Exams, Entrepreneurs and Ethics

In anticipation of Start-up Weekend this coming week, I was feeling very entrepreneurial through the past few days. However, this feeling was immediately subdued by the looming presence of module exams. Invariably, through my procrastination phases, I started to put the two together, and started to think about the entrepreneurs that found a business opportunity in exams.

During my school days in India, there were always a number of amateur touts selling “leaked” question papers just before the exams. Students would turn up in droves to buy these papers, hoping to get those few extra marks that would make the difference between a ‘B’ and an ‘A’, or worse, the difference between passing and failing. Of course, if you got lucky and were good enough to memorize a lot of content in very little time, it could even make the difference between failing and an ‘A’! Tremendous incentive! These “leaked” papers would either be made up by the touts themselves or be obtained through dubious means (stealing from or bribing the teacher/assistant concerned).

What was really fascinating about this entire business was that, more often than not, these touts were students themselves! Granted, they probably cared more about pocket money than school suspensions, but even so, it required a LOT of bravado to take the kind of risk that they did. The rest of us could only glance on and marvel at the sheer guts that these shady characters displayed – a feeling that would carry on in later life, albeit for entrepreneurs who were more on the legal side.

While it was always risky business involving yourself with these shady characters, you couldn’t help but wonder if you could ever pull something like that off. Could you knowingly run a business doing something illegal, potentially career-ending, to make money? Starting a business is risky by itself, but to do so with possible legal ramifications is probably the peak risk any entrepreneur would be willing to take.

When I started to run my own (very much legal) business, I would be confronted with similar, but not as blatant, risky, borderline-illegal transactions. I realized quickly that you didn’t have to run an illegal business to be in the same line as the exam paper-selling tout; you could run a regular business and still be expected to do something similar. Being a business novice myself, I had to come to terms (quickly) with how I wanted to deal with these scenarios – both for now and the future.

Being a business student, I obviously ran it through the various business rooms of my mind, asking myself how different business theories would justify it. The economist would ask you to do a cost-benefit analysis with the risk factor plugged into the equation. The financial analyst would tell you that volatile (high-risk) stocks bring the highest rewards. The salesman would tell you that everyone else is doing it, and so, you should do it too. The accountant would tell you that money is money, no matter where it comes from.

But lastly, and most importantly, your mother would tell you that no amount of money can buy you a clear conscience. And as any Forrest Gump fan would tell you, “Momma knows best.”

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