I recently got to know about a young Indian, Shahid Syed, who had done an interesting experiment in Mumbai involving female Muslim students. "I wanted to see if I can motivate Muslim youth to fall in love with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he says. My interest was piqued and I wanted to know more about him. So, I sent him some questions.
Through his answers, Shahid tells us his own story, his journey of struggle starting from a small town in UP to Mumbai and then to America. "I did odd jobs, even ran behind coal powered rail engines to collect raw coal pieces so that my mom could use them as cooking fuel," he says. "I even entertained the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station as a number of youngsters were into it."
Now with an MBA degree from an American University, Shahid is planning to do his own bit of service to his motherland. Among the many ideas that he has, the most interesting is about fighting terrorism with entrepreneurship. "When we can create fanatically dedicated Fidayeeen Saddam, Fidayeen 9/11 and Fidayeen 26/11, we can certainly create Fidayeen - i.e. intensely motivated - in Finance and Entrepreneurship," he says.
Here is the interview:
I read about your unusual entrepreneurship training project in a Mumbai college involving female Muslim students. What was it all about? How did the idea come to you?
The idea came to me in an Entrepreneurship class here in my MBA program. That class had a profound effect on me. We were asked to submit a business plan and make presentations to a committee. It was a challenge but also a whole lot of fun. I enjoyed the experience and my confidence in starting a business on my own, found strength.
And since 9/11, I had been looking for an opportunity in helping the demoralized Muslim youth, so this idea came as a blessing. I wanted to see if I can motivate Muslim youth to fall in love with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As per the Rajinder Sachar report, compared to Muslim males, Muslim females in India have a higher percentage of finishing graduation. The Muslim male dropout rate is higher and the reasons are manifold. One : The Muslim youth feels alienated and deprived of job opportunities upon graduation, and two, they want to start earning their way sooner than later. Somewhere along the line, they lose motivation to continue the efforts that a college degree demands.
In contrast, the girls continue with the studies as they ‘wait’ for a decent marriage proposal. They are assumed to have no talent that can be utilized for their own benefit and community. This also brings an imbalance as these girls later don’t find a suitable match with equal education to marry within their circles.
Do you think we can really fight "terrorism" with entrepreneurship? How?
When we can create fanatically dedicated Fidayeeen Saddam, Fidayeen 9/11 and Fidayeen 26/11, we can certainly create Fidayeen - i.e. intensely motivated - in Finance and Entrepreneurship. I am sure the Muslim youngsters today are as brilliant as anywhere else. What is needed is a little guidance and the right resources – not just financially but even of motivation and encouragement.
Entrepreneurship is all about application of creativity and generation of ideas. I want to create a group of youngsters who will allow their inner creativity and brilliance to shine through.
I figured this when I made a film “Doosra Kinara” last year. The making of the film, more than the content of the film, to me, was a classical act of guerilla film making. I did everything to make sure my film gets made. I cajoled, pleaded, as I worked out solutions to my film making challenges. In this process I sought help across colors, nationalities and religious lines. People were gracious in helping, and more importantly, I ended up making some lifelong friends. In the diasporic world here in the US, there are some people who tend towards the extreme right wing of own religion, yet they joined me in making my dreams see the light of day. In the sheer interaction, we learned from each other about our – so similar! - insecurities, problems and root cause of hostilities.
The point is, when these youngsters start their entrepreneurial journey they will too realize how they must interact with other people that are different from them. There is no way an entrepreneur is going to grow, if he is going to cater to his tribe only. They will learn to develop tolerance and appreciation for other people’s point of view, as much as appreciating the money that they will earn with their own efforts.
I want them to fall in love with life, their community, their city, state, country and the world….
Did your own life so far taught you how Muslims in a country like India can come out of their pathetic socio-economic conditions?
I was 12 when my father passed away in Farrukhabad, a small town in UP. That resulted in me dropping out of school and looking for ways to support my mother in running the house. I did odd jobs, even ran behind coal powered rail engines to collect raw (un-burnt) coal pieces so that my mom could use them as cooking fuel. I sold kites from my home. When I attracted enough customers I started, making my own manjha (sort of an abrasive), that I called Shahid bhai’s manjha (now I think of it as backward integration!). I even entertained the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station as a number of youngsters were into it.
My mom sent me to Mumbai to be with a relative to further my education. There again in Mumbai, I did odd jobs - fetching chai to supervising a construction site during SSC.
Looking back I don’t think I did that badly…..Of course there is more to the story afterwards, but the bottom line is you dream and it will be given. Nature, Allah, God is kind to hard working good people, and this is my firm belief. There is always a road that springs up from somewhere if you have the right intention….
In Urdu it goes this way : “Neeyat saabit manzil aasan”
In the years of my growing up in India, I was witness – as everyone else – to a regular diet of Meerut, Bhiwandi, Mandal and anti-Sikh pogroms. Corruption ruled, and here, I was a mere small time jebroni, almost as if I had no role in deciding the future course of my life and the nation. My journey to the US must have begun long before I actually landed here. I recall that when I was in my final year of engineering, I wrote a short story in which the hero of the story declares “ I am either going to change the System or get out of India”.
At that point of time, I chose to get out of India. After completing my Masters in Civil Engineering, at Atlanta, Georgia, I did go back to India. This was 1992, and this was when my country welcomed me with the images of some folks dancing on the top of an abandoned 500 year old masjid and the later dance of evil that followed in my city.
Somewhere along the line, I came back here to the US, but with my heart stayed with the need to do something for the youngsters back in India, who could not avail of a better life. Worse, who believed a better life was not possible…
What are your future plans? How do you want to apply your ideas of social entrepreneurship in India?
Ideally, I would want to create entrepreneurs in India irrespective of caste, creed, religion and state of origin. However I do want to focus on a certain socioeconomic strata of our society that has been left behind. I see a lot of parallels between majority of Muslims in India and the blacks in America. In jail, there are more of them by sheer percentage, they have higher levels of illiteracy, are frustrated and prone to entertaining violent thoughts.
India is about to enter the elite club of developed nations and we cannot afford to leave a part of our population behind. We must offer an equal opportunity to our youth to excel in whatever area they chose. We need to provide them all the tools and training necessary and then surely they can show us what they are made up of.
I will be conducting the same process again in a few months. Preparations are on to take the next steps of “Threshold India”. The idea is to spread this at the grassroots, across cities with more involvement and the seeking of long term winning ideas. We plan to offer micro credit loans to those who would want to take forward their ideas in the real world. As well as tacit support in these endeavors.
Anything else you want to add?
The world today is at a threshold.
In this last decade, we have seen planes flown with the intent of harming innocent civilians, we have seen wars conducted in order to kill a perceived enemy and ‘cleanse the world’. Within nations, we have seen men and women killed by state controlled police and militia.
It’s about time we turn the page and offer history a chance to write some good stories: stories of hope, redemption and courage. It's about time we offer stories that inspire the next generation so that they can set their eyes to new horizons.
Fortunately, there are some great brains in the business that are supporting me in this endeavor. These are the people who show up in Mohallahs without a trace of hesitation, an area they would not have visited if it was not for this cause. And they are entrepreneurs/writers of repute like Piyul Mukherjee, Pia Verbic and Rashmi Bansal. Their continuous support and guidance is helping "Threshold India" sprint towards its goal with a lightning speed.
I invite you all to come and join me. Provide me with your support and your ideas, so that we can together serve the cause of creating a culture of entrepreneurship among our nextgen. After all, at the end of the day, we all have just one designation on this planet.
And that is being human….