Rajesh Nair, SDM ’12: Teaching Entrepreneurship in India

Rajesh Nair, SDM '12, poses with his entrepreneuship students at Mar Baselios College of Engineering and Technology in Trivandrum, India.Rajesh Nair, SDM '12 By Kathryn O’Neill, MIT SDM Correspondent
April 11, 2014

A successful entrepreneur with two master’s degrees, Rajesh Nair, SDM ’12, applied to MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program to gain a broader, systems perspective on his business. What he got was a new mission in life—to tackle the problems of the developing world through entrepreneurship.

"I am still the CTO and chairman of my company, but now I see a much larger role that I want to play in the world," said Nair, who created an entrepreneurship program in India with the aid of a fellowship from MIT’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. "Now my goal is to create a program that can generate 1,000 entrepreneurs in the next three years."

A self-described "gadget designer," Nair got his first master’s in electronic product design and technology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. But, he soon realized that a product’s design is only as good as it is manufacturable. So, he got a master’s in manufacturing engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Nair went on to found his own company, Degree Controls, which specializes in heat management for electronics. But after the business had become a multimillion-dollar venture, Nair found himself eager to investigate larger, systems challenges. "Every technical product we were making was a subsystem to a larger system, which in in turn was a subsystem itself—all finally serving a broader social system," he said. "That started to interest me a lot."

He decided to get another master’s degree—in engineering and management—from SDM because the program had something he couldn’t find anywhere else: "The program gives you that 30,00-foot view," Nair said.

At SDM, Nair realized that entrepreneurship could solve many of the complex, systems challenges facing developing countries like India, where he grew up. "If you can convert more graduates into entrepreneurs, they will go out and solve these problems and create jobs," he said. "If you look at the last 30 to 40 years, you see that almost all new jobs are created by startups. Existing companies were negative job creators."

For his SDM thesis project, Nair therefore decided to investigate whether entrepreneurship training could inspire college students to launch new businesses in India. Synthesizing many of the lessons he learned at SDM—in system architecture, system dynamics, product design and development, and more—Nair developed and ran a seven-week workshop on entrepreneurship at Mar Baselios College of Engineering and Technology, a small school in the south of India with no existing entrepreneurship program.

Rajesh Nair, SDM ’12, poses with his entrepreneuship students at Mar Baselios College of Engineering and Technology in Trivandrum, India.

"My thought was if I could go to the general population, a village or school, and teach them a basic method where any average student could take on entrepreneurial thinking, you could get more entrepreneurs," Nair said, who introduced students to a full range of entrepreneurship skills, from product design to business strategy.

The result? Out of 50 students, more than 30 now say they now want to become entrepreneurs, and the class spawned six startups—at a college that had produced just one student startup in the previous 12 years.

"These students helped me find my next mission," said Nair, who is now trying to streamline his workshop so that he can kick-start businesses more quickly; he plans to teach another workshop in India this April. "I think we can inspire the next generation to take the [entrepreneurship] risk."

Rajesh Nair, SDM ’12
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography