Rajesh Nair is a Senior Lecturer and Director of ASB-Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at Asia School of Business, started by MIT-Sloan and Bank Negara in Kuala Lumpur, and works at MIT as a visiting scholar. His research focuses on developing methods to catalyze innovators and entrepreneurs in communities and building sustainable local entrepreneurship ecosystems. He is the founding chairman of Degree Controls Inc, in Milford, NH USA and founder of TechTop Trust, a nonprofit organisation working on promoting innovation & entrepreneurship among the youth of India.
He believes that right exposure and training can transform an average individual into an entrepreneur. His experiments in remote engineering colleges in India have generated several entrepreneurs and startups. He spoke at TEDx-BeaconStreet on his experience in ‘Starting Up Entrepreneurs’
Rajesh is a product designer and a serial entrepreneur. He has founded companies in varied fields such as thermal management of electronic products, data center energy optimization, sensor & instruments and consumer products. He developed several industry standard products and holds as many as 13 US patents. He received the Entrepreneur of the Year award from New Hampshire High Tech Council and was a finalist at the Ernst & Young EoY-New England program. He received the masters degrees in Engineering & Management (MIT), Manufacturing Engineering (UMass, Amherst) and Electronic Product Design (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) and holds a bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Electronics & Communications engineering.
He aims to create a thousand entrepreneurs in the next three years using the method he developed at MIT. He founded EnCube Labs (www.EnCubeLabs.com) to realize his mission. It dwells on a curriculum that nurtures an entrepreneurial attitude among students in schools and universities.
Network Capital interviewed him to learn more about his vision and mission. Please take a look.
NC: What do you do? What drives you? What is your vision?
Rajesh Nair: I have gone through three professional incarnations in my life so far; Product Designer, Entrepreneur, and now a Teacher.
I was trained in physics and electrical engineering and pursued graduate education in product design and manufacturing engineering. I worked as a designer for a decade and I felt that I could do what my entrepreneur boss was doing. So I decided to start on my own, faced several failures, little success, came very close to personal bankruptcy. I learnt from them and started three ventures.
What drives me now is the realization that I am not special and was fortunate to get chances to learn and try different things in life. I believe there are a million kids like me, who grow up in villages and would go through their whole life without realizing their potential. Inspiring them and enabling their dreams is critical for the society. This became my research topic during my study at MIT. I now run workshops for kids to unleash their true potential.
NC: If you were to reflect upon your careers, what would be some of the most defining moments that have shaped your professional journey?
Rajesh Nair: Teaching is my third profession .I was a designer and an entrepreneur before this. Of course, these are gradual transitions and not sudden changes. The primary learning I had all along this experience was to look at anything as a system. A product system consists of mechanical sub systems, electrical sub systems, logic modules and user expectations. A problem system consists of stakeholders, their interests and influences. Creating a solution needs a system view of the problem. Similarly, an entrepreneur looks at the business system with opportunities and all the elements that need to be tackled before creating value flow in one direction and revenue flow in the other.
I am saying this because transitioning from a designer to an entrepreneur I saw these different systems up close and understood them well enough. Most engineers look at the design they do as limited to the specifications that were given to the deliverables expected. Look beyond and you see the problem space and the opportunity space. One needs to zoom out from what their adjacent system.
As a teenager, I used to tinker with electronics for fun. At college this helped me make things like audio. This also helped me find a job and I designed products rapidly primarily to specifications that were given by a customer. Once I started meeting customers I could help them create better solutions for some of the problems they were facing. At this point I could write the product spec for a problem and design them too. This led to the next step of entrepreneurship, where I felt that I could capture the value that I was creating. So it has been a series of experiences, several failures, lessons from them, and thus, expanding my zone of competency.
NC: Who are your mentors? How have they helped you?
Rajesh Nair: When I was a teenager I had a radio serviceman in my village in India. I spent a lot of time in his shop watching what he did to fix transistor radios and cassette players. Even though I did not understand how a radio worked, I learnt to solder and even check for voltages to look for loose contacts. This experience put me on a different path from what I may have taken otherwise.
I met some great designers when I was studying at Indian Institute of Science who helped me tremendously. The electronics and mechanical labs at CEDT at IISc were places I hung out as an undergrad though I was not part of the department. The machinists to professors helped me and let me use these facilities. At my first job in the U.S., the CTO of the company I worked for took me to customers because he felt I should not design products in a vacuum. Even when I was starting up, there were other experienced entrepreneurs who took me under their wings. I don’t think any of these mentors expected anything from me in return. They saw my interest and they offered to help. When I see curious youngsters I go out of my way to help them. I guess it would be the same for anyone.
NC: If you were to give your 18 year old self some advice, what would it be?
Rajesh Nair: First advice would be to fail as many times as possible. No one wants to fail, but the fear of failure stops a lot of us from trying. Take on things that you have no idea how to do. Figure things out. You will fail. But there is no such thing as a 100% failure. You figure out many things, but some 20% of it doesn’t work causing the project to fail. From an outsider’s view it was a total failure, but from your point of view you got most of it right. It is your task to do it again and get the rest right.
Frequent failure is essential to lose the fear so you can try things just outside what is possible.
NC: What is the next big personal/professional ambition/target for you?
Rajesh Nair: I spend my time on creating the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. Current top-down entrepreneur development programs such as incubators take on young aspiring entrepreneurs and focus on building successful startups. I believe that we miss out on nurturing young entrepreneurs while we are looking for successful startups. Many of these kids are having their first experience with a startup, but the expectations are tremendously high. It is like when a child is learning to walk we are expecting them to win races.
I am currently focusing on nurturing an average student in a school or a college to help them build enough confidence to think that they want to be an entrepreneur. The process is quite simple. We all have certain thresholds of fear that we don’t event attempt to cross. There are boundaries in our minds that are not real. If we can help them cross these lines to show that they could have done it by themselves, it starts to break down the fear to cross. Once you have done a few of these they are liberated to follow their passion and dreams without fear. I use technology to help them do this. I teach them to design mechanical products, program electronics and fabricate products. It can be taught through other methods too.
In India I helped Atal Innovation Mission launch their Atal Tinkering Labs with a TinkerFest in 12 schools across Delhi for more than 600 kids. I am hoping to scale this to the whole nation. Imagine if we can create 10x the number of entrepreneurs in the next 5-10 years. It would solve more problems, create more jobs and bring more wealth.
NC: What advice would you like to give to students and young professionals?
Rajesh Nair: You have more potential than you realize. Do things that are ‘crazy’ when you are young, because the cost of failure is so low. Though family and society will try to put you in a ‘safe’ path too early, don’t settle for it. Failure is the primary way to learn. Once you start taking safe decision you are working well within your zone of comfort and that usually would not get you too far in life. The chances of failure are usually much smaller than you think, as the fear of failure amplifies chances of failure in your mind. Reach a point where you are ready to take risks in life and that can lead to something greater.
Take a look at his insightful TEDx talk: