On 8 August 2017, about 200 entrepreneurs’ inboxes lit up with an email from an unexpected sender. It was Amitabh Kant, the chief executive of Niti Aayog, inviting them for a special interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I first thought someone was pulling my leg,” says one of the founders who was invited. After Digital India and Start-up India, a new initiative called Champions of Change was floated. Simply put, the Niti Aayog wanted to get itself a room with the vaunted Indian entrepreneurs and hear first hand what they had to offer.

“The general assumption is that one needs a lot of influence to get the audience of the Prime Minister, but here we were almost getting wooed,” adds the founder quoted above.  

Conspicuously absent at the event though were foreign tech companies like Uber and Amazon. The event was strictly for Indian companies. Only. Some of these foreign companies, commented one of the attendees, “interact regularly with the government, and have already managed to establish a relationship there.” If the government didn’t invite the foreign companies fearing they would extend a wish list to the government, the Indian startups made up for it.

But in the end, it turned to be a John F Kennedy-moment when the US President famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

“I was not very clear what the event was for, but when we got there we realised it was about what startups can do for the country, and not the other way around,” says the founder of a Bengaluru-based startup. In fact, the Niti Aayog officials intervened multiple times during the group discussions as a lot of entrepreneurs kept asking for tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives for their sectors, said another founder. Also, many entrepreneurs could not come up with specific suggestions for the government to implement; instead they asked for general benefits for their sector or their own companies.

In all fairness, startups are hardwired to not just pitch but pitch hard. So it is unlikely to find startups who would have passed up on this opportunity to make the most of the uninterrupted face time with the who’s who of the government

An eclectic mix of startups was invited to attend the event on 16 and 17 August—it included some of the biggest names as well as those still in seed stages—to meet with PM Modi and a retinue of secretaries and cabinet ministers. Another 200 young CEOs of more mature companies were invited on 21 and 22 August.

The Niti Aayog had a crew of 20-25 young professionals, with subject knowledge, managing the event. The startups were shepherded into six groups of 25-30 people each to come up with solutions on themes like education and skilling, digital India, health and nutrition, sustainability, including one on soft power.

AUTHOR

Arundhati Ramanathan

Arundhati is Bengaluru-based. She is interested in how people use money in the digital age and how new economies will take shape based on that interaction. She has spent over 10 years reporting and writing on various subjects. Previous stints were at Mint, Outlook Business and Reuters.

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