strategy and business

INDIA’S NEW UNICORNS

IN 2013, when Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, coined the term unicorn to refer to technology startups with valuations over US$1 billion, there were 39 unicorns in the United States. India had none. Its fledgling startup scene faced significant barriers: limited funding, a dearth of talent, inadequate infrastructure, and a plethora of cultural and social challenges. For college graduates who aspired to management jobs in large IT firms and multinational corporations, entrepreneurship seemed unappealing. Young male entrepreneurs often talked about being rejected by prospective brides and their parents.

“Hiring was a massive challenge,” recalls Raghunandan G, who cofounded the Bangalore-based ride-sharing aggregator TaxiForSure in 2011, four years after finishing his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management. “My business school classmates all had education loans. The guys from engineering school were married, and had housing loans. Startups were seen as incredibly risky.” Even friends who believed in him and his idea were reluctant to come on board.

Around the same time, Bhavish Aggarwal, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduate, was bringing another ride-sharing aggregator called Ola to life. In 2010, as a staff researcher for Microsoft, he had rented a car to take him to Bandipur National Park. Midway there, the driver decided to renegotiate the rate. Aggarwal argued, and the driver forced him out of the car and drove away. With fellow IIT graduate Ankit Bhati, he opened a ride-sharing business based in Mumbai, which they named Ola. As he later told the Economic Times, when his parents heard the plan, they asked why he would quit Microsoft to become a travel agent.

What a difference a few years can make. Aggarwal is now one of the best-known entrepreneurs in India. His company, which relocated to Bangalore, became a unicorn in September 2018, and is now valued at $5 billion. In July 2019, it spun off another unicorn, the electric vehicle manufacturer Ola Electric, with a Softbank investment of $250 million, a $1 billion valuation, and a high level of entrepreneurial confidence. “We are a very experimental company,” Aggarwal told an interviewer in 2019. “We let our employees take risks. If we fail, so what? We will succeed at something.”

The rise of unicorns is seen as a sign that the Indian economy is reaching a turning point and that its entrepreneurial culture is maturing.

As for Raghunandan G, he is now an angel investor, funding and advising other fast-growing startups. He took up this role after selling TaxiForSure to

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