Chetan Shenoy: Mentoring Young Entrepreneurs

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Chetan Shenoy, August 2008 Fellow
Vigyan Ashram

dsc06321Background and Project Vision

For the past two decades, Vigyan Ashram (VA) has provided non-formal, vocation-based education to rural youth at its residential educational facility outside Pabal village in Maharashtra. VA’s flagship program is its one year residential “Diploma in Basic Rural Technology (DBRT)” program. DBRT gives the participants a whole range of skills such as building homes, using computers, rearing cattle, processing food, and designing and working on equipment for household and agricultural work. The VA campus thrives on the energy of young people that are “learning by doing” as they build tractors from scratch, use wireless technology to ring the dinner bell, and fabricate new machinery for rural use. While rural Indian youth have technical skills, they often are unable to translate those skills into sustainable entrepreneurial enterprises.

In order to build sustainable enterprises, students must be trained with the basic knowledge of starting a business. For the past six months, I have been working on creating an entrepreneurship program that equips students with skills ranging from marketing to finance to business planning. In the past few years, enthusiasm and confidence has hit an all-time low at the VA where there is now a downward trend in students starting businesses after completing their DBRT. This complacent attitude has overtaken the campus as students have no sense of where they will be or what they will do after completion. Knowledge in business is necessary for these students to know their options are not limited and to give them some sense of confidence and optimism.

Project Goals and Future Plans

Entrepreneurship Development Program: Empowering Young Entrepreneurs
-    Developing and finalizing a curriculum/program complete with activities, lessons, and worksheets with relevant topics to their lives
-    Creating a “Live Entrepreneur” series that brings in local businesses and other successful entrepreneurs who came from similar environments as the students
-    Integrating an English speaking course within the program to facilitate English learning
-    Inspire students to take up creative projects that further their creativity and instill some confidence within them
-    Working within the context of the program, the Gift Shop should be somewhat central to giving students some exercise
-    Foster student ambitions by creating a one-on-one counseling session to figure out solutions to individual problems
-    Integrate final program into 4 sections of VA and train teachers with business knowledge

Computer Basics
Recently, it has come to my attention that many of the students came here to learn about computers so that they can go back to their villages to start computer businesses. Since VA focuses mostly on rural technologies, they have yet to create a solid curriculum based around computers. There are many spare computers and computer parts lying around, so that will not be a problem.
-    Teach students the basics of computers from building one to internet browsing
-    Create a separate curriculum that is an optional course for students to take up if interested

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans

Progress has been hindered mostly due to the language barrier. In my earlier classes, I was teaching 6 students at a time with the hopes that one of the English-speaking students would help translate. This method went well the first time but failed horribly the second time. I’ve come to realize that I can’t depend on translation through students especially since it ultimately results in the program being just another (boring) course for the students. Currently, I am implementing many activities into the program seeing as how in past classes those were the most successful at teaching students the intended lesson. There will also be a fair amount of role-playing and charades for the students to understand concepts.

Another difficulty that has posed itself has been the teacher-student role that exists. Since I’ve been bonding with my students, I’ve basically sacrificed my status as a teacher. I think this problem can be overcome since I have organizational support from both the Director and Supervisor but we’ll have to see in upcoming batches how it plays out. A plausible solution includes having one teacher in my class which will also help in training that teacher (basically killing two birds with one stone).
In my last batches, I assigned homework to some of the students to find that only half of them would complete it. Some assignments are done half-heartedly with minimal effort. Students are just completing it to just complete it. In my upcoming courses, I will not be assigning any homework so that all the work is done in-class.

Computer training was recently requested by a majority of the students. I have no intention of integrating that within any of the sections so it will have to be a separate course.

Detailed Goal-setting & Implementation Planning

Next 2 weeks
-    Finalize my entrepreneurship curriculum and fill it with relevant and effective activity-based exercises
-    Start training staff with these skills so it can be integrated into current vocational program

Next 1 – 2 months
-    Setup links with Alumni and other successful village entrepreneurs to start a “Live Entrepreneurs” series to inspire students
-    Create a business planning competition
-    Create a workbook with all exercises and worksheets that will facilitate the learning process
-    Start a product creation competition for students – possibly make it based on departments

Next couple months
-    Establish links with local banks to see what their criteria is for loaning money to small businesses
-    Role out a computer training course


“Is entrepreneurship development really necessary?”  That was the question I struggled with after interviewing many of the students.  I noticed that a lot of the students had no interest whatsoever in starting their own venture – in fact, few of them knew exactly what the Vigyan Ashram was.  I was even more confused than when I first arrived here.  “Why teach to closed minds?” was the thought rolling in my head. In retrospect, that was more of a cop-out than it was anything else.  I later realized that most of the students probably responded that way because they had no idea what a business is.  The thought of one scared them – the responsibility, the hard-work, the money, and the communication skills necessary to create and maintain a successful venture.  They see business people like Dhirubhai Ambani who came from nothing but then created one of the biggest companies in India – but how does that relate to them?  I’ve come to understand a lot of my role has to do with building confidence, a quality many of the students lack.  I’m working with young minds that have never been given the opportunity to say what they want to do with their futures.  To put it crudely, I’m the sculptor and their minds are my clay.  It’s a bit scary and overwhelming to recognize how much power I have to shape some of their ideas.

Personal Growth

Living in a village when I’ve been in cities my whole life made personal growth something of a priority.  How can I be expected to play my role when I’m not in the right mindset?  My first couple months were mostly spent reconciling with the fact that I was in a village, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Adjusting was not an option, it was a requirement.  As part of my project, I needed to go to Pune which I was gleeful about due to the fact that there were people. But every time I came back, it felt like it was my first time in Pabal, again – insignificant and alone. I only stepped outside my dome (the actual structure of my living accommodations) to eat meals or read the newspaper.  From understanding rural life in India to understanding myself in different environments, I have been growing in many ways.

One aspect of growth has been with personal possessions and personal space – both of which are inevitably sacrificed when coming to India but have always created some discomfort for me in any environment. The students love looking at the random things I bring (even my red Nalgene bottle – they think it’s some special liquid). They love staring over my shoulder as I type on my small laptop or send personal emails, though I think the staring has mostly to do with the fact that I type faster than they ever thought a human-being could type. But I’ve learned to let go a lot. And in that sense, I’ve learned that I could live with a lot less than I thought was possible.

I didn’t talk at all when arriving. The language barrier scared me to the point of silence. Head nods and smirks were the norm as I quickly retreated to my room while passing by groups of students. But I’ve learnt that while business skills will be harder to teach, a lot can be learned through non-verbal communication or even knowing small parts of the local language (which in my case happens to be Marathi).  There are many ways to connect with your communities and as long as you show some effort to get to know their language, they’ll reach back out to you in some way.  The students and few others who know English have been important allies for me in many of my goals. Learning to speak a common English we both know has been important as well, especially since American English is very different from what they learn out here (a fact that is repeated to me many times).

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