Startup Dosti: Provides cross-border mentorship, seed funding to Indian & Pakistani entrepreneurs
25 May, 2014, 0704 hrs IST
By Jyoti Pande Lavakare
It's a brand new government, a time for new beginnings and to forge new friendships — so perhaps this is also a good time for the innovative Startup Dosti partnership, promoted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based non-profit foreign policy think tank, to rev up its act. And that's exactly what it seems to be doing. The Startup Dosti partnership, which seeks to build enduring relationships between entrepreneurs from India, Pakistan and its diaspora by providing cross-border support, mentorship, and seed funding to start-ups, has just completed one of its most ingenious initiatives — a tournament style business plan competition for early stage start-ups — by finalizing its three winners in Chiang Mai, Thailand on April 30.
Even more exciting is that the entire proceedings were recorded live in a reality television format with 12 finalists and five judges (who doubled up as investors) from both countries. The programme thus created, called "The Rising Entrepreneur", will be broadcast in Pakistan and India before August 2014. And if all goes according to plan, a mash-up of investors, mentors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from India and Pakistan will work together to create and finance start-ups from both countries, in the process interconnecting the growing entrepreneurial ecosystems of the subcontinent, one of its main aims. Across Borders Startup Dosti (www.startupdosti.org), a cross-border partnership between the Atlantic Council, and London and Karachi based SEED Ventures, seeks to empower young founders in India and Pakistan, while accelerating bilateral ties by "building bridges" between the nextgen entrepreneurial communities. But going by the amount of fun some of participants had during the five days of interaction beginning April 25, more goodwill may have been generated than expected between countries that have traditionally been rivals for historical reasons.
"We had a lot of stereotypes that got cleared up. It was a very good experience and a lot of fun," says Chaitali Pandit, a young Indian engineer who recently cofounded a start-up called Changemaker.be and was one of the 12 shortlisted finalists. She also said the experience "boosted our confidence, because it validated our model and gave us a lot of exposure. Because we are an early-stage venture, it was very useful for us to get that international perspective — we got very good feedback from VCs." And that's exactly what the Atlantic Council hopes to achieve. It aims to create a platform for exchange of ideas, mentoring, assistance in access to markets, and perhaps even financing for early-stage startups. In these efforts, it is being helped by angel investors, venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs from both countries. "India has a blossoming start-up ecosystem. We want to connect the entrepreneurial eco-systems in both countries," says David Kirk, senior adviser to The Young Atlanticist Program, which is handling this initiative for the Atlantic Council. "At first, I was very sceptical and didn't see much value in this — I wondered what sort of bridges could be built. But I came away converted," says Hemant Kanakia, an investor from India and one of the five judges on the show. "People's attitudes were very similar. The entrepreneurship teams were very similar on both sides and so many person-to-person connections were made," he adds. Kanakia is also part of the Indian Angel Network, which has contributed a lot of resources towards the success of this venture. Faisal Farid, another investor who offered to fund a winning team on the show as one of the judges from the Pakistani side, had similar views. "Personally, I went with low expectations. I've participated in crossborder business delegation meetings before but the outcome is usually limited and typically, both sides get overwhelmed by hurdles and sometimes disillusioned by the slow progress," said Farid in an email response. Farid worked for PepsiCo for almost 20 years before he ventured into agribusiness and founded Maxim International in 2009, a cattle-feed company. At present, he also serves on the boards of the Punjab Skill Development Fund and the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Agents of Change "This was my first experience in meeting young, aspiring entrepreneurs from both sides. When I saw the cooperation among them and the level of energy and optimism, it was extremely refreshing and re-energizing. It reassured me that what our generation couldn't achieve, perhaps this generation can. We must support them to realize this," added Farid. He said he made friends from India in Chiang Mai, "and I hope to keep these friendships for a long, long time." The competition to connect entrepreneurs from India, Pakistan, and the diaspora to facilitate cross-border investment and collaboration was launched in June 2013 in London. It got 100 applications from start-ups in Pakistan and 185 from India. Of these, six from each country were shortlisted and reached Thailand last month for the three finalists to be chosen. There the finalists presented their business plans. Each contestant got five minutes to pitch their business proposal, followed by a question and answer session by the judgescum-investors. The winning start-ups won an on-the-spot opportunity to receive seed funding as well as incubation, mentorship and access to business resources, based on due diligence. The author is an independent columnist and writer