Thousands of Nepali eighteen and nineteen-year-olds board planes from Kathmandu for the United States to pursue their dream of further education in the land of opportunities. Many have dreams of building a life there – to live the ‘American Dream’. Some succeed. Some fail.
I was one of those youths. I, too, boarded a plane headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan to begin my four years at Hope College in August 2004. Little did I know that I would be writing this blog almost a decade later, sitting in my office back in Nepal. My journey back to Nepal actually started after I began work at Whittaker Associates after graduation.
As the U.S. economy went into a deep recession in 2009, our business slowed down. Many of our clients felt the pinch too. As the economy recovered, we began seeing improvement in our business. However, the communities we worked with were working with a tighter marketing budget. As a result, we faced a question— whether we continue with business as usual or do something to reduce our costs and transform the company.
It was at this point when I first considered the move back to Nepal. I always knew that there is talent available back in Nepal. I saw the potential for Whittaker Associates to outsource some of its back-office research and data entry tasks to Nepal, which could give us some tremendous cost savings. However, I had to come back to Nepal to make this happen. So I boarded a plane again.
As soon as I landed, I began working on my mission to set up an office for Whittaker and hire a team that could get the job done efficiently. Talent was available, as I had guessed. But I started facing other problems that I had not anticipated, or I should say problems that I thought could be easily resolved.
The first challenge was to set up Whittaker’s office space. You will be surprised to hear that it took me almost two months to find an adequate space. The second was to register the company. I met with several lawyers and kept on getting different answers. I needed help. The only help I received was some scattered advice from a few others who had started a business in Nepal recently. I quickly realized that most had faced similar issues.
Even when I found the office, we had to spend a significant amount for power backup for the office. Nepal faces acute power shortages that cause power cuts for more than 14 hours a day during winter. Nepal is fully dependent on hydro power, and as rivers start drying up during the winter, power production falls by more than half.
This is when I began talking to entrepreneurs who had started a business to see if they were facing similar issues. I tried to learn how they went about solving these problems to figure out if there was something I could do to make the business startup process a little easier.
The idea that came to my mind was a shared office space for startups where a budding entrepreneur could set up his or her business within a day by just renting the space he or she needs. The space needed to have all the basic office amenities— high speed internet, printers, office furniture and most importantly, a solid power backup. Additionally, we needed reliable lawyers who would help register companies and answer legal questions without trying to make things more complicated.
This is how Biruwa Ventures was born in July 2011. “Biruwa” means sapling in Nepali. The analogy being, we incubate a sapling and help it grow into a plant. I started by setting up a shared office space of just 800 square feet, enough space for about five startup companies. Within three months, this space was full, and I was getting calls from people looking to start their businesses. Within six months, we moved to a nearby building of 2,500 square feet, enough space for about ten more companies. In April of this year, we expanded to another building of about 4,000 square feet, enough space for another 15 companies.
Biruwa’s growth has been astounding. More than I ever imagined. But people were coming to us for more than just office space or legal advice. From the very first month, young aspiring entrepreneurs began walking through our doors seeking advice for their businesses. They had basic questions like how to market a company, how to reach their customers, where to start, etc. We found ourselves giving advice to at least a dozen entrepreneurs every month. Soon, I realized we had become more than just a shared office space. We became a business incubator.
As more and more young entrepreneurs began walking through our doors, another problem we had known about needed to be addressed. Banks in Nepal do not do project financing. If you need financing for your business, the only way to get it is if you have property to put up as collateral. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs coming to us didn’t have such resources to go to a bank. There weren’t any other external investment options either. Therefore, many good ideas just remained ideas. We soon realized that we had to finance some companies ourselves. We then became angel investors.
As our business grew, more people heard about Biruwa. We started getting requests to conduct market research, write business plans, conduct due diligence for investment, and even management consulting. These were not requests from startups any more. Established companies started coming to us for business advice. Though we turned the initial requests away, some of the proposals made business sense to us, as it would help build our expertise. Before we knew it, we also became business consultants.
This has been an interesting journey. Very few of the Nepali youth who boarded planes from Kathmandu ever come back. Today, they work at Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, GE, John Deere, KPMG, and other major companies, organizations and universities. They are living the American Dream. I, on the other hand, accidently discovered the Nepali Dream.