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Early Days

Sunil Handa's family came to Ahmedabad after partition. And they started life here from scratch. His father is a refugee from Pakistan and when he reached Ahmedabad, he lost his parents. His father started his life as a mill mazdoor in a textile mill. In the morning he would go and study while in the afternoon he worked as a lab assistant in a polytechnic called RC. This is how he completed his matriculation, then BSc and LLB. And although he was always a salaried employee he took up a variety of jobs. These jobs took the family all over India. By the time Sunil completed class 12, he had been at seven schools in all.

They always lived not in the main city but away from the main city. In Calcutta, they lived in a place called Budge Budge, which is outside Calcutta. In Delhi, they lived in Gurgaon. In Ahmedabad, they were in a small town called Kalol. So they were always in a small place and they didn't have many friends.

There was an elder brother and a younger sister, and they were good in studies. But Sunil declares he was 'sleeping in life' until he joined Hyderabad Public School in class XI. Sunil was an average student of 45-50%...

But once Sunil started he devoured every book he could lay his hands on. He was mad - fourteen years of his life had been wasted and they had to be made up!

There was also a lot of ragging in the school hostel. Sunil was very thin, weighing only around 40 kgs at the time. What's more, his English was very poor. If he opens his mouth in the class and asked a question everyone would laugh at him. He had one heavy rural accent.

Mr. Tiwari, Hindi teacher and hostel warden, changed his life. When Sunil went to him crying that he could not speak English Tiwariji had one simple piece of advice: "Learn it!"

Initially taken aback Sunil took this as a challenge and joined the English Drama club and Public Speaking club where all would laugh at him. But within a year, he was among one of the better speakers in the school.

The second thing which left a lasting impact on Sunil was Tiwari sir relating the story of Japan. After being totally devastated by the Americans, Japan decided to take revenge by becoming better than America in whatever they were good at. In research, industry, manufacturing. And how does all of the above tie in with entrepreneurship? Well, the sum of these experiences toughened up Sunil Handa, made him a fighter.

This has come from Tiwariji. So a good teacher at the right time in your life can make a frog into a prince!

And the frog who got 45% in class X graduated from HPS as one of the top ICSE students in India. In some subjects like Physics he was an all-India topper and thus easily got admission in BITS Pilani.

The next five years were wonderful. In the fourth year, Sunil became acquainted with solar energy. In the summer vacation, he stayed back at BITS with a friend. Sunil and Bharat researched a lot of literature and identified one idea called Honeycomb Collectors which the Russians had invented in 1929 but didn't give results. They decided to pick up the idea and work on it.

After two months, it turned out to be a brilliant success. The duo got temperatures on a flat plate collector, which nobody in the world had ever achieved. One afternoon the whole apparatus actually caught fire! In the next semester, in addition to studies, they worked on the idea and wrote a paper on the findings.

The paper was published in an international conference in Italy - at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, a very reputed institute. Sunil and Bharat were called to Italy to present it. But they would have to bear the travel cost, which was Rs 8,000. But they didn't have eight thousand rupees. He wrote a letter to Kasturbhai Lalbhai. He sent a cheque of Rs 250. Then he wrote to Jyoti R&D and Hindustan Brown Boveri, which is now ABB. They said "you come and give a talk on your work in solar energy to our scientists, and we will pay you some honorarium". That was another Rs 900.

In this manner they collected Rs 3,000. By this time, Sunil was studying at IIMA and it was clear that there wasn't enough money for both of them to make the trip. So Bharat cobbled together another Rs 5,000 and attended the conference.

But the whole effort was all about entrepreneurship. The desire to do something new and path breaking. The struggle against the odds to make it to the conference. And even today Sunil is extremely proud of what they achieved.

Then Sunil's father took him to Jyoti R&D, a leading company in Baroda at that time. Their personnel manager, Vijay Vannikar, was an MBA from IIMA. He took Sunil to a garden in Baroda called Kamatibaugh near Baroda University.

Sunil took the CAT exam. 2,200 people wrote the CAT exam in 1977 and Sunil was 13th on the wait list for IIMA. He was also on the wait list at IIM Bangalore, IIM Calcutta, XLRI, Bajaj and Punjab University. Eventually he got into IIMA, but with some inferiority complex.

At the end of three days, Sunil thought he was in the wrong place. Then the old habit came back. Sunil came seventh. But as always he also participated in many extra-curricular activities.

When Sunil finished IIM, he could have got day zero kind of jobs, but he did not want them. He did not want a tiny role inside a large company but a job where he would get to look after everything. And that is how Sunil joined FAIR - 'Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery'. At the time FAIR was a hot organization to join – four seniors and 10 batch mates from IIMA had joined as well. The salary was low - in fact the lowest in the batch at Rs.1, 250 per month (gross). But the idea was exciting. The concept of FAIR was to take a sick industrial unit from a bank, put a young MBA in charge as the chief executive and turn around the company in two years, retaining all the existing employees.

Sunil spent six months going all over India looking at various sick units. Finally, he zeroed in on a company in Bhavnagar and told his boss, "This is the company I want to run... I will revive it; I have a feeling that I will be able to do it."

But there is an even more wonderful thing the young graduates did which, says Sunil, and has become his 'style in life'. Now the ladies were organized, there was an association.

But getting back to FAIR, Sunil worked with Merchants Steel Industry Pvt. Ltd in Bhavnagar. The company had four plants and it made stainless steel utensils, tin containers, drums and rolling mills. After the first one or two months, Sunil shut down the stainless steel utensils because it was loss making. Then, he shut down the rolling mill and concentrated on the remaining two units.

After 19 months, Sunil realized that this chapter of his life was over. The question was who would run the show? Even the former owners agreed that the best course of action was to sell the unit. An ad was put in Mumbai Samachar and one Kediaji, who owned other steel plants as well, bought the unit. He made an offer to Sunil to join him, but he declined. On 31st December 1981 Sunil left Bhavnagar for good.

Sunil joined his brother. Both became equal partners in a small company called Core Consultancy Services. A couple of months afterwards, it became 'Core Consultants Pvt. Ltd'. Along with management consulting, the company started consulting in the area of computers.

Clients were extremely satisfied. Business was good. The turnover of the company was over Rs 1 crore a year (which was big money at the time). And consulting is an industry with a fat profit margin, so profit was at least Rs 60 lakhs. And yet in 1986, they closed it all down and got into the pharmaceutical industry.

Many options were discussed but in 6-8 months they had zeroed in on pharma. The fact that they didn't know anything about pharmaceuticals was not a deterrent. Sunil has always loved the challenge of mastering something new. He will read up, meet people, visit factories or wherever required and figure it out.

Today, Saurashtra produces maximum groundnut oil of India and it is still sold in 15 kilo tins that we used to manufacture. "If you go to any dabbawala factory in Saurashtra - there are literally hundreds - some of the practices I started are still being implemented by everyone," he says.

Sunil recalls "you go anywhere in India, 95% per cent of what they are doing in the factories is things which we had started. If you ask them what the batch size is, they will say 5,000. If you ask them how many times do you sterilize - they sterilize in two lots of 25 a day. If you say, in one box, how many do you pack, they say 24."

Due to some reasons Sunil and his brother separated, and then Sunil decided not to take up business anymore.

When the brothers separated one of the deals was Sunil would put up a packaging factory and supply to Core Parenterals. It never materialized. Sunil did put up Core Emballage in 1996 but says he lost a substantial amount of money when Sushil's company didn't pay up.

The factory was set up on a very large scale because the Core Parenteral requirement was very big. Suddenly there was no big customer. A mineral water manufacturer could have been a client but this was a location sensitive industry, so it did not work out. "This factory is over designed; it is not doing as well as it ought to have done."

Sunil went into depression after separation from his brother.

Birth of the Spark

But he came out of it. Thanks to his wife and parents. Then he decided He doesn't want to do this business and corporate thing. That's when the idea of Eklavya School was born.

Actually, before that Sunil considered starting an old age home, but somehow he didn't like the idea of people not looking after their parents. He didn't want to encourage that trend. So he plunged into education and in characteristic style started by hiring the right people - three young IIMA graduates. They spent about 15 months going all over India and all over the world, to understand what made a great school.

Eklavya school began functioning in 1998 and today, it is the most admired (and most sought after) school in Ahmedabad. The first batch of class 12 students graduated in March 2006. "Eklavya is not a profit making company but it is very entrepreneurial." Running a school has as many challenges as running a regular business.

Some of the innovations at Eklavya include 'small classrooms' and financial assistance for low income students to make the school a more inclusive and diverse place. The school has been divided into four different portions - pre-primary, junior, middle and senior school. What is unique is that each portion has its own personality, its own library, resources and even its own principal.

It is a very high quality school. A child in Eklavya gets fantastic exposure. In 20-30-40 years, when these children are older, the impact will be felt.

No doubt about that, but this is a paradigm shift from running a business where profit and loss, success and failure is measured for more on the challenges faced while setting up Eklavya.

Eklavya is 'stable' and in a sense self-sustaining but it still thrives on the energy Sunil Handa invests in it. He goes to the school everyday and spends a lot of time with teachers and students.

What is a big deal is the impact Sunil has made not only with his school but as a teacher of entrepreneurship at IIM Ahmedabad. He has been taking the LEM (Laboratory in Entrepreneurial Motivation) course on campus since 1992. The course - as you can expect - is different from what is 'taught' anywhere. There are no textbooks, no exams. It's more about sharing of experience, of inspiration and motivation.

Of the 400-500 students who've taken LEM over the years, Sunil estimates 150 have become entrepreneurs. And what is the one 'most valuable' piece of advice he has for these young people?

Advice to young Entrepreneurs

"Be honest with yourself."

"Luck is very important - it is 50%. But that luck will not come unless you put in the effort and in the effort, a very important element according to me is a daily review of what am I doing, where am I going and being ruthlessly honest with yourself. Most people blame the environment... My belief is I CAN CHANGE, and that we must learn to be nakedly honest with ourselves."

Everyone needs some money to be comfortable. Beyond that, it's your choice. You can pursue money or you can set different, higher order goals. And at any point in life you can 'make up' for lost time. The advice Sunil gives to his LEM students today is very different from what he used to give, to a previous generation.

"I started with the assumption that if I want to be rich and successful, I have to sacrifice family life. You can't get both. Today, I would like to say, that I would like to try to have both."

"Trying is what it's all about. Even as you try to grow, and achieve and reach for more, sometimes you need to step back and try, to just be."

"You can think of more jobs on similar lines. Smaller company, wider job description, and more freedom and power to do whatever you want. But then, there is also a risk factor involved in it because ultimately the onus lies on you."

"One of my strengths even in Core was I am able to develop people very nicely. If you are able to do that it gives your company an advantage of not having to recruit expensive people. Recruit raw people, invest in them. Not all will turn out to be gold or diamonds, but over time, you will have a handful. And they will be your biggest assets."

Hope viewers caught up the spark