An introduction to Ronnie Screwvala, the Indian entrepreneur and author of a book of lessons learned, Dream with Your Eyes Open (Rupa Publications, 2015). Screwvala’s candid prose offers inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere. As much about failures as about successes, Dream wIth Your Eyes Open is about “it can be done,” not “I did it.” A first-generation entrepreneur and social philanthropist, Screwvala is behind UTV in India, which has since become a part of The Walt Disney Company, he has produced numerous Bollywood movies, and is the Founder Trustee of Swades Foundation (named after the film Swades starring Shahrukh Khan). Among other accolades, Screwvala has been named on Esquire’s “List of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century” (September 2008), and ranked 78 among the 100 most influential people in the world on the “Time 100” (Time Magazine, 2009).
Quick Facts on Ronnie Screwvala
- Dream with Your Eyes Open website
- Home: Mumbai, India
- Comfort food: Japanese cuisine and Gujarati food
- Favorite films: Patton, The Lion King, Whiplash, PK
- Current reads: I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction and autobiographies this past year to see what’s out there.
What are you working on at the moment, besides book publicity?
For me this book was just a stretch objective because I wanted to write about entrepreneurship. I spent the better part of the last twenty years in the media and entertainment industry. About two and a half years back we divested UTV to The Walt Disney, Company, and then I transitioned that for about two years until I moved out of the industry in January of 2014.
Over the last year, there have been quite a few initiatives in what I think of as my next innings. In the nonprofit sphere, there’s a rather ambitious project with a large social base set in rural India. We have nurtured it for the better part of a decade, but we really scaled up in the last two years to a much bigger size, and that’s the Swades Foundation. The objective is to help provide infrastructure to villages and implement programs to increase the livelihood of people in the villages. We want to give people a sense of their own freedom, and the ability to see that they are a little more in control of their own destiny. The overarching mission is to raise a million people out of poverty and into jobs every five to six years. It’s a goal with a timeline, and that is important to me.
While everyone in India believes that we’re extremely smart and entrepreneurial, I think we have a long way to go to truly be an entrepreneurial nation, and the timing is now. We’ve got great leadership at the government level, there’s an incredible amount of optimism in the country, and the opportunities are massive (in the service sector, the manufacturing sector, things related to intellectual property, and in areas like health and education). So evangelizing entrepreneurship and starting the book are the two things I’m deeply committed to on the nonprofit side.
On the profit side, it’s taken a year for me to collect co-founders and colleagues for three projects. One is in the field of education: to build a business from the ground up like I did with UTV in media twenty years back. The second one is in digital media, and I’m envisioning something that could be described as where VICE meets BuzzFeed, but with a higher quotient of entertainment backed into that. And the third is in sports. We’ve worked on a local sport called kabbadi and taken it to an international level, and we’re doing a lot of work in football, where again we rank very low internationally.
What prompted you to write Dream with Your Eyes Open?
Having moved out of the media and entertainment industry, and meeting a lot of entrepreneurs, part of my act was to invest in and mentor those entrepreneurs. What struck me first was how different the environment was when I started out. It was almost impossible to even pronounce the word entrepreneurship then. There wasn’t much of an ecosystem for funding, so you needed to be self funded. A fair amount grew out of that period of time, and I felt responsible to encapsulate my learnings and see if I could be some form of an inspiration to others. I’ve often felt that an autobiography doesn’t do that goal justice; it just gives you an overall story. So I’ve positioned the book as a narrative of lessons learned.
I’ve noticed there’s a sharp fear of failure in the emerging markets, and as you glance through the book you’ll see that in many cases I’ve shared my trysts with failure. I communicate very strongly that you will fail — and not once, but multiple times — but that’s perfectly fine as long as you look at it as setbacks and move forward.
“You will fail — and not once, but multiple times —
but that’s perfectly fine as long as you look at it
as setbacks and move forward.”
What else do you hope readers will take away from your book?
My hope is that it will reach people at three levels. First, the fence-sitters, or the people who are in the early stages of their career trying to decide if they want to be an entrepreneur. Some of the early chapters give a sense that it can be done.
Then the book progresses to the second level when I talk about things in terms of scale, spotting trends, and then exits, for the more evolved entrepreneur. My career spanned twenty to twenty-five years, so I can talk about the start-up environment as well as more mature organizations.
Third, as a result of small focus groups I conducted, I found that the book was equally interesting to professionals. It also appealed to people who have been in their careers for ten or fifteen years and are wondering what do I do next? When is the right time, and am I the right person to take the plunge? At a very high level across the chapters, the book talks about those issues.
How did this book come together; what was your writing and editing process?
I realized very early in the game that I needed a co-writer. My aim and ambition was never to be an author, it was to write a book, as odd as that sounds. If you want to write a book, it means you want to communicate something, and a book is a good way to do it. I could make plenty of notes and write things down, but I wanted assistance bringing the right structure to the book. In my past experience, when I was doing films with Bollywood and we got stuck with plotlines, we looked to the Western market, specifically to the US, to screenwriters and stories where there was a different structure to act one and act two and things like that. I was not sure that I could co-write long-distance with someone in a different timezone, but we gave it a try.
My co-writer, Wynton Hall, came to India at the beginning of the process, and I talked and talked, and introduced him to entrepreneurs so he could get the feel of things here. He was able to give a structure, language, flow, and tonality to the book that I couldn’t have done myself. The first draft was maybe 60% Wynton putting down everything he’d heard from me, with that structure and tonality. Then we started to correct that, and by the second, third, and fourth draft I started packing in my anecdotes. There was a lot to work with, but the book never would have appeared without getting what I like to call those opening and closing sentences.
This process allowed me to think freely without the stress of getting the wording just right for every sentence. Whenever I got stuck, I had somebody much more mature in the writing process to lean on.
What did you learn from this project that surprised you?
The discipline that it needs is like anything else. I didn’t realize how cathartic it is to go back through the years and dredge things, in a good way. It gets you to reflect, and consolidate some of your learnings that you take for granted in life. When you see them again, in a new context, it’s a completely different story.
Where would you most want to live and write?
I think I was very fortunate to write in the habitat where I wrote. I don’t think I’d like to do it anywhere else. Mumbai is on the coast of India, and stares out at the Arabian Sea. Our home kind of has that feel to it, that you can stare out into the sea, or at least the study, whenever you want to. I found that very conducive to writing. Although, I also did a lot of writing on planes while I was traveling, or even making notes while Wynton and I were talking on the phone. I spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off of my family, and then writing in the mornings or late evenings.
Did you listen to anything in particular while you were writing?
No, actually, while I was writing my wife and I realized the sound system in our house wasn’t set up well for this. Sadly, it was only as I was finishing up the book that we had finally rehashed our system and could listen to music like that. So, no, there wasn’t classical music or anything else that was inspiring me to write.
How has your background with film and media influenced your writing? How did images inform the structure of the book?
Before cinema and media, it was really theater which was a hobby of mine. It gives a clarity of thought and an ability to articulate things very clearly. That was a very strong base for me, and I think my co-writer caught the tonality and the way I talked about things and was able to help me capture each anecdote and really turn it into a story. What gives the book it’s strength is the dramatization, or the fictional aspect, that makes it flow for a reader. What I wanted at every stage in the writing was for the reader to visualize what was being said.
“What I wanted at every stage in the writing
was for the reader to visualize
what was being said.”
How did you balance content with form?
When the structure first came about, the anecdotes were few and far between. It was really about getting the basic concepts of failure in place. Then, as we narrowed down the key points for each chapter, I provided stories to support each one. The anecdotes became the pillars of the book.
What do you find surprising that people ask you about your work?
Well, first, I think most people are surprised that I’ve written a book, and they assume it’s my autobiography. I say, no, actually, it’s not. I think it’s fair to say that outside of the anecdotes, it’s much more specific chapters of learning and experience.
How have your goals changed over time?
They keep getting longer. When I reach one goalpost, I move it or create a new one. As an entrepreneur, you set new goalposts constantly, sometimes you are forced to. Sometimes the goalposts can even go backwards; sometimes you have enough setbacks that you need to realign, pivot, which in itself means saying, this didn’t work out, so let me set some new goalposts. I think goalposts in themselves should not always be assumed as a forward step. If you can acknowledge that sometimes it’s a step backward to be able to move forward later on, that’s the key.
“Goalposts in themselves should not always
be assumed as a forward step. If you can acknowledge
that sometimes it’s a step backward
to be able to move forward later on, that’s the key.”
I notice that you have multiple projects you’re working on at once, does that also affect how you think about the goalposts?
I think I’ve always been restless enough that I like to multitask. But one of my lessons learned is that the more I can focus, the better the results. Part of this is also because I’ve taken a personal decision that I don’t want to run anything myself right now. I’ve spent the better part of twenty-five years operating and running organizations, and instead now I’ve put time into finding and building relationships with co-founders. It doesn’t mean I will just come in and review things; it means I know what I’m good at, what I can and can’t do well, and that will allow me to keep this breadth of projects going over the next twenty to twenty-five years.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
In a field like media, where you can have very public failures, and very public successes, whether you like it or not there’s a profile attached to the business that you run. I think of one my favorite movies, Patton, and the line “All glory is fleeting,” quite a lot.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? Aspiring writers?
“Entrepreneurship is not an outing,
it’s a journey.”
Entrepreneurship is not an outing, it’s a journey, and you need to make a long-term commitment to it. People will ask why do seven out of ten enterprises fail? It’s all about the timing. You fail when you fail, but you haven’t failed when you keep going. There can be serious setbacks, bankruptcy or going out of business, but if you believe that your mission is to be an entrepreneur, then you will pick up and start going again. You can’t make a deal with yourself that you’re only going to do this for two or three years.
For writers, I’m not sure I can really speak to this, but give yourself timelines and deadlines. If a book takes too long to write, it can lose relevance by the time you finish it, especially in the nonfiction sphere. Ask yourself if what you’re writing will still be relevant in the future, in five years, in ten?
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Focus. My last twenty-five years were very much about being opportunistic, and sometimes that’s great, but sometimes it’s not. The best advice comes back to that single word for me: focus.
What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
I think it really is the hard work of writing. Whether it’s late night or early morning, it’s nice to have the thoughts, but to actually put them down, word after word after word, and then go back and redraft, is quite difficult. You need a strong will and discipline to go through it.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Well, I’m usually not writing, so there’s lots going on. Writing, for me, has been all about getting this book out. If somebody had asked me a year ago am I going to write a book, my answer would have been no. If someone asks me tomorrow, am I going to write another book, my answer is no.
In that case, what do you like to do in your free time?
To be honest, this last year, all my free time has gone to the book. I know, now we’re going in circles. But otherwise, it’s hanging at home with my family.
About Ronnie Screwvala
Ronnie Screwvala’s career path is the bedrock on which his story rests. Screwvala pioneered Cable TV in India way back in the ‘80s, went on to build a diversified Media and Entertainment company, UTV, and in the process partnered with The Walt Disney Company, News Corp, and Bloomberg amongst others. After divesting the company he founded to Disney, he served as the Managing Director of Disney in India. Today in his second innings he is the Founder Trustee of Swades Foundation and onto his new businesses in Sports, Education, Digital as well as being an active Angel and Venture Investor.
Dream with Your Eyes Open shares failures and triumphs, thoughts and anecdotes in a simple narrative that could help you gain better insight and give you a fighting chance when it comes to realizing your dream in a David-versus-Goliath world.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Entrepreneur & Writer Ronnie Screwvala.” Words With Writers (May 18, 2015), https://wordswithwriters.com/2015/05/18/ronnie-screwvala.]