Laura Parkin: on Entrepreneurship and the Indian Startup Ecosystem

Laura A Parkin is the Executive Director of the Wadhwani Foundation, whose mission is to help individuals achieve economic success. The foundation works in two areas: developing business entrepreneurs, and helping the disabled build livelihoods or achieve gainful employment.

Laura Parkin, Co Founder and Exec Director, NEN
Laura Parkin, Executive Director and Co-Founder, NEN

Laura is also the Executive Director and co-founder of the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), the foundation’s flagship program. NEN is the leader in entrepreneurship education in India
She is a serial entrepreneur, having founded four companies, and former venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners in Boston, Massachusetts. Currently, she is also an Advisor for Acumen Fund’s Water Portfolio, the SIDBI Incubator at IIT Kanpur, and Laura was born and brought up in Hong Kong, and holds a B.A. from Harvard University.

In a candid interview with Amit Singh, she shares her views on Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Indian Startup Ecosystem, Success, Failure and more.

Amit Singh: How Mature is the Indian Entrepreneurial Ecosystem compared to the Valley’s?

Laura Parkin: We can’t compare the Indian Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to the Valley’s. The ecosystem here is different and it is rapidly evolving. For Entrepreneurship to thrive in any ecosystem the driving force is “Change”. And here, things are changing at a rapid rate.

Amit Singh: How are the things changing here?

Laura Parkin: Government Regulations is one big thing. Abolishing the “License Raj” for instance, has had amazing consequences which have led to the growth of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. FDI and Mobile Regulations are other instances where changes in policy have created a lot of opportunities. Another dimension of change is the taste and spending ability of consumers: they have more to spend.  People are willing to spend their money on something that is untested.  There is a basic optimism in the attitude of entrepreneurs here.

Amit Singh: What are the key components that are missing in the ecosystem here, the presence of which will make a big difference in the lives of entrepreneurs?

Laura Parkin: In many ways, things are improving at a tremendous rate! Especially in the general awareness and acceptance of entrepreneurship. For example when we started NEN 6 years ago, there were only 2 campus entrepreneurship clubs in the whole country, and organizations like HeadStart and peer support groups like OCC didn’t exist. Just look at how much has happened since then! Likewise the number of angel investors and the amount of equity capital has grown tremendously. What’s missing? The same basics:  electricity, transport, education, broadband etc. We need a lot of investment in infrastructure.

Amit Singh: You have been a serial entrepreneur, VC and have been heading NEN for 6 years now. What does it take to build a culture of innovation?

Laura Parkin: We need to encourage our people to try out new things and not punish them if they fail. Imagine what the culture of a company would be like, if at appraisal time the boss said – “I like the fact that you tried to do something new, it didn’t work so you modified your approach and tried again. Great work!  Here is a 40% salary hike for your efforts and perseverance.” Don’t you think that the employees of such an organization would feel encouraged to try out innovative solutions? Innovation in organizations, like every where else, depends a lot on the organization’s ability first to define success and failure.

Amit Singh: That reminds me of all the significance we attach to failure. We should learn to embrace it.

Laura Parkin: That sounds easy, but is pretty difficult to implement, both personally and in the culture! Failure hits you hard. As an entrepreneur, when you fail, you often loose other people’s money, not just your own. You have to lay off people.  Your failure affects people beyond yourself and your family. Trust me, it isn’t easy.
That said, through conversations with entrepreneurs of all types, in both India and Silicon Valley, I have found something extraordinary. I have found that these entrepreneurs have a very interesting, and very similar view of failure.
Those I spoke with didn’t think of having to shut down a company as a personal failure.
“Does that mean you’ve never failed?” I asked my friend Mike, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur with 4 companies to his credit. “Of course not,” he replied. “ It’s just that I don’t think of those business challenges as failures.” Then, what is failure to you? I asked. He answered, “Failure is when you are not true to yourself.”
That really made sense to me. After my third startup, I back-packed around China for a year and arrived in Silicon Valley in the middle of the 1999 bubble.  Capital was free back then. People were getting funded left, right and center. I had this idea for a company in the health care space, and before I knew it, I had a term sheet for $1.5 million. No business plan, no business model, not even a well-thought-out opportunity. But I took the money anyway.
The company didn’t make it, but I actually don’t consider that the failure, because I worked to the best of my ability once I had it going. My moment of failure? When I took the money. Why? The company didn’t really need funding at the time, it needed for me to work on it until I had figured out the business. I just thought it was rather cool that a VC was offering me funds. I failed because I ignored my better judgment – which is another way of saying that in that moment, I wasn’t true to myself.

Amit Singh: Can you tell us more about your customer centric approach?

Laura Parkin: I learned pretty early in my life that the most important thing for a startup – for any company – is a paying customer. There was a time, right after graduating from college, when I sold life-insurance door-to-door for a living. If I didn’t make sufficient sales, I didn’t have the money to pay for my dinner. I guess that’s what taught me about focusing on the customer!

Amit Singh: What uniqueness (strengths and weaknesses) do you see in the Indian Entrepreneur?

Laura Parkin: Lots of strengths. One of them being the current optimism.  In Hong Kong (where I grew up), there’s a saying, “Tomorrow’s millionaire” – a great expression of the sense of possibility. I think over the past few years that attitude has gained momentum here.
And I believe as well that that dealing with the unpredictability of operating in India hones the entrepreneurial abilities.
Finally, another strength I would highlight is the emphasis on family – this anchors individuals in a way that can prove very powerful, if the family is supportive of the entrepreneur’s endeavors.
A possible weakness? The importance placed on external indicators of success, including titles, salaries, brands of institutes. This limits the ability to think openly about all the opportunities open to one. Which is a shame, because there are so many great challenges, and therefore opportunities in India today.

Amit Singh: Very Insightful. Thanks a lot for your time!

Laura Parkin: My pleasure!
You can learn more about Laura’s views on entrepreneurship at her blog – Venture Out.

By Amit Singh

Amit Singh is the co-founder of Headstart - India's largest early stage startup community. He has a keen interest in startups, technology and design. He runs an award winning product engineering firm called Wow Labz in Bangalore, India. He has invested in multiple startups via Wow Labz as well. He has also cofounded Design Day - a pan India design community


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