Indian Startup Ecosystem and the obsession for IIT/IIM Founders
14 Mar 2021
With or without a reason for years,
graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian
Institutes of Management (IIMs) have been considered the crème de la crème of the startup world.
Think IIM or IIT, and you often think success.
A few weeks ago, I read a post by Sugar Cosmetic’s co-founder
and COO Kaushik Mukherjee narrating their story of
raising funds and the hardships it took despite having all the illustrious
tags of validation in the Indian Startup Ecosystem. Yes, you got it right-
IIT/IIM and Ex- XYZ.
Somehow this post stayed with me because being
a part of this club I have heard and faced it too. Though Kaushik’s post
says that it’s not entirely true but let’s admit it is partially true.
After a few days, I found an article by Business Standards about the
other Co-founder of Sugar, Vineeta Singh, where the headline itself
celebrated her IIT status.
Fine, irony died a hundred deaths when these
two posts are kept side by side.
So, here’s the point-
There’s a by default obsession for
founders/core teams out of IITs and IIMs- as if they hold a pre-validated
pass to run a successful startup. VCs in India have made an unsaid filter
that may define academic pedigree as a precursor to success.
For years, graduates of the Indian Institutes
of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management have been treated as
the holy grail across India’s industries — all the more so in its startup
ecosystem. But as the sector matures, this seems to be turning into a
Remember back in school, how teachers use to
make the class topper as the class monitor by default without even
rekindling any thoughts on the kid’s personality or leadership skills. Being
academically great was considered as a by default proof of being a leader or
managing a class.
Maybe that’s a herd mentality in the Indian
startup ecosystem forming a confirmationship bias. A very interesting and
yet shattering findings have come out of researcher Abhay Jani’s investigation for Quartz. It
revealed a narrow worldview of Investors when it comes to startup founders.
They show a clear
inclination towards companies founded by male entrepreneurs with an
All other things being equal (market, idea,
approach), investors appear to view academic smarts as
a proxy for the ability to solve tough problems.
Last year, while applying for our Y Combinator Program, we were looking around
for some sample video interviews on youtube (it’s a mandate to submit your
application with 1min video of co-founders telling about their product).
Most of the videos that came from Indian applicants had a typical format
wherein in case any of the co-founders went to an IIT or IIM they would
explicitly mention it as a highlight. I am so and so…. and I have studied at
IIT/IIM. Guess, I don’t need to mention the reason for this social
conditioning even for a global platform.
Looks like the subtle satire in the series
about the Indian startup ecosystem was prototyped through Saurabh Mandal’s
And it’s still a long journey for women
In the same research, it was found- Men still
dominate the startup world’s success stories with less than one in five VC
firms backing companies with any female founders.
The question left on the table here is -
Is it the right kind of culture getting
developed, promoted and propagated
The same theory of class topper being the
class monitor is the right approach by VCs (many a time). ?
Your ability to understand a problem-build
a product-lead a team-survive the chaos- sustain your passion etc is
somehow validated by your prestigious alma mater?
Are we building the same model of college
elites to suffer from a massive God’s-gift-to-capitalism complex in the
Indian startup ecosystem?
Are we killing the so-called concept of
diverse perspectives in the most privileged manner?
What’s the way out for this perpetual
mindset, an obsession or even a pet peeve to make the Indian Startup
Ecosystem more diversified and inclusive?
But the scenario has changed and the Indian
startup ecosystem now has examples of many successful entrepreneurs who
don’t belong to these clubs, and have still climbed the crest. These
entrepreneurs don’t have any fancy degrees and show that it takes more than
an academic pedigree to create and run a successful business. From Byju’s to
Oyo to Paytm we have enough reasons to celebrate and look around to deter
this confirmation bias.