Ajay Ramasubramaniam is the co-founder and CEO of the Mumbai based company Startup Réseau, an ecosystem builder of enterprise, markets, capital, and services for start-ups in emerging economies. He recently spoke with TC to discuss his career in the start-up sector, his focus on emerging markets, and his little known hobby of writing about sports and business.
You have a pretty diverse professional background, ranging from work in the start-up ecosystem, to government relations, to project management. Talk to us a bit about your career path and your current work with Startup Réseau.
I would be the last person to talk about following a career path. From my first real job in 2004 to my work with Startup Réseau in 2019, none of it followed a traditional career path or trajectory. When I finished my MBA I spoke to my best buddy, who now lives in Vancouver, and we had discussed potentially working together. We spoke to a consultant who was fortunately able to create a position for me, alongside my friend – who had just gotten a gig in Tanzania. I spent a solid four years there which I credit with giving me grooming in the business world in terms of managing different projects. I came back to India in 2008 in the middle of the recession when there was not a lot of opportunities, and seriously considered going back to Tanzania. It was around this time that I came upon an ad from the Government of Ontario in Canada for setting up a Trade and Investment Office in Mumbai. I applied, and less than a month later I did an interview and ended up getting the job. While I was working there, an acquaintance from Ottawa got in touch with me and asked me to explore setting up their India office. It was an EdTech start-up. That essentially was my first start-up exposure. During this time Ryerson University also came calling. In 2013 I was simultaneously working two gigs. None of these things were planned and all sort of ended up happening. In 2019 I moved on from my role as the CEO of Zone Startups, to create Startup Réseau.
Where do you see Startup Réseau in the next five years? Where do you see yourself in that same time period?
Five years is a long time. This is a wrong question for the wrong person. I don’t plan anything for that long! One thing I am clear about however is that we’re going to remain a business headquartered in India with an interest in emerging markets. India has advanced a lot in the last five, six years. There are many countries with sizeable populations behind India — lots of people graduating with business and engineering degrees in Latin America, Africa, and South East Asia — places that are considered non-traditional innovation hot beds. Few weeks ago we announced entry into the East African market and hired someone to build out East Africa from Tanzania. By 2022 we want to be in two more regions outside of India. Ultimately we are focused on being revenue positive and scalable over time, supporting tech companies looking to expand.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business? How have you adapted?
COVID-19 has impacted everyone, no matter what business you’re in. Five months before the virus came to India, we embarked on an initiative focused on A.I. and were looking at hosting a conference in April 2020. When the lockdown happened we thought of cancelling or postponing, and then looked at doing it virtually. This proved to be a turning point for us. We realized that people who were coming on as speakers actually found it easier to join because it was virtual. We were also no longer bound to have speakers just from India, and were able to get people to join from across the world. Over the past 12 months we have done five virtual events, and seven virtual accelerator programs, with entrepreneurs who have joined from Canada, the U.K., Australia, Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar. While COVID has definitely impacted our revenues in different ways, we have managed to reimagine our business. I believe digital will continue to play a strong role in the future for all businesses, and we are equipped to handle that going forward. God has taught us a few things and allowed us to dream bigger and think differently.
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What are some start-ups/start-up ideas that you have come across that you’re really excited about?
There are lots of them! Living in Mumbai I meet so many people on a different basis. India has really evolved in terms of start-ups since 2015 when people started coming back from studies abroad and wanted to apply what they learned here. But with that you have to really understand local problems and address them in a contextualized way in order for them to be effective. We are coming across companies that are now looking at things in that way. Consumer behaviour keeps evolving with mobile and internet penetration. But I think going beyond the city centres to rural India, that population is very different, and their problems are different and require different solutions. Looking at our work in Africa, that is a market that is five years behind India. We can use India’s experience as a model in that sense for other emerging market areas.
You have written a few articles on the sport of cricket and have pointed out some interesting parallels between the game and your own work in business. What are some highlights you have found in your observations?
I think that sports in general tells us a lot. I am a cricket fanatic, so if I can quote cricket as a platform and relate it to my own experiences I will. Any team sport can teach you a lot. Take a racket sport, you will need to practice strokes several times before you get it right. The same goes for business. While you can’t be good at everything, try your best to excel in one skill. As an individual you can be good at one thing, but when you become a company, you need very specific roles to help your organization move forward. The moment you try to perfect everything you won’t be able to focus and advance the company. Founders need to be clear and understand that you need to have diversity of experiences to excel. Sports can offer a lot of lessons in that regard.
During your time setting up Mumbai operations for the Government of Ontario, you hosted several high-level government visits and business delegations. What are some memorable moments that you can recall from this experience?
Going back to 2009 when the Ontario Government set up an office in Mumbai, then Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Sandra Pupatello, was giving a speech at the Four Seasons and I remember she said my full name effortlessly in her speech. I thought that was pretty cool. In 2017, at a function to celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary, hosted by the Canadian Consulate in Mumbai, I was recognized as a Friend of Canada, for fostering bi-lateral trade relations over the past few years. I was surprised by this and still feel really proud of that to this day. Going back to the consulate itself, each year they select one person as an award recipient for their contributions, collaborations, ethics and integrity — and in 2013 I was chosen. To me recognition is more than a piece of paper, whenever anyone saw that I was contributing, those were all very special moments to me.
You have lived in many different parts of the world but are now based in Mumbai. Do you have a preference for a specific city for living and working?
If I were to pick a city to live and work I would choose an emerging market. These are cities where there’s a buzz and a sizeable population. The next five years will be massive in terms of seeing how these places shape up. There’s a lot of people in these populations who study abroad and want to come back and contribute to those societies. I would definitely pick a place in Africa, or maybe even Vietnam, where I previously spent a lot of time.
What are your predictions for what the start-up scene will be like in the next five years?
It will be massive! I see a lot more use of technology. Take my parents for example, who are in their 70s. They use their mobile phones to order groceries, food, and buy things for their grandchild — which they may not have done two years ago. This phenomenon is only going to deepen. The pandemic has probably fast tracked this by five years or so. Corporates will need to think about this and create new products and business models.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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