Rahul Narvekar: Man on a mission to create a million entrepreneurs in India
From a little boy who grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet and having tasted the real struggles of life, Rahul fell several times only to rise and become the best version of himself which he is today.

At one stage of his life, he worked as a hospital ward boy in the night shift, sweeping floors to support his college education. His quest for knowledge led him to the corridors of IIM Calcutta and Harvard Business School and today, he is one of the most celebrated speakers and the most looked up to entrepreneur gurus.

The Founder and CEO of NDTV Ethnic Retail Limited’s Indian Roots, has mapped a long journey and worked hard to create the $85 Million valuation company with an investment of less than $100,000.

An inspiring figure to every youngster who dares to dream, Narvekar’s tale of glory has its origins in the chawls of Mumbai where he was born and brought up. While his father worked in a factory and did multiple odd jobs, his mother sewed to support the family with her meagre income; they ensured he completed his schooling, albeit, from a low profile school called Sardarni Pratap Singh Janta Vidyalaya.

He worked as a delivery boy, ward boy, took tuitions, sold watermelons and worked as a sales executive as well. He was well aware of the family’s financial situation and took the burden of educating himself through all these odd jobs.

Growing up, Rahul was an avid reader and he would sneak into kabadiwala stores and stand for hours reading books, magazines and novels to quench his thirst for learning.

The roller coaster entrepreneurship ride

Rahul's tryst with entrepreneurship started with his first venture – a cable advertising company called Yash Advertising in 1994. This was soon followed by another venture – a music channel called Oxygen which he set up along with five friends in 1997.

Channel Oxygen was Asia’s first interactive music channel. Though it was earning decent revenues, the channel fell apart due to several issues and had to be ultimately shut down.

In 2009, Rahul co-founded fashionandyou.com with Pearl Uppal which was one of the earliest startups to raise $8 million from Sequoia, then $48 million and then $128 million, but he exited a little later to tend to his wife's deteriorating health.

Once again in 2013, he started afresh after his wife's health stabilized and founded indianroots.com under the banner of NDTV. They did exceedingly well in the sub-continent and USA and sold in more than 100 + countries.

Rahul exited Indian Roots and took some time off and did the Everest Base Camp where he challenged himself to make the trip despite doctors’ warnings due to an existing health condition. He defied all odds and completed the trek.

The 15 days where he was disconnected from the world, made him ruminate and introspect on several things. On his return, he travelled through the tier 2 cities and smaller towns of India and was amazed to see the talent there.

Rahul says: "I was amazed at the entrepreneurship spirit and innovation capabilities in these places. I felt that all they needed was honing, mentoring and a platform at a national/international level to showcase their capabilities. I set up Scale Ventures with Nilesh Rathi after leaving Indian Roots. It is a Category 1 SEBI fund which saw several successful exits. But, after my trip, I wanted to do more and started India Network with the primary intention of giving back to society".

Finding his true calling

Rahul was itching to work with the hidden gems in the smaller towns and cities of India.

He says, "There is fantastic talent in these cities that doesn't have much visibility nor access to markets or even the business world at large. The real Bharat lives in these cities. I created India Network with the aim of unearthing and honing these gems as I know that the biggest ideas reside in the smallest towns and cities."

He adds: “India Network is the umbrella brand under which there is Startup Studio which is an incubator and an accelerator and India Angel Fund for funding and mentorship. I set up the India Angel Fund - a community to connect startups with mentors, to help transform the lives of these waiting-in-the-wings entrepreneurs.”

The fund aims to not only provide a platform to engage with mentors but also helps with investments to kickstart the business. The idea was to tap on these bright minds and hone them and take them to the global level".

Rahul shares "We sieve deserving candidates through an established process wherein we identify and unearth those hidden gems that have the potential to go big. We invest in the idea but most importantly, in the person/founder, as we feel that a passionate founder is critical to steering a startup's growth".

Rahul says "Most people think that funding is the most important part of a startup's lifecycle. While you do need money to pump into your startups to grow and scale, mentorship provides what money cannot buy.

“The biggest startups have faltered while becoming complacent on being funded for lack of direction and relevant mentorship. Hence, for any startup to succeed, it has to be a combination of the three Ms - money, mentoring and market access.”

The Fund aims at funding at the seed level so that startups can be guided to germinate successfully.

Creating 1 million entrepreneurs in 3 years

"The objective is greater and beyond. We dream of creating one million entrepreneurs in the next three years. The mentors, mentees and the investors involved will help build a strong nation by driving business and economic growth. We want to cover the length and breadth of India,” he says.

“I had started touring Maharashtra and Goa in the first leg and covered several places where we conducted several sessions and spoke to many entrepreneurs who were interested to accelerate their journey with us. We had amazing traction. After things become better, we shall restart the Startup Yatra and cover many more States,” he adds.

Rahul adds: "We want to do micro VC funding where we write small cheques for many people. Daily, so many aspiring entrepreneurs reach out to me for "funding". That, unfortunately, is the aim of most people. Funding comes with expectations and unless the founder is geared up to take on the responsibility of leading the business to grow, it has little meaning. We filter out unworthy ones and identify good startups.”

“We give them classroom training at EDI (it is on hold on due to COVID), help in things like compliances and fund them, and put them in front of our angels. India Angel Fund has invested in three startups and incidentally, all of them are women-led."

"I have seen such brilliance in women founders and feel that they are under-represented in the startup space. Many investors are unnecessarily wary of female founders quitting after marriage, kids, etc, but I think these are unfounded fears,” says Rahul.

“Women can and are managing both family and career very well, they are as driven as men and are capable of taking businesses to great heights. We have some fantastic examples with Souniya Khurana at WYN Studio, Sneh Kulkarni at IPHM and Sheetal Bhatt at GOD cafe, where all the three founders are females with great potential.”

“We recently signed a MoU with Canada-based Bay Street Diary - a Canadian entrepreneurs network - to connect Indian and Canadian entrepreneurs. Amongst other things, we are setting up a $100 million India Canada Partnership Fund to invest in startups. We are also building the India Angel Fund in Canada to bring in more angels who want to participate in the India story. We are also in discussions to do similar JVs in Israel, the UK, Europe and Middle East.

The objective of the Fund is greater than just investing and making money. Rahul says, "We want to contribute to the building of a strong nation with these hidden talents in the interiors of India and aspire to create a million entrepreneurs in the next 3 years.”

“I dream of contributing to the economic growth of the nation and making unemployment a thing of the past. We are in the business of transforming lives and nation-building. My focus is on giving back to society and nurturing young minds to become successful entrepreneurs. We are building a network on the ground in Bharat which will connect India with the rest of the world and vice versa.”

“My belief is that language and geography should not be obstacles to growth for anyone in my country. So, if an entrepreneur is passionate, hardworking and most importantly, humble, I will get him/her access to the best-in-class mentoring plus investments.”

Rahul Narvekar surely has his heart and head in the right place - in India's heartland.