Richmond Town, in the heart of Old Bangalore, is congested to the point where crossing the road requires either iron will or faith in a higher power. If you survive the streets, you can then take the opportunity to walk into Rich Homes, an old building with no security that cradles both an Islamic institute and a Jewish centre. The 7th floor is home to Jaaga startup – a coworking space that was one of the first of its kind in India.
Spread across 6,500 square feet and flanked by two balconies heated by the Bangalore sun, very little at Jaaga startup can be compared to modern coworking spaces. Instead of pallet furniture, they have cane student-dorm couches. Coffee machines are replaced by large stainless steel chai dispensers. And in place of a ping-pong table they are paid a visit every afternoon by a 16-year-old boy called Rohit who sells samosas.
It’s not unusual to see faces that young at Jaaga. At one table, another 16-year-old with a burgundy beanie called Rohan is being helped by his mentor Dr Tej Pochiraju on a project that makes doors open on facial recognition. ‘He’s self-learning Maya.’ Pochiraju tells us, ‘He follows Youtube videos and just goes for it’ with computers donated by coworkers. Another boy of the same age started at Jaaga without any formal training and had also arrived through Pass Collective (that connects children with opportunities they might not otherwise receive). ‘His first week of using 3D Cad he was designing a stadium. It’s slightly ridiculous.’ Pochiraju said.
If Pochiraju is calmly understated in his enthusiasm about what happens at Jaaga, it’s because the innovation, energy and ideas that he’s seen here have been too numerous to even list. As director of Jaaga, he’s seen many ideas in architecture, technology, design, sustainability and the arts whizz past him since he first joined as a coworker 3 years ago. ‘I came from the corporate world and this was completely the opposite.’ Pochiraju said, adding ‘Jaaga was seen as so out-of-the-ordinary that it made sense.’
Jaaga Startup had its roots in arts and architecture and was born of an experiment. The earliest founders took over a vacant lot that was, as is often the case in Bangalore, destined to be a dumping yard. They used warehouse shelving units and created functional structures out of them. ‘And suddenly this weird triangular piece of land became a very fertile ground for ideation and design which, weirdly enough, was one of the first co-working spaces in India,’ Pochiraju said, noting also that strands of this early DNA can be found on their current balcony, entwined with ivy.The community were immediately drawn to the idea where artists could showcase their talents at the space.
After that,the team built a 250-seat structure using the same industrial shelving. Jaaga DNA was born in Maleshwaram in 2013 with a concert space and a sound system that was built to run on solar energy by a visiting Swiss artist. Today the space is a place were they run festivals like Befantastic where the world’s first electric unicycle Kathak dance took place.
At the same time their artistic ways were taking shape, their entrepreneurship also started taking off. Freeman Murray, founder of Jaaga and an angel investor from Silicon Valley who had set up one of the first accelerators in India pushed for the emergence of Jaaga startup–the business wing of the enterprise.
A further creation came in the form of Jaaga Study as Murray wanted to invest in India’s youth and develop their aptitude for software. Situated on an organic farm 20km south of Bangalore, students from 18 onwards participate as part of a residential program for the purpose of learning software skills. From kids who have recently graduated to digital nomads wanting a career change, residents pick up software skills in the Kannada countryside. They do yoga, fly quadcopters and ride electric unicycles on car-less roads. ‘They are bringing the electric unicycle revolution in their own words.’ Pochiraju said.
Having had this many incarnations has allowed Jaaga the luxury of picking the right candidates for the place. The coworkers are chosen rather than it being a drop-in centre and the focus is more on skill-sharing. ‘We’re looking for diversity of skill-sharing.’ Pochiraju said. ‘People are naturally inclined to share skills and if you then intentionally try and create that right mix of people, good things happen. We’re naturally inclined towards people solving a problem because it’s literally something that drives them.’ The idea of skill-diversity also implies that there’s to be no internal competition within the team and definitely no poaching of ideas.
Pochiraju also looks at candidates and their willingness to collaborate and ‘someone who looks scared and looks like they’re about to run away.’ Tej says ‘That’s our best filter.’ An example of collaboration can be seen in their environmental ventures where they bring tech-folk to help environmental causes. Their project Sustain helps with a multitude of challenges, including composting solutions, urban gardening and lighting in rural or poorly-lit neighbourhoods.
‘Bangalore has a multitude of these challenges.’ Pochiraju said, speaking of the monumental task ahead for its aspiring minds. Given the ideas that have passed through Jaaga’s initiatives, it is almost certain that they’re up to the challenge.