Nachiket Kulkarni | March 8, 2014

Spirit of Ancestral Entrepreneurship: Of Chai, Karate and Girl-Power

Disclaimer: This article has nothing to do with Social Entrepreneurship as we know it, but everything to do with the spirit of entrepreneurship and empowerment that many of do not know.

Date/ Time: Jan 20th, 2014. Monday: 2PM

Venue: IITM Research Park, Chennai.

Outside Temperature: Hot, Really Hot.

Occasion: Leadership Development Week for Fellows.

Need of the hour: Inspiration, Inspiration and Inspiration, with some Chai!

Participants: Villgro Fellows and other interested Villgro co-workers

Guest Speakers:

Session1: Zach Marks and Resham Gellatly (From 'Chai Wallahs of India')

Session2: Karate Rajendran and Sumitra Rajendran (Favorite ChaiWallahs of Villgro Fellows/ Employee outside of the Chennai IITM Research Park office)

The Script:

It was after 4 months that all of us fellows gathered back here at Villgro's office. Quite noticeably, the mood was very different from when we all first met in September 2013. Months had passed, interesting journeys had begun, many challenges faced, and a lot of wisdom gained. In the midst of the fellowship journey, collective motivation I thought could be everybody's cup of tea, literally. I sensed this was the opportunity to bring relevant players on stage.

Street food is my passion, and I am sure a lot of us do not even realize this as we grub to satiate ourselves. Many of us do not even associate the word 'entrepreneurship' when it comes to street vendors. They indeed are contributing to the GDP: Every drop counts and street vendors constitute 1% of every urban area's population in India.   (Link for more numbers- http://nasvinet.org/newsite/statistics-the-street-vendors-2/).   The government has finally realized the existence of the street economy, and we now have  a bill for the protection of their livelihoods.

Session 1:

More specifically, India is a country where you see scores of tea vendors by the roads. It is a common meeting point for travelers, people working at nearby businesses or even people living near by when they want to socialize. The neighborhood tea stall may not be a Social Enterprise as per business jargon, but it definitely is an enterprise where people gather to be social and re-energize themselves. It is this uniqueness that Zack and Resham (our guests) noticed during their respective Fulbright Fellowships, and decided to dedicate a year traveling the entire country meeting famous chaiwallahs (Hindi word for tea vendors).

I took this opportunity to invite them over and share some of their stories with us. We heard stories of legacy chaiwallahs from Bollywood to those of coffee hut owners in rustic backwaters of Kerala. They shared their photo blog with us during their presentation, and we were thankful to Zack and Resham for their time. They eventually want to write a book on their explorations. You can read more about this initiative here (http://chaiwallahsofindia.com/).

In fact, if you have a story about a favorite Chaiwallah of yours, you can contribute to their blog on:


This brings us to Session 2, our own favorite chaiwallah near Villgro's Chennai office.

Session 2:

There is only one hospitable tea stall near this huge IITM Research Park building of ours. Its quite a walk from the 3rd floor, but one fine day a bunch of us decided to 'socialize' at this 'tea kadai' (kadai means shop in tamil). As a habit, I started talking to the couple that owned the shop, and was startled to get responses in good spoken english. Similarly, my fellow-fellow Wilfred was surprised to have a fluent conversation with the owner in Arabic!

We knew Rajendran and Sumitra, the couple who run the 'kadai' had a story. Hence, we invited them over for this session. What followed was a true story of a hardworking serial entrepreneur couple, with some bollywood-style climax filled with romance and karate. Rajendran narrated that he is a trained karate black belt, a passion that led him to not enroll in any higher education after 12th grade. His father, being a Chaiwallah himself, supported Rajendran in this cause. Rajendran went on to win accolades as a certified karate trainer in Chennai. He then moved to Saudi Arabia and taught karate at a school in Riyadh (where he picked up Arabic). He decided to move back to Chennai in late 90s and continued as a karate tutor in the city.

He wanted a woman in his life who would respect his passion in karate. Enter 'Sumitra', whom he met outside a temple in Good Ole Madras. The way the couple narrated sagas of their courtship, it was truly like a movie! They now have 3 daughters, all of whom have won karate competitions at international stages. They learnt karate in Rajendran's classes and results are showing up after years of hard work. Keep in mind that such a story of girls excelling in martial arts is a rarity in India, a country still struggling to cope with issues of gender inequality. We definitely need more Rajendrans and Sumitras to change some ingrained beliefs in a few parts of the Indian society.

[caption id="attachment_961" align="aligncenter" width="300"]All the medals that Sumitra and Karate Rajendran's daughters won so far In the Glory of proud parents of two powerful little daughters ~ presenting all the medals the girls won in karate competitions so far[/caption]


We concluded the session by walking over to their shop.In spite of being a Karate entrepreneur / tutor, the tea shop will never shut down, said Rajendran. It is a family legacy that he does not want to stop. The girls do their homeworks there as Sumitra and Rajendran serve hot chai. As long us fellows are around, we will frequent their shop. The couple pets a dog family too, you guessed it, with 3 female puppies.

[caption id="attachment_963" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Zack of Chaiwallahs of India chatting and I, chatting with Rajendran about his chai business Zach and I, chatting with Rajendran about his chai business and his dreams for the future of his daughters[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_964" align="aligncenter" width="300"]"Dont mess with me, I got the power" ~ Karate Rajendrans daughter teaching Wilfred some of her moves "Dont mess with me, I got the power" ~ Karate Rajendrans daughter teaching Wilfred (Villgro Fellow) some of her moves[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_965" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Of Fellows, Chaiwallah hunters and the inspirational Sumitra and Rajendran with their power packed daughter Of Fellows, Chaiwallah hunters ,the inspirational Sumitra and Rajendran, their daughter and the legacy of their ancestral chai stall[/caption]

As I finish this write-up, I realize that today is International Women's Day. Rajendran and Sumitra are looking for sponsors to take their girls to international competitions, may be the next Olympics or Commonwealth games or Asian Games. I also found out recently that Rajendran met with a minor accident and had to shut his shop, and classes for last 2 weeks. I met him today- The only thing in his mind is "Lost Revenues" in the last 2 weeks. Sumitra will run the show, both at home and the shop while Rajendran takes care of his health. She is a tireless entrepreneur herself.

For driving the cause of woman empowerment, and the spirit of serial entrepreneurship in them, I wish them all the happiness and good luck in scaling their businesses! I also hope to see 3 karate medal winners at Asian Games from India soon; 3 people I know! I will continue visiting them not only for their chai, but also for seeking inspiration by listening to their stories of running 2 small enterprises.


 Nachiket has previously worked at Intel Corporation in California as a Business Operations Analyst. He was also involved with volunteering initiatives at Association for India’s Development (AID) and International Rescue Committee (IRC), which made him decide to transition into the world of Economic Development and Public Policy. Nachiket will be working as a social impact fellow with Villgro’s Knowledge Management programme.