Enterprises: The First IPO and a Noble Cause
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.", by condensing the outlook needed to deftly challenge and resolve a predicament, Walt Disney has also highlighted the stimulus that drives every entrepreneur to risk one’s ‘own skin in the game’. Echoing the same sentiment and plagued by the atrocities that the abhorrent and ‘distasteful-at-best’ mess food inflicted upon the gastrointestinal system, the incentive to disrupt the food and beverage market of the adolescent institute was very tangible.
Staying invariant ever since its inception, irrespective of the colossal strides that the institute underwent in all other imaginable spheres, the mess food quality still miming and revering the middling yardsticks is an unimpaired mausoleum of the mid-60s. Under the reigns of the formidable and the foundational director, Brig. Bose whose profound conviction forbade anything else being served in the messes other than the uniform and unvarying ‘Spartan’ diet- daal, rice, chapati, and ‘sabji’, the basic and ho-hum diet not only agitated but also induced a few novel minds to overcome this predicament. A solemn dream was born in retaliation to Bose’s endeavour to steel and edify the souls of his wards through this monotonous diet. A dream of a Hostel Canteen, where one could indulge in and satiate the malfeasant urges of the stomach and buy choicer food anytime and all the time, started to take form.
However, the founding fathers of this novel venture faced some big dilemmas: ‘Who will put in all the money?’, ‘What will be the venue for conducting all the business?’, ‘Who will be the CEO of this prodigious enterprise?’ With baffling complications like these, it was decided upon after contemplation that public funding and IPO is the way to go forward! The bridge between starvation to lucrativeness during the non-messing hours was a daunting one to traverse, but in the words of alumnus Dr. J. Vasi who invested a handsome 50 rupees by purchasing five shares of ten rupees each, “It was not bad, given that in the 1960s premium companies’ shares also used to be floated at Rs 10 apiece!”
Laying the cornerstone of this ambitious project was also the esteemed serial entrepreneur Dr. Romesh Wadhwani, the chairman and CEO of the Symphony Technology Group, who was just as excited to make his investing debut! Aggrieved by the quandary of journeying to the Vikhroli station every time just for muffling those post-classes hunger growls in the afternoons, Wadhwani elected to commence his journey from capitalizing the 100 rupee canteen corporation of Hostel 2 to erecting a multi-billion-dollar firm! To paraphrase him “The mission of the canteen was to provide snacks and beverages to students before they actually ended up having dinner at 7 pm in the hostel mess.”
The project proved an unqualified success. Convincing the hall manager to grant a hostel room as the site of operation and installing an employee to run the venture, the first canteen functioned as a priceless institution provisioning the inmates with milkshakes, chocolates, savouries, and snacks! Adhering to the highest professional corporate protocols and standards, semesterly dividends were paid, Board Meetings and Annual Shareholders’ gatherings were held in the NCC area, and Annual Reports were also issued!
“The canteen turned out to be extremely successful and the initial investment was repeated many-many times over!”, exalted Wadhwani, the irrepressible entrepreneur who also had once fabricated a home-made Coke-dispensing machine. The shareholders, who found themselves richer by no less than a splendid 200% annum return, didn’t have their jubilation last too long though. Just like any other novel entrepreneurial venture, the hostel canteen too attracted a fair share of potholes and averse tides, as the next hostel secretary elections were fought on the premise of nationalizing the canteen. Despite functioning at very reasonable prices and offering the best services, nationalization being true to its very nature wrecked the well-operating canteen, which ultimately had to be shut down :(
Nonetheless, eliciting an invaluable lesson that “entrepreneurship works and socialism doesn’t” and to abstain from unnecessarily bragging about one’s successful and smooth-running business, Wadhawani still credits this encounter for sowing the first seeds of entrepreneurship within him.
‘Technik, the prominent magazine of those times, describing the mess food as an ‘acquired distaste’ reflected the innate desire of every hosteler: to treat themselves to the best possible messing. While Wadhwani’s initiative was in retribution to this craving, not all messing ventures sought to be "profitable". An embodiment of this spirit was the social organization named “Anjali”, that focused on killing two birds with a single stone: starvation and food wastage. Observing that the end slices of the bread went unconsumed and mostly wasted, this enterprise supplied those uncooked end slices along with sweets and jaggery to the local slums in the Bhandup area, collaborating with mess workers and several NGOs. Steadily, the operations of this initiative expanded to encompass various other slums and uplifting the slum dwellers through education and employment, ultimately taking the form of the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Bal Vikas Mandal.
While messing at IIT-Bombay has not been without its fair share of complications (visit Day 2 of this series), with the food served often regarded more as an insult instead of gratification to one’s gastronomic sensibilities, the fact that it inadvertently ignited the latent entrepreneurial temper amongst its patrons and parented a few social enterprises as well is no trifling disservice!