What “Shark Tank” says about Indian capitalism

SPEAK AT bankers and industrialists at the top of India’s economic pyramid and you hear a common refrain. All Indians, they claim, are socialists at heart, including themselves. The popularity of the Indian version of “Shark Tank”, a TV celebration of capitalism (similar to ‘Dragons’ Den’ in Britain) in which ordinary people seek funding for their business ideas from a group of successful entrepreneurs, suggests that this conventional view may be outdated. The show’s 36-episode series, wrote the Hindustan time, shifted the subject of dinner conversations throughout the vast country of cricket to business plans. Terms such as “gross profit” and “TAM(total addressable market) have entered common parlance among its 1.4 billion people.

Shows with star judges rewarding talent (and lack thereof) have long had their place on Indian television. But they historically involved song and dance, not spreadsheets. Sony Entertainment received 85,000 submissions for “Shark Tank.” These were whittled down to 198 pitches presented to panels of five judges, themselves chosen to reflect India’s new business elite (rather than being descendants of industrial conglomerates, they had founded companies peddling everything from cosmetics and medications to a matching app and electronic payments).

The enterprising hopefuls’ televised presentations were more laden with excitement than finishing. Rather than being a liability, it resonated with viewers who, as numerous blogs and social media posts attest, saw themselves in the contestants. Because “Shark Tank” was, in its effervescent diversity, reminiscent of Indian society. Of the 67 startups that got money from the judges, three-fifths were led by rookie entrepreneurs. More than two-fifths had female co-founders and a third were co-founded by someone from a small town rather than a business hub like Bangalore, Delhi or Mumbai. Only nine of the winning companies had a founder who graduated from the prestigious engineering and business schools that are the traditional route to India’s economic aristocracy.

Some of the winning slots seemed mundane (banana chips). Others were resourceful (an engineer whose family had been devastated by the sudden death of their cow developed an electronic ear clip to monitor the health of cattle). Some were both (a bicycle-mounted pesticide sprayer). Even some losing proposals were recognized. The reversible robes (good for a day at the office and a night on the town) were rejected by one of the judges as suitable for a mop; his wife subsequently appeared wearing a sur TV.

“Shark Tank” may have struck a chord because it came at a time when Indians as a whole were becoming more enterprising. Indian entrepreneurs registered more than 310,000 new businesses in the past two years, up from around 250,000 in the previous two years (see chart). The ranks of retail stockpickers doubled between March 2019 and November 2021, to 77 million. Some of this has happened out of necessity: the pandemic has upended lives and driven millions to seek new opportunities. But some were probably by choice. The number of candidates taking India’s demanding civil service exam appears to have peaked in 2016. Some eggheads who would once have become bureaucrats may have chosen to become capitalists instead.

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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Shark attack”

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