He is from Madurai in south Tamil Nadu, a town known more for its temple than as a hub of entrepreneurship. Sivarajah Ramanathan, however, is determined to change that perception.

A first-generation entrepreneur himself, 45-year-old Sivarajah has started an organisation that will nurture, incubate, mentor and fund entrepreneurs from Madurai. And, quite appropriately the organisation of which he is the Founder and President is called NativeLead Foundation.

Sivarajah has an interesting story to tell. His grandfather had moved to Sri Lanka, which is where he grew up. He recalls that they led an upper middle-class life in Sri Lanka. His father worked with Tata Tea and after retirement had a C&F business near Vavuniya. The ethnic strife in the island nation in the early 1980s turned Sivarajah’s life topsy-turvy.

His father’s business was destroyed and their house burnt down, he says. His father decided to return to Madurai, where they still had a bit of their ancestral property left. Luckily for them, Sivarajah’s elder brother, an engineer, was working in West Asia and was able to help the family relocate and settle down and start a new life.

Sivarajah studied for a Bachelor’s in Chemistry in Madurai, joined and discontinued a part-time management programme in the city, took up a sales job with Godrej and then set up his own business of hardware trading. He later on teamed up with a friend to start a software services company, which too foundered and which they later converted into a products company.

During a recent interaction in Chennai, Sivarajah recalled the turmoil the family went through in Sri Lanka and the lessons he learnt from that helped him as an entrepreneur.

“Taking risk is nothing great was my belief after what we went through in Sri Lanka. I had the confidence that I can rebuild everything again,” he says.

Temple projects

The software products company has now developed an ERP tool for temples, which is being used in the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, and the temples in Palani and Srirangam.

A large temple has operations similar to that of a corporate, says Sivarajah. It has so many automation opportunities – managing its assets, ticketing, managing the inventory, administering the properties it owns in various places, the legal cases it faces and so on.

Being a project for the temples, Sivarajah and his partner decided that their company, Winways Systems (P) Ltd, will not operate to huge profits. It will be transparent in its pricing and provide software free of cost, charge the temple administration for annual maintenance with a margin.

But, Sivarajah has taken a back seat from the company and now spends most of his time on NativeLead Foundation. He has been associated with the Confederation of Indian Industry for a decade or so and realised that while there is enormous entrepreneurial skills in the people of Madurai, what they lacked was an enabling ecosystem.

“There is an entrepreneurial spirit in the soil. The only issue is can we create an ecosystem to nurture and foster that,” he says. He started NativeLead Foundation in 2012 along with some friends, well-wishers and prominent industrialists and businessmen from Madurai and other southern districts in Tamil Nadu. He looks upon NativeLead Foundation as a social initiative.

Four-pronged approach

NativeLead Foundation, according to him, has adopted a four-pronged approach – enabling, nurturing, incubating and investing.

Sivarajah wants to inculcate the spirit among college students. Sivarajah feels new-age entrepreneurship should be encouraged and for that, innovation, scalability and a business model are important. All these are needed to create a brand and ultimately intellectual property.

NativeLead Foundation is mentoring around 80 entrepreneurs in various areas. Many of them are social enterprises in areas such as water and sanitation, organic farming, solar energy and bio-gas. The Foundation has also created a Native Mentor Circle that draws up senior executives in various established companies in Madurai to mentor entrepreneurs. While incubating start-ups is the final goal, the Foundation realises that this needs money and other resources.

Hence, it has decided to tie up with incubators in educational institutes elsewhere like the RTBI at IIT-Madras. NativeLead Foundation has recommended a start-up, Rainstock, the first company that the angel network associated with the Foundation has funded, to be incubated at RTBI, says Sivarajah. The Foundation had extensive discussions with the Indian Angel Network, one of the leading angel network groups in the country, to see if the IAN’s chapter could be set up in Madurai.

Ultimately, the Foundation drew on the IAN’s framework and came up with its conditions for the angel network.

The Native Angels Network was launched in October and now has 42 members. This network, Sivarajah insists, is not just another angel network. It has its own regional problems, he adds.

Two more start-ups

Apart from Rainstock, the Native Angel Network has identified two other start-ups – freshnv.com, an e-commerce platform to order fresh meat, and Happy Hens, which grows free-range poultry.

Happy Hens, says Sivarajah, sells an egg at ₹11.50 whereas the normal egg is sold at ₹4.50. The eggs are right now sold only in Bengaluru. There has been demand from other smaller cities and towns for NativeLead to start its activities. Shortly, it will open chapters in Tiruchi and Coimbatore, and then in Tirunelveli, Tuticorin, Salem and Erode.

“The objective is to have native people supporting native entrepreneurs,” Sivarajah says. He hopes people hailing from these places and living elsewhere will come forward to help foster entrepreneurship in the smaller towns. “We want to have nativity as an emotional bonding.”