Cultural Entrepreneurship: Unveiling the Journey with Sanjay Anandaram

In this episode, Mohan Gandhi Ponnaganti, CEO of, engages in an enriching conversation with Sanjay Anandaram, a veteran of the Indian startup ecosystem, on the fascinating theme of Cultural Entrepreneurship. Sanjay shares insights from his diverse career journey, which spans across various domains like teaching, lecturing, writing, and even exploring the intricate art of embroidery work.

Cultural Entrepreneurship: Unveiling the Journey with Sanjay Anandaram
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Welcome to another episode of the Ofofo Studio series. In this episode, Mohan Gandhi Ponnaganti, CEO of, engages in an enriching conversation with Sanjay Anandaram, a veteran of the Indian startup ecosystem, on the fascinating theme of Cultural Entrepreneurship.
Sanjay shares insights from his diverse career journey, which spans across various domains like teaching, lecturing, writing, and even exploring the intricate art of embroidery work. He discusses the trials and triumphs he has faced, the lessons learned from his failures, and how he was led to the path of cultural entrepreneurship.
Sanjay also delves into his experiences at Flame University, where he sheds light on the cultural entrepreneurship programs. The conversation takes a reflective turn as Sanjay shares his insights inspired by the AADHAAR experience.
This episode is a treasure trove of insights for those interested in Cultural Entrepreneurship or those embarking on their entrepreneurial journey. Tune in to hear Sanjay's inspiring journey and glean wisdom from his experiences.
Mohan Gandhi: Many people are aware of your recent adventures, but how did you start your career? What was your first job? Was it at Wipro? What was your educational background? How did you begin your career?
Sanjay Anandaram: So, I was born and raised in Kolkata, which was called Calcutta back then. I went to school there and pursued engineering. After that, I started my IT career with Wipro as a salesperson, covering various accounts and customers across Bengal, Calcutta, Southern Madhya Pradesh (now Chhattisgarh), and Bihar in 1987. It was a fascinating learning experience, selling computers, PCs, AutoCAD machines, networking equipment, and minicomputers, which were not very well-known at the time. I traveled to places I had not heard of before and learned a lot. Later, I moved to Bangalore and completed my MBA.
After rejoining Wipro, I ran operations in the Middle East and Africa, and later in Southeast Asia. We sold Wipro-designed, manufactured, and branded products in the Middle East and Africa, and did some OEM work with design in the Far East. Wipro had an excellent R&D team, and we designed some high-end, leading-edge tech products. One such product was a terminal server - a 16-port device that allowed remote login from anywhere on any network, using TCP/IP, Novell NetWare, or DECnet protocols. It was a tri-protocol automatic switch that enabled message sending and file printing on any printer located on any node and on any network. We co-designed, co-developed, and manufactured it in partnership with an LA-based startup. This was in 1991, and I led the team on the project from the business side, ensuring its smooth running.
Afterwards, I moved back to the US via Wipro and once again established the product design engineering business for them. This involved state-of-the-art full system design and product design work in the early 1990s. It included designing entire network switches with what was called ATM (asynchronous transfer mode). 155 MBPS delivered to desktops for multimedia and conference users. This was very cutting-edge at that time. Additionally, a variety of other cool things were designed, including motherboards using pre-Pentium chips from Intel. I remember going to the Intel fab in Santa Clara and holding a microprocessor fresh off the fab. It was really, really leading edge, no kidding.
In 1995, I was asked, along with a colleague, to create a new business for Wipro. At the time, there was a massive turmoil taking place in the company and other companies due to liberalization overseas and the influx of multinational corporations into India. It was no longer feasible for a company like ours to keep investing in R&D-based design, engineering, product manufacturing, and selling activities. We had to change and become a lab for hire, offering R&D product design services to the world.
As part of this transformation, there was a lot of rethinking going on in the company about how to add more value. One approach we took was to look at things from a domain standpoint rather than a purely engineering or technology standpoint. "Domain" at the time meant things like digital commerce, which was being pushed by then-US President Bill Clinton. Healthcare reform was also a massive issue at the time, and we had to take that into account as well.
The idea was to create two verticals: one in digital commerce and the other in healthcare, and utilize Wipro's engineering, design, marketing, sales, infrastructure, and other capabilities to provide end-to-end solutions. Professor CK Prahlad was advising Wipro on how to approach this. I was part of the team that worked on the healthcare business, despite having no prior knowledge of healthcare. My expertise lay in system engineering, not applications. However, I saw this as a fantastic opportunity and challenge and dove in headfirst. I conducted extensive research on the internal ecosystem, players, dynamics, economics, and more. We then created a plan to build a $50 million healthcare business and become a system integrator to deliver all the necessary components. This required us to create a new company and rethink our business practices. This happened in 1995.
Before that, Netscape had just been born in '94 and had just gone public. The Valley was on fire because everyone was looking at the World Wide Web. Nobody knew what it was, but it was fantastic. I remember downloading Mozilla & Netscape Navigator 1.0 and playing with it. It was a different experience that I couldn't quite put my finger on. That was the phenomenal thing. That experience sparked my interest in a lot of new things. I'm always very keen and interested in trying new things. I've never worked on anything for more than two years in my life. I find excitement in intellectual challenges, exploring new territories, and going where nobody else has gone. I did all of that. The market was telling us that the Valley was on fire. I attended a lot of events, and the excitement was just uncontrollable.
In 1996, I was considering leaving Wipro and taking on a new challenge. Luckily, a few other colleagues at Wipro felt the same way, and we decided to start our own company. With a fourth founder, who had recently graduated from Stanford, we became probably the first set of founders on a non-US immigrant visa without a US educational background or US company work experience to start a company in Silicon Valley that was backed by US investors. This was in 1997.
Our startup was a software company that built personalization software. It subsequently became a part of the Internet business unit of Disney called Infoseek.
I always wanted to return to India. In 1997, my son was born here, and my mother passed away. We were in India at the time and went back to the US for a while before I decided to return to India. I never applied for a green card or did anything to stay in the US. After about seven years in the US, I wanted to bring the excitement of Silicon Valley back to India. So I started India's first magazine for entrepreneurs. It was an e-magazine that was sent as HTML text in an email. It covered different aspects of entrepreneurship, including interviews with role models who were not too big, but relatable to the common person. There was also a section on opportunities, such as jobs, banking, lawyers, and accountants. Back then, accessing the internet in India was a nightmare, and you had to dial-up for internet access.
I started a magazine and Venky Hariharan, who had just returned from a fellowship in technology journalism at M.I.T, joined me. I met him at the IIIT Bangalore office, which was then located in ITPL. While talking to Professor Sadagopan about my plans, Venky overheard and expressed his excitement. He was an adjunct faculty member there and decided to quit his job to join me. Together, we ran the magazine for about three months.
Meanwhile, Arun Shouri was both the disinvestment minister and IT minister of India, and MIT Media Labs Asia was coming to India. They reached out to alums to see if they could join, and Venky was a natural choice given his background in journalism and technology. They asked him to work with the government and handle the government end of the house. Venky was excited about the opportunity and decided to join, even though there was no revenue or business model at the time.
Meanwhile, I had always wanted to start a fund because educating people about what to do and how to do it naturally leads to building a business. I was thinking of starting a small angel fund when Kiran Atkurny, the investor at the VC Fund Draper, who had previously funded us, reached out and suggested we start a Fund together. I was thrilled with the idea and told him I had been considering the exact same thing. We were joined by a third person, Ganapaty, who now runs the Tamilnadu Investment Fund.
Three of us came together to start Jump Start Up, our first fund. No one had done this before. Two funds existed at the time - TD ICICI, backed by the government, and Gujarat Venture Capital Fund, also backed by the government. Chris Capital had just started in 1999. In 2000, we became the first non-U.S. educated U.S. company to put together a fund for early stage technology investing. We raised $45 million to invest in India. However, along the way, we realized that India was not yet ready for the kinds of deals we wanted to do. After about a year, we decided to make it a U.S. and India fund, investing only in U.S. companies with an India angle, such as a development center or India as a market. You could be legally domiciled in the U.S., but that was not of consequence. This was an exciting and super learning experience.
After our fund in 2006 and 2007, we were considering doing a second fund. However, my partners had become entrepreneurs, and the timing was not yet right for an early-stage, technology-oriented fund in India. During 2006 and 2007, we were uncertain about what to do. Then, I had an epiphany. I was reading a magazine that had an Emirates Airlines ad which read, "When was the last time you did something for the first time?" This made me think about my life and how I have always done things differently, and have had fantastic experiences and great stories. So, I wondered what I wanted to do next. It took me about eight to nine months of thinking to realize that I loved ideation, creation, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Hanging out with young and smart people doing exciting things was fun. Thus, I constructed something around it.
So then I said, "Look, I also want to make a big difference. I came back to India, started a magazine essentially to make a difference in my own way. My goal was to be directly or indirectly responsible for creating 100,000 jobs in India during my lifetime. Let's say I have a working life of 45 to 50 years; can I help enable the creation of 100,000 jobs?" That was the overarching objective, but I had no game plan behind that statement of desire, that mission. So I embarked on a mission to achieve it.
After receiving the funds, I contemplated my next move and multiple ideas started flooding my mind. I decided that whatever I did, it would revolve around the areas of ideation, entrepreneurship, and creation. I explored various opportunities branching out from this core, including teaching, lecturing, writing, mentoring, angel investing, working with funds, and collaborating with the government on various initiatives. I became involved with organizations like TiE and NASSCOM, and anyone who was willing to have me be a part of their organization. That's how I became involved in multiple things, all related to ideation, entrepreneurship, and creation. I pursued these activities to achieve my goal of making a difference in India.
Several funds approached me after 2006, including many US funds, and 2013 marked the arrival of Silicon Valley VCs in India. They came to talk to people and understand the lay of the land. I had conversations with several of those funds, but I wanted to remain independent, do things because I wanted to do them, have freedom in my decision making, manage my time, and meet all kinds of people to help them grow and develop. Money was never a motivator for me; it became a byproduct of what I did. I've never done anything solely for money, and I don't strive to die rich. That was the point of going through those experiences, doing things I had not done before, and making progress in everything I did.
During the conversation, I mentioned that we had met about 10 years ago at TiE, an organization I used to be deeply involved with. This led to my involvement with Phanindra Sama, the founder, and other startups and funds. As I gained more experience, I realized that building, creating, making mistakes, having disagreements, and learning were all part of the process. This was a co-creation and cool evolution of both myself and those around me. I continue to learn about myself and others, including their motivators and mental models. This intellectualization of the process is what excites me about my work. Looking back, I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life - meeting smart people doing exciting things. That's my journey, in brief.
Mohan Gandhi: Sanjay, you are currently an advisor for funds like IdeaSpring, Endya, and CWE for women entrepreneurship, as well as a board member in multiple public companies such as QuessCorp and AllSec. You have also been part of several startups as a mentor. How do you manage to handle all these different roles and responsibilities effectively, especially given the challenges of attempting multiple things at once?
Sanjay Anandaram: So, I tried to do exactly what you said and failed miserably. But, fortunately, I am at a stage where I don't have to deep dive too much into anything. This gives me the luxury of stepping back and observing things without having to do all the grunt work or the hard work required. This is clearly advantageous.
Nevertheless, I get involved enough to understand the issues. When you are involved in many things, one of the great learnings in life is the ability to transplant knowledge. How do you abstract those learnings, models, and apply them elsewhere? This pattern matching ability comes from observing, training yourself, and making mistakes. It gives you an intuitive feel for patterns, allowing you to quickly understand something without needing to understand the bits and bytes.
To really deeply understand something, you need to go deep. For example, in running a podcast like Ofofo, you need to understand the technical aspects of it, the recording, post-production, and pushing it out. You need to ensure that it becomes something of interest to your listeners. I may not be able to do all of these things, but I know what is required to make it successful. By hanging out with smart people like yourselves, I become smarter. That is my philosophy.
Mohan Gandhi: Moving on, you also champion cultural entrepreneurship. This is not a term that many entrepreneurs like me are familiar with. We have heard of social entrepreneurship, impact entrepreneurship, and various other types of entrepreneurship. Could you tell us a little bit about cultural entrepreneurship? What is it, what kind of startups does it involve, and what kind of impact does it have?
Sanjay Anandaram: Yeah. You see, the words culture and entrepreneurship have never been associated with each other in India. They were seen as opposing forces. Our country's greatest asset is our cultural heritage, which is over 5000 years old and is manifested in everything around us, from food and beverages to health wellness and beauty treatments, such as Ayurveda, yoga, pranayama, and meditation. Our phenomenal handlooms, which are used for home decor and furnishings, make us the world's largest producer of handmade textiles. Our fashion and accessories feature fantastic embroidery work, and designers from around the world come here to get clothes made due to our phenomenal capability and skills. Additionally, our country is blessed with fantastic natural beauty, making tourism one of the five areas we chose to focus on.
We chose culture because it is our greatest asset, yet we are not monetizing it or using it for our own benefit. Every country around the world has created assets of economic value based on their culture, such as McDonald's or Levi's jeans with their American pioneering spirit, French wines, Italian design, Japanese attention to detail and precision work, and Swiss engineering. They have done a phenomenal job with their cultural assets.
This is important because through culture, we can build a brand for our country and deliver soft power. Most importantly, we can generate livelihoods and wealth for tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people who depend on artisanship, craftsmanship, and other skills to make a living. If these individuals do not make money from their skills, they will stop, and future generations will not continue these traditions. This is something that has happened to me personally.
Mohan Gandhi: My parents and grandparents used to make sarees themselves, using maggam machines. They were experts in this. But my father never did that, and I can't imagine doing it myself.
Sanjay Anandaram: Yes, absolutely. And this is true across the country. Our muslin cloth is fantastic and so fine. There are Panduri Khadi dotis from Andhra, Ilkal sarees in Karnataka, Kanjivaram sarees wherever you look in this country. There is a phenomenal heritage, talent, skills, and knowledge available. The question is, how do you put it all together?
Over the last seven decades, our entire focus as a country has been on preserving and protecting these assets. We never talked about it from the standpoint of promotion and prosperity. Therefore, how do you create an economic vehicle run by entrepreneurs who understand design, intellectual property, technology, markets, users, and materials? All these people come together to become the interface between the market, which is the demand side, and the creators, which is the supply side. You need this intelligent interface. This interface is the cultural entrepreneur.
So, how do you create this? For example, how come in all of India, there is only one big brand called FabIndia? Why don't we have 50 FabIndias? Why don't we have 50 Amuls? There are conscious consumers concerned about sustainability, eco-friendliness, etc. All our products are naturally eco-friendly. People value design, authenticity, and want to have products that belong to them.
When we started Nice, one of the interesting things was a Google Trends report that identified a trend across urban, rural, rich, poor men, women - "proud to be DESI." This means that people wanted a very authentic experience. Hence, Nice was born to enable the creation of entrepreneurs who will be the intelligent, smart interface between the demand side for cultural goods and the creators and the supply side.
We create an ecosystem because our experience comes from the IT and tech world, which is India's greatest business today that is globally recognized and respected. The models that have worked are organizations like TiE or NASSCOM and others who have created vehicles for people to come together. We offer education, mentoring, networking, access to funding, and partnerships. We wrote India's first policy brief on catalyzing cultural entrepreneurship. We held India's first roundtable on cultural entrepreneurship at Flame University and partnered with the government, for example, TSIC in Telangana, to have the first state cultural entrepreneurship day. They have chapters in Hyderabad and Bangalore.
We are less than three years old, and we find that there is so much interest, passion, and momentum that people want to be part of this effort and lend their shoulders to the wheel. Everybody has to come together because without culture, what are you left with? Nothing. You can't be a carbon copy or a pale imitation of somebody sitting in Europe or the US or China. You have to be your own, and only then are you respected. That is the whole effort, a long journey to build through economic means and show that Indian cultural assets are crafted into branded successful businesses that ultimately create jobs, wealth, and brand India.
Mohan Gandhi: Do you know, when I was studying in IIM Ahmedabad, there was this professor called Anil Gupta. He used to take us all to a variety of places, like the National Innovation Foundation and Honeybee Network. At that time, we thought it had more to do with social entrepreneurship. Now, as you talk about it, I can relate it back to how the gap was predominantly about enabling these entrepreneurs to put some effort into creating that ecosystem. It has always been about preserving the art. We see it as an art, not as a business. That's right. That's where I think there's a big difference between a capitalistic mindset and an art mindset.
Sanjay Anandaram: For example, when you go to a museum abroad, the first things you see are T-shirts, coffee mugs, and baseball caps, right? Why are they there? They are there to popularize the brand of that museum and generate revenue. The private sector is deeply involved in all of these activities. However, we don't see this in India because we don't think of it as a business. We tend to think of business as a bad word. But unless you generate profits in an ethical and legal manner, you won't have a surplus that can help sustain the lives of creators. That's the core issue.
Mohan Gandhi: As Indians, we tend to give gifts to many people when we visit their homes for the first time or when they come to ours, and over time, I have given many gifts to many people. The priceless expression on their face when I gift them something from Fab India is truly special. It's a feeling that I believe many of us can relate to.
Sanjay Anandaram: There is no doubt that yoga is a booming global industry worth almost $100 billion. However, there is not a single Indian yoga brand. We are willing to pay $7 for a turmeric latte at Starbucks, but we don't value our own Haldi Doodh. During Diwali, we are happy to distribute Ferro Rocher chocolates to everyone, but what about our traditional sweets? Unless we build our sweets industry and create branded, high-quality, well-packaged, and innovative products, why would someone choose to buy them? Therefore, our focus should be on building our sweet industry and nurturing entrepreneurs. We have already done a lot of capacity building, and now we need to focus on creating demand in the market.
Mohan Gandhi: So would companies like Patanjali, etc. would be considered as a cultural?
Sanjay Anadaram: Absolutely, yes. There are many profitable branded businesses in this industry at the city, state, regional, national, and international levels. Our view is that this is not a unicorn business, but rather, a five-tiered approach where successful businesses will rise to the international stage through the Darwinian process.
For example, Adukale Okay is a company in Bangalore that makes traditional South Indian savories like Kodbale and Chakli. They have a branded, high-quality product available both online and in stores. This profitable cultural business has raised angel funds and is expanding in the city.
Another example is Ayurithm, a company that uses modern sensor technology and Ayurvedic principles to provide health information. The key is to marry modern and contemporary technology with the knowledge and capabilities of cultural traditions.
The main point is that we need to start thinking of this as a business.
Mohan Gandhi: I think we are at a junction where people know the value of the culture but are struggling to relate to it.
Sanjay Anandaram: That's right. It's the job of the entrepreneur to serve as that intelligent interface. For example, you can't keep the same design running for 100 years. You have to change the design, colors, materials, and reimagine it. This is where the designer plays a phenomenal role, but the designer also has to think in business terms. It's a convergence of different capabilities and skills that make it happen.
Knowing Python, for instance, is not enough. It's like saying I know embroidery, so what? You can use Python to create an app, and from that app, you create a solution. The solution then becomes part of a larger offering to a customer, whether it's in healthcare, financial services, or something else. The customer is buying a solution, not Python code. This journey needs to happen: taking the artisan's phenomenal skills, which is the programming skill equivalent in Python, and transitioning from a body shop business to doing the design and programming yourself, and finally selling a product under your brand in different colors, materials, and designs. This full circle is what entrepreneurship enables.
Mohan Gandhi: How does an entrepreneur who is working on a project rooted in culture benefit from NICEORG's mentorship and ecosystem? And how can they find NICEORG to be a part of their community?
Sanjay Anandaram: What does it mean to build a business? In the early days, entrepreneurs would gravitate towards organizations like NASSCOM or TiE. The first and most important step is to become educated and aware of what it takes. Many argue that most people don't know what it takes to build a business. Therefore, it's essential to hang out with peers who have been there and done that, made more progress than you have, and learn from them. Collaborative opportunities and partnerships are also critical elements of building something. Mentorship and other exercises are also vital.
Entrepreneurs often think that accessing money is their number one problem, but the real problem is thinking about their business as a business and putting all the other blocks together. Money follows once you have a vision, a plan, a model, and understand your customers. Understanding this helps you attract capital. Access to a larger network, education awareness collections, and mentoring are all immediate benefits when you're part of a group like IICD, InTech, CIIE, NSRcell, and TiE. You also have an opportunity to raise money.
Being part of a larger group is not transactional. TiE is not like a Rotary Club where you join today and get funding tomorrow. It's about being part of something larger than yourself. You win when the ecosystem develops. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and TiE is an example of that.
Mohan Gandhi: Can you tell us about the challenges of building a community, considering that even NASSCOM took more than seven years to take off globally?
Sanjay Anandaram: NASSCOM was founded in 1987 after seven years of effort to establish the organization. TiE Today is about 31 years old, and its establishment also required significant effort and time. Although we only see the results of their hard work, in the early days, they faced many closed doors and setbacks. However, their belief in their work's importance drove them forward.
I would also like to mention iSPIRT, a volunteer organization of which I am a member. It is primarily run by volunteers, numbering around 150. Despite this, the group has achieved significant accomplishments, including what we now call digital public goods. All of these achievements are due to the hard work of iSPIRT's volunteers.
I have been involved with Aadhaar, UPI, health, drones, logistics, telecom, the telecom stack, and Digilocker, among others. There have been many people who have been part of these endeavors. The operating principle is based on the idea of "no greed, no glory." We work for a cause that is larger than ourselves, and when we succeed, we all benefit. This approach is commonly known as the "pay it forward" approach.
This is also the approach at Nice. Aadhaar started in 2009, and over the last 14 years, it has become a phenomenal success and a template for how a public-private partnership should work.
How do you tackle enormous challenges and diversity to deliver cost-effective identification solutions that work anywhere in the world? Despite resistance and naysayers, the project succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Industry leaders and thinkers like Nandan Nilekani, Pramod Verma, Sanjay Jain, and others were involved in making it happen from the ground up.
Now, many countries are seeking to deploy identity solutions because UNSDG 16.9 mandates legal identity as a prerequisite for progress on socio-economic parameters. Without knowing who is in your country, it is impossible to deliver benefits to them. Uniquely identifying individuals is crucial for targeting the right incentives, benefits, and welfare schemes and for preventing fraud. It also helps to bring the informal sector into the formal sector, which has multiple socio-economic benefits.
During conversations with many countries, we realized the need for an open source identity platform. This led to the creation of MOSIP, a modular and open source identity platform, in 2018. To learn more, visit MOSIP.IO. MOSIP is now the world's most successful digital public goods deployment, with over 84 million IDs issued. It has been deployed in ten plus countries at different stages, with over 70 ecosystem partners worldwide. The code is available on GitHub for anyone to access.
To ensure that the system does not compromise a country's sovereignty, we have made it technology agnostic, vendor agnostic, and country agnostic. This means that you can build your system using the code and select the members certified by MOSIP to develop your end solution for your people. You have complete control over the system, and it can run on your data centers or with your local partners. You can use it for financial inclusion, health, population tracking, or any other purpose that the country decides.

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Written by

Mohan Gandhi Ponnaganti
Mohan Gandhi Ponnaganti

Co-founder and CEO,