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Route to self-reliance

Lakshmi V. Venkatesan's efforts have helped many youngsters blossom as entrepreneurs


IT ALL began when she happened to be seated beside Prince Charles for lunch during one of her visits to the U.K. As they got talking, Lakshmi V. Venkatesan learnt about the Prince's Youth Business Trust (YBI) that helps deserving youngsters set up business. The inspiration was so immense that this Systems Engineer with AT&T Bell Labs, in the U. S., chose to return to her roots to help job-seeking youth become small-scale businessmen.

Thus was born the Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST), a non-profit organisation supported by the Confederation of Indian Industry. (Ph: 2466 0829/1311) Email: byst.chennai@ciionline.org

BYST is an NGO with a difference. "That's why I am able to get the sustained support of so many major business players," says Lakshmi. The late JRD Tata was the founding chairman of the trust.

"Our target group is the disadvantaged youth in the age group 18-35. We address the issues of unemployment and underemployment by providing the money (as loan, of course) and the mentor to enterprising youth. And because we put every young entrepreneur who comes under our wing in the hands of an experienced mentor, the results are fruitful." Mentoring or our "guru"ing, Lakshmi believes, is vital for the progress of our youth. "So that's what we offer aspiring businessmen." Lakshmi makes it all sound so easy. "Not at all," she says. "Every step is a challenge. But we are an intrepid lot."

Yet when you have big names in business such as Rahul Bajaj and Jamshed N. Godrej backing the endeavour, the efforts cannot but be successful — BYST boasts of a 95 per cent success rate. "Gaining access to them may have been easy for me because of my father. But after that only if my project is flawless will these people continue to be with me," she makes her point. Lakshmi is the daughter of the former President of India, R. Venkatraman.

N. Krishnan, a Chennai-based businessman and a mentor serving BYST, says, "The know-how is as important as finance. The young man should know how to go about his business, even if he is given the funds. Guiding him with the infrastructure and the like and watching him turn into a confident businessman is a fulfilling experience." It is not as though every young man has it in him to make it in business. "There are graduates and post graduates who come to us. But not all have the spark to shine on their own. On the other hand, there are boys who come to us without much education or financial background. But the drive in them is so evident that we take such youngsters into our fold," explains Lakshmi.

The trust has so far created nearly 1,000 entrepreneurs all over the country, who in turn have given jobs to more than 4,000. "And when we know many of our small-scale businessmen are millionaires today, the joy we experience is inexplicable," says a beaming Lakshmi.

"We don't go to IITs or professional colleges. They don't need our help. The ITIs and Government schools are the places we are looking at ... " The trust also passes on its message through posters, informs Sarah Chanda, a social activist herself, who helps BYST in various ways. "Being a hardcore technical person I do my bit, but the humaneness and the sensitivity that need to be shown to diffident, economically backward youngsters, come from volunteers like Sarah," says Lakshmi.

The trust also goes to the rural areas all over the country and motivates people to work for better standards of living. The trust doesn't believe in special quota for women. Nevertheless their women entrepreneurs have made impressive strides in various fields and many have been proud recipients of the JRD Tata Young Entrepreneur Award, given away by BYST every year. This year the trust plans to hold a conference on International Women's Day in Chennai. BYST now includes the whole of Asia in its sphere of activity. Lakshmi was in China and Sri Lanka recently in connection with her Asian Centre of Excellence — a model that will train and support youth in all countries of the continent.

Does this wilful workaholic ever unwind? "Rarely. I never even think about it. But I'm thrilled that my nine-year old daughter is very much into opera. But I ... well, I read a lot and listen to music," she laughs.

MALATHI RANGARAJAN

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