Shubha Sharma in The Hindu
Adman Prahlad Kakkar’s school of entrepreneurship throws participants into the deep right from the word go
Here are some things they will never teach you at Harvard Business School. To begin with, be prepared to throw your Peter Drucker manuals out. Learn from the horses, the sharks, the Himalayas, the tribals of Bastar, at the feet of a spiritual master and the biggest guru of them all: Mr Murphy. He of the Murphy’s Law canon.
Learn that money is not everything. The value you create is just as important to a business. As an entrepreneur, understand your connectedness with all of life.
This unusual curriculum at a Mumbai-based institute of branding and entrepreneurship has been scripted by advertising filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar, a man reputed to break every rule in the book. The Prahlad Kakkar School of Branding and Entrepreneurship offers a one-year course on ad filmmaking and branding as well as a two-year fellowship in business and entrepreneurship. It is run in association with Whistling Woods International, a media and communications institute started by filmmaker Subhash Ghai, and is located in an area that churns out more illusions in a year than you can ever imagine: Film City, Goregaon.
This school is for real, though, and has the hard knocks built in. At the core of its curriculum is fear, and learning to ride it. Fear, says Kakkar, prevents the young and old from taking decisions and responsibility. And failure goes in tandem with fear. Kakkar takes pride in the fact that his curriculum does not have a single success story. All success stories, according to him, are doctored in hindsight. “And therefore they are lies. Failure is something nobody wants to be associated with. It is the truth. So we select, for our teaching, almost success stories.”
He believes in throwing the participants into the deep, from the word go. The course begins with a bootcamp. “You go down to survival level. You’re going to come back with new perceptions, alliances, friends and new teams, all of which will last a lifetime,” says Kakkar.
The next fear it aims to tackle is that of flying. The course requires participants to jump out of a plane in South Africa, and go on a safari down the Zambezi. They will camp in the dark and survive on meagre rations. The next day, students have to find their way back with the help of a map.
Learning to fall from a horse is also part of the class. The students face an animal that is 10 times stronger than they are. And when they fall, they learn that they never ‘remain fallen’. “If we teach you how to fall, then you lose the fear of falling.”
In the larger scheme of things, either you conquer a challenge through sheer strength or join in – in this case, you merge your being with that of the horse. “But don’t join it and lose your personality. So when you do mergers with other companies, it’s not to destroy them and sell. The whole idea is, is it going to take you 10 years to develop the company of that size, that momentum and those clients, or would you rather buy it over and make it a part of your company?”
And then, there’s the mother of all fears: navigating the ocean. “It’s the fear of the unknown. The only two unknowns left on the planet today are space and the ocean,” says Kakkar. The course requires you to go through a deep-sea diving course in the Andaman Islands, qualify as an internationally-certified diver, and just when you think you’ve conquered it all, you go into a cage and face the great white sharks under water.
The legendary shark is far more fearsome in our imagination, says Kakkar. “We put you in a safe, controlled environment to overcome your illogical fear of these magnificent creatures. Behind the safety of the cage your mind opens up to the possibilities of their strength, aggression, instinct and beauty and the ability to survive under any circumstances.”
The next big phobia after the sea is snakes. So the curriculum requires you to spend four to five days in a snake farm, handling the species. “There are rules of engagement with them too. Most of the time they’re aggressive because they think you’re aggressive. We call this the reptile sensitisation programme,” says Kakkar.
The stillness quotient comes from the Isha Foundation’s Inner Engineering course. “When you need leadership and you don’t have the stillness that yoga teaches you, you can never ever command respect,” says Kakkar.
And to cap it all, is a tryst with the mountains. Jamling Norgay, who climbed the Everest, will take participants on hiking. “The mountains and the sea are two most humbling experiences. They knock the hell out of your ego. Norgay teaches you rock climbing, leadership and team building,” says Kakkar. The students will also learn how a restaurant runs, because as Kakkar says, Murphy’s Law, which says if something can go wrong it will, is hugely prevalent in a restaurant.
Kakkar himself has dived into various oceans. Besides Genesis Film Production, one of India’s oldest ad film production houses, he runs a scuba diving school and has also been running restaurants. He broke even with his scuba diving school only after 10 years, so “failure” and “falling” aren't new to him either. The curriculum, then, is born out of his experience — notably his 25 years at Genesis.
One of the key things he realised at Genesis was that youngsters need to be trained to own their jobs, and not just do them. No one, MBAs included, are encouraged to own their jobs. They are simply cogs in a larger machine and everybody works them by remote, he says. At Genesis, Kakkar got mostly “misfits” —16-year-olds whose parents used to ‘dump’ them on him — and he had to mould them. “I knew I had to empower them very early to make decisions. I didn’t believe in people who procrastinated.”
Management, he says, is “like a dinosaur” whose time is up. A company like Google is flat, and everyone will need to become like them to survive. Decisions need to be taken at the low end. “Middle management people are afraid because they’ll lose their jobs. Youngsters couldn’t care, because it’s their first job anyway.”
Train young people
The institute will train young people to fight for responsibility, to want to own their jobs, to be territorial about what they do, and take decisions fearlessly. Importantly, it will break one big management practice: there will be no summer training. Instead, participants get to form a management company and take over a sick company from banks. They have one year to turn it around. “If they manage to keep it afloat, let alone turn it around, they will be the most wanted people in any organisation.”
The larger idea is to add value. “They have to be independent and confident, highly motivated and flexible on the ground, understand the difference between value and money. To give back as much as they take. If they add value to whatever they do the money will come.”
With this paradigm shift, it’s only logical that the institute keeps the curriculum flexible. For the first year, students will learn the rules of engagement as they exist – this comprises the theory component of the course, built upon by the practical part. The next year, they will be tested on how they want to change the rules for the future, and this will form the basis of the curriculum for the next batch. He compares the process to a commando’s final test — blindfolded, he takes a sophisticated weapon, dismantles it to its last spring, puts it back together within the timeframe and fires it.
The faculty is drawn from the commando-in-action pool. Apart from Norgay and South African cricketer Gary Kirsten, there’s Dhiraj Rajaram, founder of MuSigma — a frontrunner in the analytics space. The course, which costs close to Rs.13 lakh, is a combination of Kakkar’s passions, whether it’s scuba diving or cooking. At the final graduation dinner, the students will even cook for their parents.
“I’ve never worked a single day in my life. I converted all my hobbies into work,” says the institute’s founder-chairperson. And it looks like some of those are still being stirred. “I’ve suddenly decided to have some more fun,” he says. He plans a line of T-shirts that will be “highly abrasive to everybody.”
“We’re doing a whole line on Papa Pancho (the restaurant he runs). Or on sports. There is also an entire line on Savita Bhabhi, which is all you wanted to know about sex but were too scared to ask.”
Convention can go for a run. Or if you’re afraid of the idea, go ride a horse. Because for Kakkar, this is simply about playing it different. “Somebody says, ‘Where do you think of these ideas? How can you make them a business? I say the business happens. First let’s get a product out that is unique.”
That is perhaps why he is clear his course will create “warriors, not wimps”. From a man who has always dared to pursue his innermost calling, this isn’t surprising.