“My close friend, the one whom I looked up to, committed suicide in 2014 due to depression. He was depressed being stuck in a wrong career. It struck me hard that I resolved to create spaces for the youth to connect and collaborate,” says Sehaj Sahni, the founder of Urban Desi House, Chennai.
His project named Indian Youth Café has till date provided space for 50000+ young people to connect and work with each other in the areas of arts, comedy, theatre, films and entrepreneurship. Urban Desi House, which is a part of this project, proves his point.
‘Youth cafes’ is an idea borrowed from the West. These are community-oriented places with affordable food and beverages aiming to cater to the youngsters of that community.
“The idea was to bring them all to one place so that they can engage in productive activities,” says Sahni.
Born in Delhi and brought up in Patna, Sahni saw his friends struggling between wanting to pursue their dreams and trying to fit into stereotypical career paths like engineering and Public services. “People generally have a narrow perspective of success,” he says.
The pursuit of engineering education brought him to Chennai. His college days were quite disappointing since all he saw was his classmates getting hammered and stoned. He graduated from Sathyabama University in 2012 and joined Cognizant Technology Solutions as an engineer.
“The effect of my late teens and college days stayed with me and I wanted to do something to help people pursue their passion,” he says.
However, it was not until 2014 that Sahni decided to call it quits at Cognizant to start-up. “That suicide was the trigger for me to set up Indian Youth Café,” he says.
Indian Youth Café started with a broad vision of bridging the disconnect between youth. “Startup ideas get killed in the root because there is nobody to hear those out,” says Sahni, adding that his cafes would provide a platform for enterprising people. “Youth cafes are self-sustained too and run on their own profits,” he adds.
“People are getting jobs, no doubt about it. But, are they able to lead a good life with it? With the growing population, unless we begin creating jobs, I don’t think unemployment can be solved,” he adds.
Sahni, hence, wrote to 18 State Governments requesting land to start the café. Not one responded. Then with the help of his friends, Sahni set up the Urban Desi House as the first ever Youth Café in 2015.
In 2017, Indian Youth Café was recognised by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) as one among the Top 3000 Startups in the country. “As an entrepreneur, you have to engage with the government actively. It is not enough to say that you run a start-up. It has to have a legal identity from day one. It will need cash, but once you register and make your company a legally valid one, you can easily navigate through the world of business,” says Sahni.
Calling himself politically neutral, Sahni said that the government’s abilities are limited. “I don’t believe it when people blame the government without doing their part. See, I run a start-up in Chennai and if I call for people to join me today, how many do you think will approach me?” he asks.
Working on their new project named ‘Xpress Kitchens’ which is a cloud catering service, Sahni says that this rules out the risk of initial investment for people who wish to start their own venture. “This is a risk and revenue sharing arrangement, where we will provide all that is necessary to successfully set up a food business,” adds Sahni.
Dedicating a large portion of his success to his family, Sahni says that the initial worrying and scepticism is normal in any household. “As days go by, slowly they will understand that you chose to be this and that you are happy with this [entrepreneurship],” he adds.
A volunteer for the United Nations, Sahni now leads a campaign named ‘Not too young to run’. “This campaign is to bring a bill in the Parliament to lower the age group for electoral posts from 25 to 18 for Lok Sabha seats and from 30 to 25 for Rajya Sabha seats. The idea is that if you are old enough to vote, you are old enough to run the office,” he says. “This campaign is a success in Nigeria. The average age of politicians in India is 69 and I don’t think this is ever going to change. But it is worth trying,” adds Sahni getting ready for his next appointment.
Interviewed by Megha Kaveri for Themadras.in