Monday, July 06, 2009

Fighting terrorism with entrepreneurship

Early eighties. In a pre-liberalization India, the angry young man image of Amitabh Bachchan rules the imagination of millions—fighting his fight, achieving his goals against all odds. In such times, in a typical Bachchan-movie like flashback, a boy is running after a coal powered rail engine near Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh. The boy collects the raw pieces of coal that falls off the train so that his mother could cook the next meal.

The boy’s name is Shahid Parvez Sayed. When he is 12, his father passes away. He drops out of school and looks for ways to support his mother. He does odd jobs. He even sells kites from his home. He makes his own manjha (sort of an abrasive), that he brands as Shahid bhai’s manjha. He even entertains the idea of plying the manual rickshaw outside Farrukhabad railway station.

Then comes a turning point in the boy’s life. His mother sends him off to Mumbai to be with a relative. The goal is to get further education. There again in Mumbai, he does odd jobs – from fetching chai to supervising a construction site during his senior secondary school.

With the help of a benign being, determination and scholarships, Shahid lands up in the USA for a degree in Engineering (Masters in Civil Engineering, at Atlanta, Georgia,). Now in his late 30s, Shahid is finishing up his MBA in the USA and wants to come back to India to help his fellow brethren come out of the trap of poverty.

“Looking back I don’t think I did that badly,” Sahid says. “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 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,” he says. “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.”

Operation ‘Threshold India’ 2009

Early this year, Shahid came out with 'Threshold India 2009', a programme to promote entrepreneurship amongst the Muslim youth. The premise of the programme was that even after nearly two decades after India’s liberalization, Indian Muslims still felt marginalized in the society. “The idea came to me in an Entrepreneurship class here in my MBA program,” he says.

He saw the answer to the ailment of Muslim backwardness in entrepreneurship. For a starter, he chose the Maharashtra College in Mumbai. He launched a workshop cum competition to make money by the female students of the college.

“A sweet young relative from SNDT Women's University brought her entire class to the forum and it became an SNDT v/s Maharashtra College competition, he says. “My young guests were in for a surprise when they were divided into 8 groups and offered Rs. 1000 each. With the help of a few tips and insights, they had the freedom to do whatever they chose to do with the money. All I wanted in return was for them to engage in some creative brainstorming to generate ideas, utilize their talents in making the money grow. It was impressed on them that it was not important if they made 50 paisa or 200 rupees, or even if they lost their allotted amount, as long as they made a sincere and honest effort in going through the process.”

“As expected the students had felt overwhelmed initially by the task of using RS 1000 to make maximum money in just one week,” says Shahid. “However, each group mentioned how their initial fears were tackled, as the creative ideas started flowing. From selling handbags, ear rings, attar to holding food festivals, making PAN cards for a lower fee to applying mehndi to foreign visitors at the Gateway of India.”

“Although two winning teams were chosen, the theme of the day was truly that everyone was a winner. Not a single team had come back with a loss.”

(More information on the project is available here)

How did the idea of helping Muslim youth came to him? “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.”

Shahid mentions 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.”

Lack of motivation and a sense of victimhood can drive the Muslim youth to fanaticism, even terrorism. Given the conditions of the Muslim youth in India and huge opportunities that exist in the country, Shahid wants to fight the spectre of "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 emphatically. “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.”

“Ideally, I would want to create entrepreneurs in India irrespective of caste, creed, religion and state of origin,” says Shahid. “However I do want to focus on a certain socioeconomic strata of our society that has been left behind. India is about to enter the elite club of developed nations and we cannot afford to leave a part of our population behind.”

Shahid is already making plans to make his dream concrete. “Preparations are on to take the next steps of “Threshold India”,” he says. “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.”

Help is coming from all directions for Shahid. “Fortunately, there are some great brains in the business that are supporting me in this endeavor,” he says. “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.”

If you want to help Shahid in his mission, contact him at

Rewritten from a longer piece published on this blog two months ago. An edited version of this raw, rewritten piece was published in the June 2009 issue of India Se magazine.


waris said...

wonderful,i did'nt realize that there are others whose thoughts are totally in line with mine.i am happy that my students are going to do a workshop with you.will post a more detail note later.

sivakumar said...

Really a nice thought. Hope indian govt understands this. All politicians are becoming nonsense enterpreneurs to eat indian public money. Instead they should really think of making the talented indian youth into real enterpreneurs.