India is home to one of the world’s largest populations. The country is undergoing a massive economic shift, fueled by the number of entrepreneurs and startups cropping up across the nation. In past decades, India’s complex regulatory environment for businesses, sometimes referred to as the “license raj,” created barriers to economic growth. But over time, the country has shifted to an open market and recently boasted its first set of unicorn companies. In light of these developments, the Wharton School has created a new program for students to study the ecosystem through in-depth analysis and first-hand experiences.
Wharton India Fellows—led by Clare Leinweber WMP05 GR14, managing director of Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, and Sashi Reddi GRW94, founder and managing partner at venture firm SRI Capital—aims to familiarize students with the Indian startup ecosystem through a half-semester course, followed by a two-week immersion experience with an early-stage startup or rapidly scaling company. “The program is a unique opportunity to expose Penn juniors to the vibrant startup ecosystem in India,” said Leinweber.
The 12 students accepted into this spring’s inaugural cohort were given unique opportunities to tackle entrepreneurship. Through the program’s course, The India Startup Ecosystem: Field Project, they covered topics such as innovation, venture capital, and technology in relation to India. “What is most exciting to me about a course that involves travel and immersion into an unfamiliar and exciting corner of the entrepreneurial world is that learning goes on and on,” said Will Yoo W20.
The students traveled to the city of Bangalore in May during the program’s immersion portion to work with startups in various stages of development, funding, or scaling. Bangalore, known as the Silicon Valley of India, is a hub for information-technology companies in the region and boasts one of the most educated workforces in the world. The city also is home to more than 10 million people and many educational and research facilities, making it an ideal proving ground for startups. “The U.S. startup ecosystem is six to seven times that of India’s,” said Reddi. “But India’s startup ecosystem is young enough that both VCs and entrepreneurs are free to experiment with what could work.”
For Athena Panton W20, time spent at fitness-focused HealthifyMe (led by Tushar Vashisht ENG07) introduced her to one of the company’s many mantras: “Do more. Be more.” In her own article about the program, she writers that the saying is a fitting reflection of her two weeks in India. Valencia Fu C20, who worked at Hector Beverages (launched in part by Neeraj Kakkar WG10), has found her efforts at the intersection of entrepreneurship and innovation to be demanding, but rewarding. “No other interest has forced me to think harder or pivot faster than entrepreneurship has, where people are measured not by their credentials, but by their willingness to learn and do. It’s exactly where I want to be,” she said. The program’s fellows, who are now entering their senior year, are planning the next phases of their journeys. “My goal is to turn Ghana into a tech hub within West Africa, similar to how Bangalore is in India,” said Ransford Antwi ENG20.
The Wharton India Fellows program serves as a catalyst to jumpstart entrepreneurial ambitions, and through Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, is a new way for juniors to gain exposure to the avenues that lead to successful ventures. As for getting the program off the ground? “It was like launching a startup,” said Leinweber. “This program has become an essential offering for Penn students looking to engage in the startup ecosystem as critical participants in the growth and scaling of new ventures.”
As India continues to expand, even more opportunities are expected for entrepreneurs seeking to root themselves in the country’s economic ecosystem. “India is, or will soon be, the third largest economy,” said Reddi. “We hope that the Wharton India Fellows will come back with new ideas, new relationships, and a keen sense of the opportunity that is India.”
[Ed. note: Clare Leinweber is now the executive director for the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale University.]