A couple of decades ago, a few sleepy rural towns in the western parts of Odisha became active with the large-scale demand for metals in the country and abroad. The steel majors wanted to invest in the state, and the whole world, for a moment, looked at Odisha as a good business destination. The spur of business activities led to an unusual boom in different sectors like real-estate, education and hospitality in the capital city of Bhubaneswar. A stable government and relatively peaceful surrounding districts provided the necessary impetus for such a process.

Today, both the state and central governments are working towards modernising the public infrastructure and providing a primary platform for the population to start their private enterprises. Though the efforts have been there for almost two decades, the young people are getting sensitised more and more about starting a career in entrepreneurship. Business houses around the world are also taking an active interest in the state beyond the traditional verticals.

Odisha as geography offers a multitude of natural resources for sustaining a broad-based business ecosystem. Its long coast with several locations for natural harbours, major rivers, lakes and forests, significant deposits of minerals, healthy climatic conditions in the Eastern Ghats regions, wide varieties of traditional handicrafts and numerous historical monuments layered through centuries, spanning religious and cultural domains, open up a serious possibility of large-scale business activities in the state with manufacturing, tourism, healthcare, and maritime trade and industries.

A major hurdle faced by budding enterprises is their limited access to significant capital or high-grade digital infrastructure and data.

The question is about how to make this happen. Governments and business associations are hyper-excited and are promoting the idea about startups and investments vigorously. However, it would be prudent to say that the real transformation will not be possible without an integrated policy for skills development, technology use and harnessing the natural potential for business in the state.

I have always advocated the need to change the way we skill our youngsters or reskill the working population. In the last century, the basic skills needed for the workforce were arithmetics, reading and writing, as those were critical for running operations in the offices and manufacturing plants. In this century, we would need four basic skills: analytics, business, communication and digital - the ABCD skill-set. Every participant (also the future participant) in the economy must understand and use analytics to decipher information from the available data that is now ubiquitous. They must learn to run business activities and be literate in the rules of the game. Communication at present times is not about just picking up syntax and semantics of one or two languages; the globalisation process demands an understanding of cultural subtleties, differences and proper use of the multi-modal communication channels. For all this, we need to be proficient in using digital technologies for personal needs or business - the knowledge of digital technologies and their best use. The school and college curricula must prioritise these to build a smart workforce for tomorrow, and this should not be done just as an augmentation to the traditional pedagogy; instead, the integration of these strategic initiatives should be enforced across academic institutions, industry bodies and government agencies in a systematic fashion.

All these could be possible and would be possible faster with digital technologies in all aspects of economic and civil activities. When we speak of technologies, there have been two broad approaches - to adopt technology to achieve better performance and, secondly, to transform the way we do things with the help of such relevant technology. If we stick to the first approach, we have a definite risk of being disrupted due to rapid changes in the socio-economic landscape - the fast flow of information changes the way we do things and the pace at which we respond to things. This is mitigated with the second approach, and we need to understand and strategise our digital infrastructure accordingly.

A major hurdle faced by budding enterprises is their limited access to significant capital or high-grade digital infrastructure and data. These needs may be addressed by creating good public infrastructure, internet connectivity across the state, and a scalable and distributed digital platform serving data for societal and business use. Such a data platform will enthuse entrepreneurs to build new software applications and create innovative use cases, which have been quite exclusive to some privileged business houses.

The next hurdle for startups is to acquire their first customer and to generate revenue in the initial period of their products. Here the government can play a significant role; instead of providing subsidies and grants, they should offer startups job contracts or buy their products based on the needs of different departments. The selection may be found on the academic credentials or proof of concept of the entrepreneurs’ products. This will enable a good relationship in the ecosystem and instil confidence in new entrepreneurs with their balance sheet, customer credentials, and a plank to grow their capacity for rendering business services in the initial months or years.

The growth of the business ecosystem in Odisha has been mainly organic. If the intervention from the government and business leaders turns strategic and proceeds systemically, the magic can happen. The people of Odisha, whose ancestors were globally known as seafarers and merchants in ancient times, can again prove to be worthy successors.