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The Start-Up World between IITs and IIMs: Prateek Maheshwari

Start-ups excel when they have doers, but businesses need to balance that with enablers who can play a synchronised symphony of talents

Illustration: Saahil Bhatia

Is it necessary for a founder to be an alumnus of India’s elite institutes, such as IITs or IIMs? One way of analysing this question is by re-orienting it to look at the outcomes: “Will an education from an elite institution make me an elite founder?” Or, to consider another problem-solving paradigm: “Is a founder really a founder unless they have received the stamp and branding of these institutions?” Or a more accurate one: “What is it about becoming an entrepreneur that requires such credentials?”

In one word, it is the risk. Entrepreneurs and employees alike know the entrepreneurial journey—an everyday, constant sense of risk that is calculated and sometimes audacious. Risk opens the doors to hitherto unexplored opportunity but it is all tempered with, and reality-checked by, the very real possibility of failure. One can mitigate, but not entirely eliminate, this risk through hands-on work experience and by developing the curiosity and perseverance that can be translated into momentum.

Challenge of Starting Up

When a start-up first faces the world, it is yet another idea in an ocean of ideas, with yet another product in a market landscape abundant with them. The challenge gains more texture when we consider the pro-business India we live in today, whose policies and robust economic performance are exciting the imaginations of start-ups in every corner of the country and venture capitalists from across the world.

Yet, start-ups are born, and they die in the blink of an eye. This sobering reality galvanises start-up founders to draw on their faculties and insight to go from zero to one. And it is in the ability to embrace these problems, the risks of not solving them, and then mobilising human and other resources accordingly that founders internalise and dimensionalise strategic thinking and a culture of innovation.

Getting Hands-On

Founding, or even working, at a start-up allows one to work on the small building blocks—arranging funds, finding the right people and dedicating the day to changing an idea into vision and transforming this vision into impact. Here, the harmony between the big picture and the small granular details is always at play. This is the real world; the IITs or the IIMs will not be able to replicate the unpredictability and immediacy of day-to-day start-up scenarios that hone one’s capacity for enterprise. Thus, there is, arguably, no experience more potent in acquiring these attributes than working in a start-up.

But we must also look at this question again by differentiating the IITs and the IIMs. We cannot deny that MBA programmes, by their very nature and intent, are aimed at the transference and development of managerial skills, and not arming one with the skills to start up. So, it is not surprising that the data shows that IIM graduates are more likely to be drawn to the stability and lucre of a corporate job. Perhaps, it is due to the fact that an IIM graduate, upon finishing their Master’s, is at an age where stability matters more than anything else and is, therefore, less drawn to the start-up excitement. But we cannot write off these institutes. We simply cannot deny that the very point of a start-up is to eventually grow up—transition from bootstrapped to boardroom—and become a self-sustaining company. The foundational years are to develop meaningful products, but more importantly, the processes and management thinking that allow it to stand out on its own as a serious, credible and trusted player in the market.

This begins a shift that is seismic in complexity and responsibility. Start-ups excel when they have doers, but businesses need to balance that with enablers who can play a synchronised symphony of talents. This is when the stakes get higher, and leaders’ ability to strategise, plan and execute all facets of management training with precision gets more prominence. Operating at a larger scale, they need the tools and frameworks to communicate and sustain a cohesive corporate vision across diverse teams and through turbulent markets. And this is where B-school can add incredible value.

The B-School Push

Premier institutes can put students on the journey from managers to leaders and arm them with greater awareness as they learn to adapt, mentor and communicate effectively, ensuring that their teams evolve in harmony with the company’s trajectory.

To sum up, the path to becoming a truly exceptional corporate leader requires one to balance the many benefits of acting and thinking like a start-up with the formidable foundation offered by a business school. These two pillars are not mutually exclusive but instead symbiotic. The start-up experience breeds resilience, innovation and a unique entrepreneurial spirit that infuses leaders with the audacity to challenge the status quo. It endows them with a visceral understanding of the unpredictability and dynamism of the business world. There is no school like the real world.  However, this experiential wisdom must be complemented by the structured education, theoretical frameworks and systematic skill development that business schools provide. 

The author is the co-founder of edtech platform Physics Wallah