Three successful entrepreneurs embarked on The Great Indian Footprint, a journey to capture inspiring stories. Krishna Kumar, CEO of Green Pepper, a fast growing digital marketing company, Mithun Aravind, CEO of A-Team Adventures, an adventure sports company, and Nithin George Charuvila, CEO of QPlay Tech, a mobile app development company, joined together for a great adventure – a unique 12,000 mile journey in 41 days through 15 states and 41 cities in India. Adopting a cause of building an awareness campaign advancing the notion of driving etiquette, this unique journey turned out to become an extraordinary experience employing all the senses and meeting India’s aspirational young entrepreneurs.

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From left: Nithin George Charuvila, Mithun Aravind and Krishna Kumar.

One of the visionaries, Krishna Kumar considers this journey to be a first-hand learning experience, to better understand India’s geography, culture, arts, history, infrastructure, cities, towns and villages. They enjoyed savoring Indian cuisine and the unique recipes from the diverse states. The entrepreneurial trio observed the attitudes of India’s citizens which matter the most – for a nation with an aspiring population, experiencing exponential growth.

Natasha Srdoc: How did you come up with the idea for this journey?

Krishna Kumar: Having traveled through India earlier by trains and also via air, I realized that we were only seeing the 1% of India – the tip of the iceberg. To understand a country deeply, we must undertake a nonjudgmental journey through road not as a tourist but as a curious traveler. And practically, it is not easy, for an entrepreneur like me managing multiple teams. The only source of information about villages and small towns in India was through Google news. When searching and trying to understand the news it creates a snap judgement about a place. We wanted to understand through observing real things which happen when traveling by ground. Three of us decided to travel and we never initially thought of an ultra expedition like we did. As we designed a name for the expedition – The Great Indian Footprint – we decided that we should make it big. It was more of gut than a plan – most unlikely of us. And when we threw this idea of a road expedition to Young Indians (Yi) part of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), they instantly liked the idea and we started aligning a national flagship campaign of Yi called ‘Horn Not OK Please’ to this expedition and we took up the cause as we were convinced why we should advance the notion of driving courtesy, an emphasis on driving etiquette. People in India seem to be rudely competitive on roads, mostly abusing other people by honking and not following traffic rules. This is seen by Indians as a serious social problem, creating not only sound pollution, but anxiety as well. That is how the road trip with a cause came up. We also secured partners like Nissan, Tasty Nibbles, Travel Monk, Kerala Tourism and International Leaders Summit to fund and promote this unique expedition which got nation-wide visibility and captured inspiring stories.

The Ganges River
The Ganges River

NS: Traveling through India in December 2014, I met with entrepreneurs of new start-ups, established business leaders, young professionals, state government cabinet ministers, university professors, faculty, students and citizens. What they all had in common was hope for India’s future. At the time, newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s articulated priorities of economic growth and good governance struck a chord with India’s voters. Are India’s citizens equally optimistic today?

KK: After two years of Modi government, Indians have a strong sense of hope, though the economic indicators are yet to prove it. The dark days of India under the dynastic rule is ending as the new elections in some states prove so. Now is time to think like a economic super power and uplift majority of Indians who were living under miserable conditions despite having favorable economic possibilities. The Great Indian Footprint is a tribute to the abundant opportunities existing in India to unlock its value to create a positively new life for millions. Educated enterprising Indians who resist bad politicians can do that.

Kashmir mountains
Kashmir mountains

NS: You had an opportunity to visit a number of different states. What were some of the striking things about the various states and its citizens?

KK: Starting from Kochi in Kerala, we traveled through the West coast of India, covering Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat and then went up North through Rajasthan, Punjab, and reaching the Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and then a long journey through the Gangetic plains in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and moving up the gateway of North East in North Bengal and coming back to where we started through the East coast of India, through Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – totaling 11600 km during 41 days and 15 Indian states.

 

Konkancoast
Konkancoast
Assi Ghat, located at the confluence of the Ganges River and Assi River.
Assi Ghat, located at the confluence of the Ganges River and Assi River.

Each state is strikingly different in terms of the attitudes of people, food, culture, economy, history and infrastructure.

Kerala has human development indicators at par with advanced societies. Kerala has more service based businesses than manufacturing companies. The biggest attraction is geography – with year round travel season – pristine beaches, mountains, wildlife, backwaters, heritage and culture. We took up the Kerala Tourism partnership as we believe in the potential of Kerala as a much sought after destination for leisure and learning – a land with immense historical significance spanning 3000 years.

Each state has extreme sides of development. On one side you see underdeveloped towns and villages with below average quality of living and on other side you see big cities – a classic example of concentration of talent and money in 1% of the geography mostly enriched by the presence of water bodies like river, lake or sea.

NS: The perception is that India is very diverse, divided by cultural nuances and united by English as a common language. What is the reality?

KK: We can say that there are some 350 million people of young Indians considered as middle and upper middle class, who speak English. The middle class in India certainly can manage to speak and write English. For the remaining population, language becomes a barrier for communication and an access to these people may be limited.

Each state in India has a unique culture and society. And we may wonder how did India become one country with so much variety. In India there are more than 300 languages. Even in the small state of Kerala, there are more than 15-20 different dialects. Going from one side to the other side of the state, Malayalam is spoken in different ways, and, people treat us in different ways. But what unites everything is a sense of nation – wherever you go, you feel like you are part of India.

NS: India is known for its entrepreneurial spirit. What was the most unique entrepreneurial idea that you encountered during this journey?

KK: Yes, wherever we go, we find people doing things to create opportunities for themselves and others. There is a sense of confidence among people about the economy, the new government and skills the new generation is bringing in order to build businesses. We met important people in each city on our way, as they received us with cheers and celebration. What we learned from them is a profound sense of hope about the new things happening around and the ability of the economy to grow leaps and bounds with the help of domestic consumption itself.

We visited colleges, and, the students are not worried about jobs but are hungry of doing something unique in their lives. Most of the ambitions are driven by success stories they see around. Local media is highlighting the wildly successful entrepreneurs who made it from the scratch and that drives ambition across the spectrum.

KhalsaCollege_Amritsar
Khalsa College Amritsar

We visited Amul’s factory campus at Anand in Gujarat. It’s a classic example of India’s success story by leveraging the power of community building in villages to spearhead White Revolution. Amul is India’s most celebrated milk brand. It is a bottom of the pyramid example.

NS: How did Amul’s factory begin?

KK: When India was facing huge shortages of milk, Verghese Kurien organized the farmers in Gujarat, especially dairy farmers who were not organized at that point of time. Farmers did not have the real structure, process to give milk, get the money, expand their business.

Verghese Kurien, also known as the Father of White Revolution in India, is considered to be one of the most legendary figures in India in the last 40-50 years. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 90. He created a successful “Amul” brand of dairy products through cooperative farming. He spread the message of improving the yield of cows. He gave a scientific way of improving the yield and improving their lives. He created the system. We are talking about remote villages where the farmers have to work, and sometimes they are exploited by landlords. He gradually created a system where these people are not being exploited, and farmers became a part of cooperative society called Amul. They created branding, now there are more than 50 products available, including different kinds of cheese, butter, milk and lots of other products.

And it is a branding charm they have in India. It is not just a milk product, it is a branding sensation in India. They launched beautiful social media campaigns, promoting milk products which are building India’s children. You find them as holistically smart company – rather than a cooperative society doing something just in a diary sector.

Krishna Kumar addressing the Young Indians organization in Kochi.
Krishna Kumar addressing the Young Indians organization in Kochi.

NS: There is a growing population of Indian youth which is starting IT businesses and driving innovation around the world. How would you describe these young aspiring Indians?

KK: India’s youth coming out from colleges, are mostly equipped to work in technology driven businesses, that is 10% of students who come out of engineering colleges, who are absorbed by technology companies through campus hiring. For that matter, every business is tech driven now, and, their faster learning curve makes them market ready for technology companies across India looking for engineering talent for giving IT services to the world.

These youngsters coming from India’s 350 million middle class are forced to earn more, compete against contemporaries to acquire more materialistic possessions like car, home and jewelry. This drives them to work hard, please superiors and bring results to their workplace. This attitude is driving domestic consumption. Over the last a decade or so, India’s youth (people who are below 35) which constitute some 65% of the population, is driving this revolution. Many businesses are taken over by next the generation.

Young Indians organization, Lucknow
Young Indians organization, Lucknow

NS: You traveled by vehicle through urban and rural areas in India. How would you describe the infrastructure?

KK: What we see is a well connected India – by roads – constructed mostly by NHAI (National Highway Authority of India). The roads are safe and have tolls. During the road travel, we found 90% of the roads good. We saw new roads, flyovers construction happening – a visible indicator of the country getting ready for the next jump for growth.

With the exception of some cities like Chandigarh, Bhubaneshwar or Vizag, the rest of cities are driven by unplanned growth. The planned city model is difficult because of space constraints in Indian cities because of immovable settlements.

Some 60% of Indian population lives in immovable settlements, which comprise of low and middle class, and slum areas. Expansion into these areas is very difficult, which creates time delays in new construction.

NS: With our ubiquitous mobile access to the Internet, we assume that everybody anywhere in the world is able to connect to Internet. Was mobile phone coverage available throughout this journey? Is Internet available to the people?

KK: Throughout the journey, 90% of the time, we were able to get quality access of internet on phone. In cities we get 3G and 4G speed. Even in the most unlikely places we were surprised to get phone internet which helped us to post updates about our journey via social media. We were accessible to office and work via Skype to deal with important official matters. This shows the immense potential for traveling entrepreneurs to stay connected with their offices, clients and associates.

NS: What would you consider to be the most pressing issues that we need to be aware of, in order to improve the living conditions in certain parts of India which you visited?

KK: Clean water, sanitation, education, healthcare and civic sense – 5 areas which we feel immediate action is required.

The Young Indians group meeting at Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai.
The Young Indians group meeting at Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai.

NS: You tapped into a wide network of young Indians, part of Confederation of Indian Industry. How would you describe India’s emerging entrepreneurs, those younger than 45?

KK: Young Indians, part of CII – are comprised of entrepreneurs below 45 years and is committed to do things beyond business. They have established their businesses in their hometowns or settled in a new city which offered them opportunities. They are all having something in common – ability to be agile in a dynamic economic environment to tap new opportunities and use the network to make friends for business and life. Most of things in India happen out of relationships and trust building and it happens through meeting often and doing social projects together. They are helpful and hospitable.

NS: What was the most dangerous/risky situation that you found yourself in?

KK: Udhampur to Pahalgam, 220 km journey through a tough mountain pass- the rocky mountains in the Shivalik ranges of Himalayas.  We even a survived landslide on our way.

The Pahalgam Forest
The Pahalgam Forest

Bodh Gaya to Siliguri, 521 km of road journey through Bihar and North Bengal, the rustic and underdeveloped part of India – the roads were mostly under-constructed and narrow. It took us a while to figure out how to find the right route, even Google missed it sometimes. The Bodh Gaya to Siliguri segment was a hard journey, a remote part, with very little trace of civilization.

Goa cuisine
Goa cuisine

NS: My husband spoiled me with his homemade Indian cuisine and an Indian kitchen cabinet carrying all the necessary spices. With a great variety of Indian dishes, is there something that you tried for the first time on this journey, which you have never eaten before?

KK: Each state in India offers a food festival. Food is celebration. It is stress buster as well.  And sometimes in each state, each district has a different style of preparing the same thing. Across India, we enjoyed the masala chai from the road-side dhabas (small hotel), mostly food is served hot here and is safe and cheap. That was our fuel to get over the fatigue of driving long distances.

We enjoyed the South Indian breakfast, especially Mangalore  – idli which is steamed cake of fermented rice and pulse flour mostly served with green and red chutneys. Masala dosa is a calorific delight, perfect for breakfast as it fills you with required energy for a long travel. Vada (looks like donut) is an extra item if asked for.

Rajasthani Thali is definitely a king-size meal, and after that you wish for a power nap to regain your energies. It is purely vegetarian.

Punjab offers the most calorie-rich food, butter spread roti, butter chicken and lassi – sweet curd sometimes flavored.

Kashmir’s mutton delicacies are out of the world, it offers much needed calories to beat the cold. Mutton Rogan Josh and Butter naan were our favorite.

Kashmir delicacies
Kashmir delicacies

NS: What would be your suggestion for tourists or a family from Europe and United States, exploring India for the first time? Where would they start and where to end their journey? What would you suggest and recommend? 

KK: Any sort of travel appetite can be filled in India. There is so much variety. At all budget levels. From seven star properties to rustic home stays. From mountains to beaches. From wildlife to backwaters. From elite cities to remote villages. India is highly hospitable and friendly for travelers, and, people help each other.

I wish to speak to the audiences in India and US about this journey – especially about the first hand information which we gathered during the 41 day travel – which can help people to gather insights of ‘how India works’.

A family reunion in Kerala, after covering 41 cities in 41 days.
A family reunion in Kerala, after covering 41 cities in 41 days.

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