brahmanas, but it is not desirable to impose it on the Vysya. For Vysya has to grow through accepting, embracing and enjoying life and not by rejecting or drawing away from life and its bounties and pleasures. The Vysya grows by generously taking from and giving to life. Even from a purely social perspective, someone who creates wealth for the society has to be allowed to enjoy at least some of the wealth he creates.
The fourth quality of the Vysya is the philanthropic spirit or to use the modern management terminology “social responsibility”. The Vysya is generous in giving to as well as taking from and enjoying life. And his inborn intuition of the law of mutuality of life knows that one cannot take much from life without giving. In the well-developed Vysya soul, this urge for giving or generosity manifests itself in the form of philanthropy, charity and social responsibility. But the Vysya’s urge for giving is of a very different kind than that of the urge for self-giving of the saint; it is the result of a natural generosity of the soul tempered by the pragmatic intuition of the mutuality of life.
The author is a Research Associate at Sri Aurobindo Society and on the editorial board of Fourth Dimension Inc. His major areas of interest are Management and Indian Culture.