Whenever Smita Rai is asked about how she became a successful entrepreneur, she starts with an anecdote. In her words, it was one of those informal discussions with an official of the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFi) that led her to motivate a group of homemakers from her native village to find their calling. She had expressed a desire to train women in designer candle-making under the NEDFi’s corporate social responsibility activities in the hill state. “A lazy Monday afternoon discussion turned into a productive business idea… This is the story that’s part of my motivational talk for youngsters,” says Rai, a 40-year-old resident of Namchi in south Sikkim. That year was 2012 and, in six years, Namchi Designer Candles has become a profitable venture, with orders pouring in from across the country.
Unknown to many, Sikkim has been witnessing an upsurge in startups, marking a definitive shift in the mindset of the younger generation, which till now only coveted government jobs. Today, Rai is one of the few successful entrepreneurs chosen by the Sikkim government to act as a mentor under the Chief Minister’s Startup Scheme (CMSS), which is providing a conducive environment for businesses to flourish. In the past two months, Rai has visited half-a-dozen schools and colleges as part of the CMSS and given many talks on entrepreneurship. Known as the ‘candle lady’, Rai has a group of 12 women, in the age group of 20-50 years, who work with her in the candle business. “The idea is to encourage people to be self-reliant. The youth should have an interest to do something on their own if jobs don’t come by easily,”says Rai. Namchi Designer Candles isn’t her sole business venture. Rai has also been running a resto-bar in Namchi for the last seven years. She also conducts paper bag-making workshops for the women of her village. “We have always received support from the government, which acquires our designer candles for their official functions,” she adds.
The Sikkim government is going all out for the development of the state and empowerment of its youth. Under the CMSS scheme, entrepreneurs are given seed capital for their start-ups. To avail the scheme, the applicant should possess a minimum educational qualification of class V and be in the age group of 18-40 years. The entrepreneurial ventures that are gathering maximum traction are in fields as varied as agriculture, horticulture, food processing, animal husbandry, handloom, handicrafts, tourism and hospitality, among others. The CMSS, which was launched in Sikkim in August 2017, has benefitted around 3,000 young entrepreneurs in the state so far.
Interestingly, entrepreneurship isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about career opportunities in Sikkim. For long, Sikkimese youth vied for government jobs—the least populated state in India has 10% of its population in government jobs compared to the national average of 3.5%—or worked in the limited private sector. But saturation is setting in now with these jobs. “With the saturation in employment prospects, the CMSS comes as a boon for so many young people,” says Rewaj Chettri, a Gangtok-based entrepreneur-mentor.
Chettri has been a serial entrepreneur since his college days in Arunachal Pradesh. Among his several ventures are a commercial laundry service, a local music app, an e-commerce venture, a consultancy firm, a blogging site, to name just a few. “I must have dabbled in at least 25 failed ventures, but the experience I gained was unparallelled. And that is what I keep telling my peers who are worried about failure in business ventures and want the comfort of a government job,” the 24-year-old says. In 2013, Chettri started NE Taxi, an app-based tourist taxi aggregator, while in the final year of graduation at the North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology in Arunachal Pradesh. “I utilised my network in college to build the business, as we had students from across the north-east studying at the North Eastern Regional Institute of Science and Technology in Arunachal Pradesh. They all needed cabs to go to their native places and that’s how NE Taxi was born,” Chettri says. NE Taxi today has a fleet of over 1,200 vehicles, plying all over the north-east, and caters to more than 15,000 customers.
Now, Chettri and a group of entrepreneurs are reaching out to young people in rural Sikkim to make them understand the CMSS, so that more people know about the monetary assistance that the government is providing to people to start their own ventures. “We are helping them with the entire application process and also checking the feasibility of their ideas financially. The network of entrepreneurs is exploring different business ideas with interested parties,” he says. Chettri stresses that the state offers a perfect place for business, as “there is acceptance of new products and services by locals and the government is giving personalised attention to entrepreneurship.” Mentors like Chettri also conduct financial literacy workshops, where people are told about good credit score, the need for maintaining clean balance sheets, financial assistance schemes, etc. “Sikkim has seen plenty of budding entrepreneurs in the recent past, with a rising number of successful startup ventures in the state. An Entrepreneur’s Consultation Hub was also set up earlier this year in line with the CMSS, which works with mentors in creating a conducive environment for new ventures to flourish,” says a senior official (who didn’t want to be named) with the department of commerce and industries, a nodal department of the CMSS in Sikkim.