What can Indian entrepreneurs tell us about surviving COVID?

  • Entrepreneurs in India have been affected by five key trends during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A recent study shows they navigated the crisis thanks to digitization, multi-sector collaboration and localisation.
  • The rise of social enterprises and paying attention to the well-being and resilience of themselves and those around them also helped these business leaders to survive and even thrive during the pandemic.

Entrepreneurship and the micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprise (MSME) sector contribute nearly one-third to India’s GDP. However, the sector is particularly vulnerable to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic because they typically have fewer resources than large businesses.

We carried out a study with 107 Indian entrepreneurs to understand how they have navigated the pandemic. Our study shows five emerging trends for entrepreneurship in India.

The most dominant trend is the acceleration in digitisation supported by increasing consumer acceptance and adoption of digital services and products. This digital reset has propelled the use of contactless digital technology for financial transactions, opened up new markets and spurred a hiring spree among digitally-enabled startups.

It is supporting the growth of digitally-enabled hyper-local business models such as Meesho and PayNearby, as well as the rise of vernacular language voice technology startups such as Vernacular.ai.

There has been a rise in the adoption of emerging technologies for solving education and healthcare challenges too. TutAR began developing augmented reality education tools to make classrooms more engaging. Qure.ai’s AI-algorithm based interpretation of radiology images helped with COVID-19 assessment, making healthcare accessible and affordable.

Digitisation enables remote working, rebalancing the workforce away from metropolitan cities towards new job opportunities in non-urban centres. When we interviewed Sarika Gulati Gupta, founder of video production company Reel on Social, she said of new hires: “[Before] we were restricted to people based in Delhi or Mumbai. Now, sitting in their homes, say in Patna, as long as they are good, they can work with us.”

The most dominant trend is the acceleration in digitisation supported by increasing consumer acceptance and adoption of digital services and products.

—Sreevas Sahasranamam, University of Strathclyde; Ute Stephan & Przemyslaw Zbierowski, King’s College London

2) Multi-sector collaboration

The complexity of the challenges posed by the pandemic has spurred multi-sector initiatives that have seen government, start-ups, universities and civil society collaborating. For example, the government funded C-CAMP COVID-19 Innovation Development Accelerator (C-CIDA) has supported startups in areas of diagnostics, respiratory devices, therapeutics and cold chain technology.

Such collaborations are also helping entrepreneurs engage with government regulatory processes around technology commercialisation. A case in point being the RNA extraction kit for COVID testing developed by research institution Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences & Technology (SCTIMST). It was commercialised by Agappe Diagnostics after regulatory approval was obtained within months.

Collaborations also help expand the development of entrepreneurs’ products or services. As Prabhav Garudadhwajan, founder of agri supply chain startup EasyKrishi, told us: “I built a virtual network with scientists during lockdown when their labs were closed. They were all open to talk. Now, when I meet with investors, they are surprised at the amount of innovation that we are sitting on.”

The focus of the Indian government’s support package for the MSME sector during the pandemic was Atma-Nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India). It provided incentives and policies to facilitate the localisation of specific industries such as electronics manufacturing and toy manufacturing.

The pandemic also gave further impetus to the National Policy on Electronics, which envisions making India a $400 billion hub of Electronics System Design and Manufacturing (ESDM) by 2025. Recent initiatives such as the ESDM incubation centre in Hubli and the Super Fab-Lab in Kochi support the localisation of the electronics supply chain through developing hardware startups.

Global multinationals are also supporting this localisation trend by setting up new manufacturing clusters and platforms for Indian small business. Such initiatives could help to create more reliable supply chains, boost local employment and reduce the carbon footprint related to transporting goods and reduce India’s electronic imports, which currently account for 13% of all of India’s imports.

Localisation could help to create more reliable supply chains, boost local employment and reduce the carbon footprint related to transporting goods.

—Sreevas Sahasranamam, University of Strathclyde; Ute Stephan & Przemyslaw Zbierowski, King’s College London

4) The rise of social enterprises

Indian entrepreneurs exhibited high societal commitment during the pandemic by volunteering their time (52%) and business services (65%) for social causes. Efforts were also made to generate funding for COVID-related projects. Their societal engagement was among the highest we observed globally across entrepreneurs from 23 countries.

Indian entrepreneurs’ social commitment was among the highest of those from 23 countries observed in the study

Image: Sreevas Sahasranamam, Ute Stephan, Przemyslaw Zbierowski, Entrepreneurship after COVID-19: An assessment of the short- and long-term consequences for Indian small business (2021), University of Strathclyde.

Many entrepreneurs we spoke to also stressed the increasing social and environmental consciousness of consumers. This intersection of entrepreneur’s societal commitment and pent-up consumer demand for sustainable products/services supports the development of new social ventures, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, and sanitation.

Support structures for such businesses have newly emerged or gained greater prominence during the pandemic. For example, the makerspace movement saw Maker’s Asylum developing healthcare products such as oxygen concentrators and air-purification respirators.

Similarly, contextualised blended and grant-based financing models have also emerged. REVIVE, created by the Samhita Collective Good Foundation (CGF), supported informal sector entrepreneurs during the pandemic. Research shows greater presence of such grant capital encourages individuals to engage in social enterprise.

5) Entrepreneurial well-being and resilience

The pandemic has led to an increased awareness of mental well-being in many countries, as pandemic-related stress has put entrepreneurs’ productivity at risk. Yet, we observed that Indian entrepreneurs’ life satisfaction and perceived stress were comparable to pre-COVID population estimates.

The healthy lifestyle choices of Indian entrepreneurs during the pandemic seem to play an important role. For instance, many Indian entrepreneurs exercised daily for at least 30 minutes (69%), slept well (58%), practised yoga or meditation (45%), and found comfort in religious or spiritual beliefs (58%).

4 charts showing healthy lifestyle choices made by Indian entrepreneurs during COVID-19 pandemic; yoga, exercise, sleep, religious or spiritual beliefs.

Healthy lifestyle choices during the pandemic played an important role in Indian entrepreneurs’ ability to cope during the pandemic.

Image: Sreevas Sahasranamam, Ute Stephan, Przemyslaw Zbierowski, Entrepreneurship after COVID-19: An assessment of the short- and long-term consequences for Indian small business (2021), University of Strathclyde.

These trends are important as they point to entrepreneurs’ personal resilience and their attention to self care to maintain this resilience. Research finds this to be a critical basis for personal creativity and productivity and for the resilience and future growth of their businesses.

These five lessons point to the resilience and robustness of the Indian entrepreneurship ecosystem during the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be key drivers of India’s ambition to become a sustainable and inclusive $5 trillion economy by 2025.