India’s informal economy: Creating millions of leaders

Call it forced entrepreneurship or the realities of thriving in our country for a vast majority of the population — millions of leaders emerge just trying to better their lot.

Earlier this week, a cab driver I traveled with was easily the most dynamic person I had met recently. In an hour’s ride, he made nearly 10 calls to different people — connecting, planning, admonishing, assuring. He struck business deals, counselled youngsters and connected with friends. I was fascinated and thought of many similar people I had met in villages, smaller towns and urban slums.

Informal economy accounts for nearly 80 percent of the workforce in India producing almost half the output in the country. However, from the outset the odds are stacked against people working in the informal economy. They face constraints of education, training, financial resources or any public support structure.

Only people with tremendous courage, grit and skills (especially people skills) can overcome the challenges to climb the social and economic ladder. A few aspects of their worldview have stayed with me:

Collaboration over competition: Their network of people is all they have. The exchange of time and skills in their network fuels the much talked about ‘Jugad’ in India. The fluid, agile structure of work may well be the future of our workplaces.

Relationship over processes: We often receive the highest level of respect, attention and responsibility from the neighbourhood migrant shop owner or our trusted carpenter or our help. The contractor painting my house went far beyond the ‘contract’ to shift my furniture from the old house and his workers rallied around him.

Lifelong learning: Keeping up with the rapid changes in technology, social trends and customer expectations enforces a steep learning curve on the large pool of untrained informal sector entrepreneurs. These leaders learn fast (without any formal training or help) and inspire their people to learn and adapt.

So, next time we look at that contractor, or the migrant shopkeeper or are lucky enough to meet a woman who starts a Self-Help Group in a village — remember we have met a leader, one in a million!

Note: A modified version of this article by Monika Gera was published in the souvenir for “IIMBue 2016, IIMB Leadership Summit”.

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