A Bitter Brew and an Entrepreneurs Anonymous
(My opinion piece in Fortune India: https://www.fortuneindia.com/opinion/a-bitter-brew/103491)
From 30 July the conversation in business circles seems to veer primarily around the shocking tragedy of VJ Siddhartha; first the news of his being missing and then his death. I try to write this as dispassionately as I can, but I realize that most of us are struggling with an emotion that is very hard, perhaps even awkward, to explain in our pragmatic business world. It’s a sense of collective loss and the emotion is one of deep sadness. For those who didn’t know him, what he did and who he was, there was still a strong visual recall of one or the other Coffee Day outlet that formed a part of their lives, and the recollection of a reclusive, diffident yet powerful entrepreneur who had driven this vision forward. A person who also just checked out of life, living, business and his beloved cafes.
I had the privilege of working with him as a search consultant, bringing in senior leaders including the former CEO, President- marketing as well as the current group president of HR. He was extremely driven by the business, passionate about his brand but at the heart of it, a constantly seeking and driven innovator. He was an extraordinary person and a humble one. However I will resist saying anymore about this great pioneer as whatever I say now would likely be titled as the usual accolades that accompany a person who is no longer with us.
‘Entrepreneurs don’t retire, they die’, he said in an interview long ago. Prescient or a measure of his personality – we will never know. Shocked but impelled to action, one of the first responses I had was to do something about it. It made me think, that if someone as powerful, as confident as Siddhartha could feel that he had failed his Coffee Day family and could not take the pressure anymore, what would younger, less networked or not-so-confident entrepreneurs feel or do? How many were already starting to wilt by the wayside? I wrote a quick blog, and was filled with the urge to do something about this, to create some support system for those business people who feel as isolated and alone, as perhaps even a legend like Siddhartha did - with the hope that they never had to feel the same level of desperation to take that short walk off a long bridge.
The conversation in our TiE Whatsapp group reflected that inwardness & deep concern. In fact, a well-known entrepreneur stepped up to say how he had been driven to just such extremes twice in his life and pulled himself back from the edge with great difficulty. He could understand what an entrepreneur coping with a severe business crisis or financial crunch could feel. Where does an entrepreneur go when he or she is shaky and needs to question their perception of reality? There is no place. There is no safety in being able to share something without it being held against you or remembered. I felt that we should set up something which is - Anonymous, Sustainable, Respectful, Non-Judgemental, Supportive - and just be a safe haven for troubled entrepreneurs to rest their worries, if only for a while.
So an Entrepreneurs Anonymous was really what was needed. Look at it from his or her point of view – an entrepreneur by definition is strong, committed, a risk taker, a people person and strongly goal and profit oriented. A single minded goal drives the entrepreneur relentlessly until success is achieved. While much is made of celebrating a risk taker as those who learn from their failures, the fact remains that the strength and support really comes from within. By adopting the mantle of an entrepreneur with the drive and uni-dimensional focus, much of the support structures wither away.
The family, whether it is parents, spouse, children or siblings, see less and less of the entrepreneur, given the kind of commitment in time, effort and money that is made. The sacrifices made by the family for this reason as well as possible financial constraints that they undergo, while businesses are being built, do tend to alienate and isolate the entrepreneur. Colleagues have been left behind, doing different things, motivated by salaries and comforts or driven by peers and company goals. The sense of resonance is perhaps no longer there, and a catch up over coffee or a drink is primarily to share incidents or swap stories. They rarely cover real issues of loss, of failure, given the divergence of paths. The persona of the entrepreneur in some inexplicable and suffocating way becomes the person. The other stakeholders, the equity partner or investor is also someone who could provide pragmatic support or guidance but there’s too much vested in the here and now. By showing any loss of strength or conviction, displaying any self-doubt or genuine worry, the entrepreneur is viewed as an increasing risk. This does not lend itself to a real conversation or an emotional course correction. Employees care but are far too dependent and any sense of vulnerability could uncomfortably spiral. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem and can be sorted , even in a financial crisis , but in the claustrophobic vacuum that is the entrepreneur’s only go-to space, , and as the knocking on the door gets louder and more insistent, how would they know?
It’s rare that top leaders today opt for life coaches who could genuinely invest in their well-being, both business and emotional. Increasingly this will be the need of the future. A safe, dependable, non-judgmental space with people he or she can rely on for some direction and safe shores. At TiE, we are focused on setting up Entrepreneurs Anonymous as a pilot support project, given our unique position of being an industry association that focuses on promoting, igniting and sustaining startups and entrepreneurship. Bangalore has certainly seen its share of stars, but perhaps it’s because it’s all we choose to see. As we speak, perhaps several lesser-known ones have burnt away, and some of the bright shining ones maybe getting ready to implode, driven to the wall, because that’s all they could do.
If it makes us uncomfortable to do this because we care, let’s then do it because its good business. We need our entrepreneurs to shape vision and growth. These aren’t the fatcats as someone cynically quipped, these are India’s backbone and economic engines. India Inc. needs to look at some support system if we are going to be an empathetic, inclusive yet driven economy that cares.
Priya Chetty-Rajagopal , Managing Partner, Multiversal Advisory LLP