How India’s Liberalization Shaped a Generation of Entrepreneurs

Since India began liberalizing its economy in 1991, entrepreneurship in the country has been on the upswing. Some of the most respected companies in the business community today are considered children of liberalization. Take information technology firm Infosys: In the first decade of its existence, from 1981 to 1991, Infosys grew to less than $5 million. In the 20 years since liberalization began, the company has grown to become a $6 billion-plus entity, and one that is well established in the global arena.

N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Infosys, is categorical that the company would not have seen this kind of success had India not set forth on the liberalization path. He has often said, “If there is one great example of the success of liberalization, it is Infosys.” Indeed, at the 16th Wharton India Economic Forum held in Mumbai earlier this year, keynote speaker K.V. Kamath, chairman of ICICI Bank and Infosys noted that liberalization “has allowed a whole new generation of entrepreneurs to flower, execute their vision and add tremendous value.”

In a recent study, Kaustubh Dhargalkar, professor of business design and head of the innovation lab at the Center For Innovation and Memetics at the Mumbai-based Welingkar Institute of Management Research and Development, and his research assistant Rudra Desai, have examined the role that liberalization has played in shaping successful entrepreneurs in India. Dhargalkar’s study focuses on companies listed in Group A of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) from 1995 to 2011. He says that it typically takes three to four years for policy decisions to reflect on firm performance at the ground level; Dhargalkar chose this particular category for the study because it represents the elite, high-performing and sought-after firms. “The listing of a company in this group is an indicator of the success of the company,” he notes. “These are blue chip firms.”

According to Dhargalkar’s study, the number of first generation companies listed in Group A has grown from nine in 1991 to 30 in 2011. That number does not include those start-ups that moved out of Group A for various reasons, such as being acquired by another firm. “If we were to consider the total number of first generation companies getting listed, as well as going out of, Group A on the BSE then 32 more companies would be added to the list,” the researchers write. “In simple terms, 62 different first generation companies got listed in Group A of the BSE [from] 1995 to 2011.” That’s an increase of 588%.

But even if one were only to consider the 30 companies that were listed on Group A and did not move out during the period studied, the increase in percentage terms since liberalization is still significant. In 1995, first generation companies accounted for 9.78% of the firms listed on Group A. In 2011, they constituted 15.08%. According to the study, moving forward “the gap in numbers between the first generation companies and older established companies will gradually reduce, though not get bridged…. If reforms are pushed by the government in an orderly manner, the Indian entrepreneurs would continue to create big-ticket successes.”

But given the current state of Indian politics, where the government has been reduced to a state of policy paralysis due to charges of corruption, what will be the effect on entrepreneurship? “There will be some impact,” Dhargalkar says. “But the power of entrepreneurship in India has been unleashed by the liberalization process and even if the pace of reforms is slow, entrepreneurs will find a way to move ahead.”

Dhargalkar lists four key reasons for the increased influence of first generation companies in the post-liberalization era: Technology has substantially reduced the costs associated with niche marketing; stock markets have become more efficient and transparent and made it easier for entrepreneurs to access money; the costs of starting up an enterprise have fallen because of access to angel investors and venture capitalists; and Indians have opened up to entrepreneurship.

Pointing out that entrepreneurs are important in any economy because they create employment, generate new ideas and implement new techniques in management functions, Dhargalkar notes: “Over time, entrepreneurs will increasingly contribute to India’s GDP and also have a greater impact on the socioeconomic fabric of the nation.”

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