Aspirations must be greater than the resources available. A maxim that resonates in the convictions of Aben Andrew, Athem Hengnai, Ringo Odyou and Zuboni Humstoe, four young entrepreneurs who strive everyday to swim against the tide that is the economic climate of Nagaland.
With a budget deficit of over Rs. 1252.45 crore, Nagaland’s economy is struggling with unemployment. There is a huge vacuum in the manufacturing industry and the status of an insurgent state only acts as a deterrent for investors - both internally and externally. There is also an inverse relationship between the growing number of graduating students and the declining number of government jobs.
But with their numbers growing, the entrepreneurs aren’t just changing the makeup of Nagaland. They are altering Nagaland’s economic identity and the mindsets of their people.
Nagas are very passionate about fashion. In the recent years, talented Naga designers like Atsu Sekhose, Shenali Sema and Imcha Imchen have headlined India’s foremost fashion extravaganzas like Lakme and Wills Fashion Week. But the fashion industry is not just exclusively creative; it entails a serious business side of manufacturing and distribution.
Ringo, who after working for three years in Sahara Pariwar in Aamby Valley Mumbai, decided to head back home to sow the seeds of his hard work in his homeland and came up with the concept of ‘The Connect Studio’ - a pioneering endeavour that encompasses designing, manufacturing, retailing and wholesale. By investing in a manufacturing unit, it enables him to make a quick mass market response to the changing trends of fashion and brings a unique service to domestic market with plans to export its brand in the coming years.
For Aben, her passion for making jewelry for friends and family and what was considered a “hobby” by others, has now grown into a 4-year old jewelry brand that bears her name. Inspired by the rich Naga heritage, she sources her supply chain of beads, stones, thread, acrylic glass and metal from across the country to create her products. Her handcrafted pieces are available though social media, online stores, trunk shows and also at The Connect Studio.
In 2011, Athem opened a store called ‘Runway’, which she used as a platform for distribution of her clothing and accessories, as well as products from other entrepreneurs to optimise her avenues. She wholesales her products to other districts of Nagaland like Kohima, Jalukie and Mokokchung. She recalls,
“the first venture I did was in class 8 during summer break. I encouraged a friend of mine and we made and sold homemade ice-cream. It was quite successful. From that point on I got interested in the field of business.”
And Zuboni, after completing her graduation from Delhi University, came back home and started her own personality-driven business – an online store called ‘Precious Melove’. She now caters to clients across the country and also to Australia, Bhutan, Nepal, and UK.
None of entrepreneurs in question have any MBA credentials. But they are loaded with the spirit of enterprise, and hungry for experience – the greatest of teachers.
“Initially finance was an issue, management was an issue, everything was. But then experience is the best teacher, so I learnt a lot from all my experiences,” says Zuboni, a fashion aficionado who selects and sources her own products.
Ringo, who started his business with a loan, states,
“when we started it was very difficult because there was no one to guide us. It took us some time to understand that banks need to be to convinced, they need to have confidence in the entrepreneur and his/her enterprise in order to issue a loan. But over the years, after many a trial and error, we have come to a stage where we can guide younger entrepreneurs on how to approach a bank, and how to build relationships with bankers.”
But one of the biggest challenges each and everyone faced was the narrow perspective of the society, and the insistence of the people around them that a government job is the epitome of status and respect. The political turmoil of the past 60 years has arrested development, thought process and ultimately the risk-taking abilities of the Nagas. The limited size of the market and the existing insurgency, which disrupts the political and economic climate, have all played the role of a deterrent to the entrepreneur, which makes the commitment of the entrepreneurs all the more laudable.
Zuboni used her own pocket money to buy Rs. 3500 worth of clothes to start her own venture, despite people instilling fear in her and pressuring her to take the civil exams. And Aben actually gave up a perfectly cushioned public sector job with the State Planning Department, a decision many could not fathom. She says,
“within our society, creative ventures are not overtly acceptable, but I think over the last few years we have seen people who have opted for creative careers and have been able to support themselves. Though it has been a difficult journey, I think seeing success stories enable others to be bolder. If you look into any society, you can’t only look at one aspect. If you only look at doctors and engineers, those are important aspects of the society but they alone do not make up society. There has to be a blend of creative and technical. It needs to be hand-in-hand and it shouldn’t be one or the other.”
This group of people has definitely challenged the conventional wisdom of a secure government job. They, like many others, chose instead to identify and take ownership of the opportunities and threats that exist within Nagaland.
Opportunities abound in today’s day and age, but one of the biggest untapped resources is the human capital. And entrepreneurs can drive Nagaland’s economy by absorbing the unemployed; by encouraging the local business community, it creates more jobs. By creating more jobs, it generates more revenue. With more income, it boosts the economy. It’s a virtuous cycle, where everyone mutually benefits.
Ringo cites an example,
“Some time back I read an article about the Chinese American community and how they circulate money amongst them at least 9 times and only about 10-20% of it goes out of their community. The grocer, the laundry man, the barber, the doctor, they are all Chinese and they have the heart and the sense to buy and promote each other. That really got me thinking.”
One of the things Aben believes in is to employ women that are economically disadvantaged. In the past she has worked with NGOs on income generation projects and continues to promote social equity for women through her business.
Both Athem and Zuboni also agree that it is important to give back to the society and to help each other. And in the future they hope to do that by being able to employ more Nagas in their businesses.
This is not just a generation of risk takers. They know the extent of their risk involved and what they stand to gain. Theirs is not a secure periscopic view, but a panoramic assessment of untapped, underutilised talent and resources within their environment. This is a generation that saves, and invests in a future that they hope and work for. A future that is Nagaland.