“Aim for the stars. At least you will reach the sky,” remarks Dr Shanta Thoutam. The phrase is sort of her personal mantra. From being a BTech graduate in India to working in the American start-up space and then becoming Telangana’s Chief Innovation Officer (CIO), the journey of Dr Shanta is inspiring, to say the least. In 2021, she became the first woman to hold the CIO position.
With her knowledge and expertise, the people of Telangana are likely to expect significant changes as she carries an ever-positive and warm attitude to her work. In an interview with Edexlive, she talks about her journey and enables insight into her personality and ideas.
How did the journey of innovation start for you?
After doing my BTech in India, like everyone in the 2000s, I also went to the US for my Master’s. After that, I went for my PhD. It was then that an inner voice asked, ‘What next?’. I decided to gain some experience in the entrepreneurial space. At the New Mexico State University, where I was working on my PhD, we had the Arrowhead Entrepreneurship Institute which inducted me as a full-time volunteer, after looking at my experience and thought process.
There I learnt a lot about technology-commercialisation and how to move emerging technologies from campus to market-setting. Even before and after graduation, I worked with start-up accelerators in upstate New York. My first look towards the startup ecosystem commenced in 2011, and I knew then that this was my calling
You said that everyone in the 2000s was going to the West for higher studies. What was your reason to study there?
It is an interesting story actually. Till the final-year of BTech at KITS Warangal, I was of the mindset to start working in Bangalore. I was a topper and a gold medalist. My principal once said that most of the toppers were pursuing their Master’s in the US and other countries and wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. That question acted as a pivot in my life. I considered my financial situation and everything fell into place and, eventually, I took the decision to study in the US.
Most who study abroad tend to settle down there. What pushed you to return?
It’s a very good question (laughs). While I was working in the innovation space and on my PhD thesis, I heard the speech Honourable Minister KTR (KT Rama Rao) made when Tim Cook visited India in 2016. I found his ideas very interesting and I learnt about T-Hub. As I already had experience in the start-up and mechanics space, I reached out to T-Hub and spoke to both CEO and COO for thirty minutes.
I was offered a position and I told them I would hop on a flight after finishing the cohort I was managing in New York. I landed in Hyderabad in August 2016. I started working for T-Hub. Then again I requested Minister KTR to let me work for the government sector and I was inducted as the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) for Textiles. Then I was inducted as the CIO in 2021.
It has all been a great learning experience for me. I always believe that learning should be continuous and complacency is a place where nothing grows. My position as the CIO presents a beautiful, larger mandate. We have to build and nurture the innovation culture in all 33 districts of Telangana and make the Telangana State Innovation Cell (TSIC) as the go-to destination for innovation. Our Minister has laid down a vision for the state and it is now our job to make that vision a reality.
What made you shift from the private tech space to a government job?
I was working on Minister KTR’s portfolios. And from day one, I was thinking that I should work more on these portfolios and government sectors. So, after three years at T-Hub, I asked myself again ‘What next?’ and that was when I requested Minister KTR to allow me to work for the government. I wanted to understand how the government works and contribute to a particular sector.
Yes, it was a total 180-degree shift. But it was a rich learning experience for me. Being from a private space, I had little knowledge of what was actually happening in the government sectors. But as the OSD of Textiles, I got to know about government policies and processes. I met the weavers, visited the dyeing, weaving and processing industries. It was sort of a reality check, in the sense that it helped to understand the ground realities of the weavers’ situation.
Also, interacting with weavers enabled us to think of ways to help them and the handicrafts sector and to establish e-commerce platforms for own textile and handicrafts products. However, I am not the only one who went from the private to the government sector. The Telangana government has worked closely with private players and lateral hires have been made from the IITs and IIMs.
So, would you say that Minister KTR is your inspiration?
Definitely. You have to find your calling, do a first-class job for yourself and carve a niche for yourself. And with all humbleness, I am guessing that I have carved a niche for myself here. It is a blessing to work with the honourable minister. I always ask myself what extra can be done to make his vision a reality. So, yes, Minister KTR sir is my inspiration.
And not only mine, he is an inspiration everywhere. Minister KTR is a very detail-oriented person, with a very sharp memory, who always knows how to ask the right questions. It is always inspiring to listen to him. With his inclusive mindset and vast knowledge, he is very innovative as well, which makes him a visionary.
Could you tell us a bit about Minister KTR’s vision for Telangana? And what has been your contribution to the realisation of this vision?
To make Telangana the start-up destination of the world! The ecosystem we are working in aims at taking Indian start-ups to the international space and bringing international innovations to Indian markets. To realise this, though, we have thousands of start-ups, we need more to emerge. My only thought process is that it is a great and beautiful vision. But it cannot be achieved sitting in Hyderabad. We need to roll our sleeves and reach out to every district and every village. I am thinking along those lines and trying to bring the right partners to contribute.
We cannot be at every place so we have to engage and partner with the right stakeholders. I also think of ways to assess the impact we are creating, so, for that, we are directly reaching out to the beneficiaries at the ground inclusive of village sarpanchs. Telangana is the only state to have such a Cell and, thus, is subject to scrutiny from the world, so it is also important to show what it has been doing.
The TSIC has planned and implemented a lot of projects for the rural students. Why this shift to the rural areas?
Minister KTR always says that the youngsters from Tier II and Tier III cities have more fire in their belly. And I understand his point of view. When it comes to start-ups and innovations, there are many emerging from these cities. The people from Tier II and Tier III cities know the grassroot-level challenges and come up with the solutions. And we have the vision to go beyond the urban spaces, encouraging the students, unemployed youth, women and innovators in every part of Telangana.
There is a state-wide flagship campaign ‘Intinta Innovator’, which means “Innovator in every household”, which can only become a reality if we go to every village and sensitise them about innovation, which we are doing. The mindset shift, to think outside the box, is what we want to create. So, it is more important to measure the shift we create in the mindset, rather than the number of people we reach out to.
Are any other projects coming up for the students of Telangana?
There is an ongoing ‘Youth for Social Impact’ programme, which is meant for the college students, who are being encouraged to innovate for the space of social impact. We have also carried out a programme for helping teachers teach children with special needs. And some more projects are in the pipeline. Y-Hub was launched recently, which is a space for innovations by youth, where they will be provided with inputs and resources to help them innovate continuously.
Speaking of innovations, how would you say the pandemic has affected this space?
We have seen an increase in innovations during the pandemic, keeping aside all its disadvantages. Everyone went online and even the TSIC conducted many activities like hackathons and online networking sessions to keep the spirit of innovation running. A group of students who had come up with a smart-watch that helped to maintain social distance also approached me. It has been interesting.
What would you say about Hyderabad’s position in next year’s Innovation Index after this year’s No 4?
I would say number one, but let’s see where we fall. It’s a healthy competition to aspire for the rank, but the right things need to be done. And we are doing the right things. It’s a matter of assessment. But ranking is just a number, and it doesn’t define what we are doing or constrain us from doing things.
What are your opinions about the start-up space in India, at large?
India has many grassroot-level challenges. And it has a big market with a 1.3 billion population. India is progressing towards bridging the gaps between start-ups and industries. The mindset and space is different from that of the West, as India is still developing. We have to have the vision of where we want to go rather than comparing ourselves with the developed countries, though, of course, we can learn from them.