The physical therapy clinic sits on a hilly road in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles in northern India. The clinic has examination tables, colorful anatomy posters – and a Tibetan flag.
This is the first Tibetan-owned physical therapy clinic in India, where more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees live in exile in what is the largest population of Tibetans outside Tibet.
Tenzin Jigme, a 29-year-old physiotherapist, and his business partner, Penchen Sangpo, started the Pain Free-Tibetan Physiotherapy Clinic in 2013. They treat up to a dozen patients a day, Tibetans and non-Tibetans, Indians and foreigners, for everything from back pain to sports injuries.
In 2014, Jigme got special training and funding as part of the Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development Initiative (TED). Six other young Tibetan entrepreneurs were selected from 23 applicants to receive funding and support from the new business incubation program.
TED, as the program is called, is not related to the lecture series with the same name. It was launched in 2014 by the Tibetan exile administration with special backing from Dr. Lobsang Sangay, its prime minister.
TED is funded by various international foundations, aid agencies and non-profits from Norway, Luxembourg, India and the United States, including the Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Although Tibetans in India are involved in small businesses, opportunities to grow are limited. The TED program seeks to foster businesses with the potential to grow, hire more employees and have a larger business and social impact.
Scalable and innovative business ventures are new for the Tibetan community, said Tenzin Khenrab, TED’s executive program officer. Formal business concepts are unfamiliar to many Tibetans and protocols such as registration and licenses seem confusing. Another barrier is the mindset that investing in a business in India is unnecessary or futile for refugees. “They think, ‘We are in exile in India, one day we might go to Tibet.’ We need to change that,” said Khenrab.
TED is part of a broader effort to combat high youth unemployment in the Tibetan exile community. As much as 22 percent of Tibetan youth in India are unemployed, compared with about 10 percent of young Indians, according to a 2009 survey by Technoserve, a U.S. non-profit organization.
In addition, more Tibetans in India are migrating overseas to the United States, Australia and Europe. There are concerns that migration and ‘brain drain’ will weaken the large Tibetan exile community in India.
TED program requirements, perks
The other businesses selected for the TED program include a restaurant in Hyderabad, India, specializing in momos (Tibetan dumplings); water purification and bottling company in Mundgod, the large Tibetan settlement in southern India; an e-commerce website selling Tibetan crafts and more.
The seven entrepreneurs received $1,472 (100,000 rupees) as a seed grant and a $1,472 interest-free loan. The entrepreneurs attended three months of training at business institutes near Delhi, including JSS - Science & Technology Entrepreneurs Park, and O.P. Jindal Global University, on the outskirts of New Delhi.
TED also organized an entrepreneurship conference in Dharamsala in early September and started an entrepreneurship club at the Tibetan Children’s Village, the town’s main Tibetan school.
Jigme and Sangpo trained as physio-therapists in the southern Indian city of Mangalore. The TED program taught them how to make a formal business plan, how to utilize marketing and technological tools and how to set financial targets. It also provided loans and mentorship.
The co-founders hope to buy more equipment, hire more physical therapists and eventually open branches in other cities in India, including Bangalore, New Delhi and Mundgod.
“Tibetans are not aware of entrepreneurship in a formal way. We hope entrepreneurship is very good for the survival of the Tibetan community,” said Jigme. While the TED program provides support for starting and running a business, young Tibetan entrepreneurs must also be determined and tenacious, said Lobsang Rabsel, a business owner who runs Common Ground, a popular restaurant in Dharamsala.
Rabsel is not part of the TED program but observed that more young Tibetans are educated and have a better understanding of business. However, he added that the younger generation is less patient. “They want to be millionaires in two months. You have to be willing to work hard and face challenges,” warned Rabsel. “Mentally, you have to be willing to face any problem.”