Interview with Mr. Balaji Vishwanathan

What are the various ways in which technical colleges like IITs and other institutions boost the interest and knowledge of students in entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is not something that can be pushed from the outside, but is something that comes from the inside. So, what the institutes can do is to think upon how could not stop a person from pursuing entrepreneurship. So, the first step to be taken in this regard is to avoid standing in the way of students. They can internally encourage students to initiate start-ups that can impact local community. Many times, what I observe in the premier institutes is that their initiatives do not have any impact on their surroundings, lest not positive. Majority of the students who study there are outsiders and during their graduation, other than going to restaurants they do not interact with the local community around and after four years just get out of the place. So, the institutes should have collaboration with local sources and see how they can enable students to either start or work with local companies, because that is how you can build the entrepreneurship clusters around. That will also help India. Thus by encouraging them to work with local industries, the institute can connect and build official partnerships with local companies, offices and shops and then the institute can be their supplier or customer or can play any other suitable role.

So, you are emphasizing to encourage entrepreneurship with social goals?

Yeah, social is a part of the thing but fostering local entrepreneurship is the main thing I would recommend the institutes to focus on.

Sir, you were focusing on maker-centric education recently. So, can you give us some insights about that thought?

Traditionally our education system involves teaching people theory first and the giving some random practical things that they don’t really care about. So, what they really do is to perform an experiment whose results they already know. This makes them create the experiment instead.

The idea of maker-centric education is to reverse this process. Here they start with making something and eventually when they get struck at multiple points, they will have a lot many questions. Then the theory should be able to answer their questions. Thus it involves beginning by making something. It can be making your own bot, or even your own hydraulic pulley system etc. Once you get into this habit there will be many questions which can then be answered with the help of theory. This is the scientific process that worked in Europe 200 years ago. They conducted multiple experiments and because of the questions they encountered they devised many theories to explain them. So, paving way for such a kind of system is the goal of maker-centric education.

You had a curiosity over how we can increase the productivity of people by reducing the wastage of time every day by at least 10 minutes. So, can you share with us the lessons and experiences you had gained in that quest?

Running limitless sources was amazing. Hundreds of companies used it internally to reduce the distraction of the employees. Then, we had been receiving so many letters from around the world like from Ukraine, Russia, and France. So, it was used in over 120 countries and people were sharing their experiences about how their distractions got reduced considerably. Someday I will collect all that data but so many people benefited from this idea.

What were the ideas that you implemented in order to attain this goal?

We started by building a chrome plug-in. It was a sort of analytic plug-in. It analyzed the browsing pattern of the users. It then, categorized the sites as whether it was a social networking site or a gaming one or of any other type accordingly. Then it used to maintain data about the amount of time the user was spending on those sites. Then, suppose when the user had been switching between lots of sites, it used to notify him that he had been getting distracted. The notifying part was done by a nudge. The nudge theory was developed in Stanford and the basic idea behind that was that when we wanted to change the behavior of a person, nagging him continuously had not yielded results. Instead when we kept pushing them slowly with good imagery which in our case was means such as changing their wallpaper, it subtly alerted them that they were getting distracted and slowly we were able to bring them back to normal stage. So, the primary task that was done was analytics.

You wrote a book From Tryst to Tendulkar. So, can you briefly give us a notion about what we can learn from the contemporary history as history is the basic means by which we could build a sustainable future by reflecting at the past?

Contemporary history is one of the most fascinating things because it is one of the most relevant ones to us. It gives us an idea about certain things like what actually happened in 1991 and why we were at a verge of bankruptcy and what was done by Mr.Manmohan Singh to overcome the crisis. It is a very important economic lesson. Similarly it provides answers to questions like why various terrorist movements such as The Nagaland movement, the Bodo movement, the Naxalite, the Maoist and the Kashmir movements started across the country. To have a thorough knowledge f the root cause of these problems is very important in order to attain a solution to them. It also is the source through which can know the origin of various political parties prior to which there used to be a single national party. It helps us to understand our democracy itself and teaches us about the various political instabilities we faced. It enlightens us about the constitutional framework too which helps us in knowing why certain things are being done in certain ways. It is very important in order to understand the current legal and political system.

How do you think can we imbibe value based working style in our current society?

We can always choose profit and at the same time maintain values. Many times we have to design systems in a way such that these two aspects do not clash with each other. For instance, if we consider the rejuvenation of Ganga, lot of people are polluting the mighty river. We have some profit making tourist companies which organize tours for foreigners. For them, to maintain a clean and hygienic environment is of vital importance in order to run their business. So, here the profit motive and the value motive align. Once in Andaman and Nicobar, at a place called Jolly Boy, where a lot of tourists usually come, I saw tourist operators cleaning the beach themselves as unclean environment hinders their business. They did not wait for the government. So, we need to design systems in such a way that profits and good things align. In Europe that is what they did and that is how they grew faster.

How do you think can we the Indian youth make right decisions and take up right responsibilities and contribute towards sustainable development?

Firstly, people have to believe that their life and career do not end up in four years. You know, lot of times people put up lot of pressure and emphasis on placements which is actually the starting point in their career. They put way too much energy there whereas we are going to live for 50–60 years more in which many more things could be accomplished. Once they realize this we can make them focus on more important things which have to be done during the university life. During this crucial time we have to open up our eyes to a variety of things and gain knowledge. They should like spend 3–4 hours a day in library reading different things and looking at variety of knowledge elements. Then, with all this knowledge having been acquired, they have to take charge of the society. It is never too early to take the charge. We can take the example of Baber, Sri Rama and Sri Adhishankaracharya. They were able to achieve a lot at a very early stage. So, at this age of 17–18 they are old enough to take up responsibilities. Once we can change this mindset, we would be able to handle the problems.

As we are seeing the tussle at the international level, what do you think can our way ahead be to handle this effectively?

For India, this is a golden opportunity to shine at the international level. China has already started doing this. Same thing could be done by India. We have fairly comfortable surroundings since we do not have any human abuse problems and so on. Ours is a democratic, mature and developing country. This is the time for us to show the world how things actually should be done. Without being dictatorial, we can still be the fastest growing economy. This is the time for us to step on the accelerator and show whether it is trade, climate or any other problem. We cannot keep having the attitude that Europeans are superior and they are a model to us. Instead, we have to be a model to them.

What are your suggestions for us to expand our knowledge?

The first way to develop knowledge according to me is to stop using social media as a platform for information. Other than friendly information such as photos, we have to ignore any other thing being propagated through them. Second is to completely ignore the TV news channels. Instead spend more time on things where the attention stays for a longer time. For instance read a really good newspaper, not an online one but a hard copy. The real thing that matters is not how the content comes but how long we are able to focus on it. Move into things where there is less distraction. Knowledge creation happens in 3 stages. The first thing is observation. Observe your surroundings and learn from everything from a chowkidar, taxi driver, priest and the family members. Everyone has a life experience. Once you have the data point connect them with reasoning and form patterns like rangoli. The third part is to go on experimenting. Once you form a hypothesis, you have to test it in the lab. You have to test it out on the world. Use reading as a tool to map things in the mind. People often think of reading as a kind of an activity where they have to fill the buckets. That is not how knowledge creation works. That book is a kind of trigger. You take up a great book and you will have a journey through your mind with it. You will find enormous amount of treasure. The journey is very important. That is the core of the knowledge building.

After what has happened in cases of Flipkart and Snapdeal do you think there is a negative sentiment on entrepreneurship?

No, there is nothing like that. Think of it as an eye-opener. For a long time we did not have proper companies. Rather than focusing on making people buy as many thing as possible, we should focus on innovation. The greatest minds of our time are working on how long can we make people watch a particular kind of advertisement. We need to change this.