Entrepreneur Rajat Dhariwal talks to Anu Prabhakar about his childhood, life at IIT Bombay, playing board games for a living and the time he got cornered and counselled at a wedding
Rajat Dhariwal, Founder, MadRat Games Pvt Ltd
In the year 2009, Rajat Dhariwal found himself cornered by a relative. The event was a cousin’s wedding in Jodhpur, but the fact that it was a joyous occasion must have, in all probability, momentarily escaped Dhariwal when he found himself being cajoled and emotionally blackmailed by the well-meaning relative. The relative, on the other hand, had his reasons for doing so — he wanted to talk Dhariwal, an IIT graduate, out of his decision to teach in a school and eventually venture into the world of business. “Now, my family members are more comfortable with the idea,” laughs the 31-year-old founder of MadRat Games.
Rajat Dhariwal at the MadRat Games office in Bangalore
It is no wonder that Dhariwal’s decision threw the family off guard, initially. Born to doctors in Gwalior, his education and academic life would have been given sole and paramount importance if it wasn’t for his free-spirited mother. Speaking over the phone from Bangalore, Dhariwal fondly describes his mother as ‘adventurous’ and someone who “wouldn’t know how to ride a bike, but would still take a Bullet and drive into a bush”.
“During summer camps, my mother made sure that we took up activities such as horse riding and swimming. She left her practice for seven years when my siblings and I spent time in Kota for engineering coaching classes,” remembers Dhariwal, adding that she is still the person he turns to for advice. \
When he finally made it to the hallowed campus of IIT Bombay, Dhariwal had two aims in mind — do well academically and get over his awkwardness with girls and make some good friends. The latter needed some tweaking when he realised that his computer science batch had just one girl, Madhumita Halder — his future wife and business partner. “IIT is more about the analytical and logical mind, which is good. But both Madhumita and I have a creative bent of mind and we connected at that level,” he says, adding that he was pleased by the development. “I was more shy than all the other guys,” he chuckles.
For Dhariwal, the transition began when the duo left IIT to teach at Rishi Valley Education Centre in Andhra Pradesh, where they taught students in the most unconventional way — without textbooks. “You can communicate anything to children through games,” he says. He offered after-school classes on board games from around the world. “We also taught them Science by making and breaking toys. Students made their own toys out of materials like a rubber band or paper. Once, we gave them the same kind of paper to make helicopters. After flying for a while, these toys landed on the floor at the same time. We, then, asked the students to modify the toy to win a race. Some of them made it with a different kind of paper, some cut off the wings and so on and hence, learned the physics behind the exercise on their own,” he elaborates.
Rajat Dhariwal, founder of MadRat Games, loves biking and playing board games, when he is not in the boardroom chalking up strategies. Pics/Saggere Radhakrishna
The next turning point came in 2009 when the couple and Dhariwal’s younger brother, Manuj, won the first place at an event hosted by IIT Kharagpur, for their handmade prototype of the Hindi word-building board game, Aksharit.
As a biking enthusiast, Dhariwal’s first impulse, while on vacation, is to hire a bike or car to explore the place. There is very little that intimidates him in life and the only time he remembers being star-struck was when NRI entrepreneur Kanwal Rekhi decided to attend a formal meeting as a last-minute addition. “The first few minutes of the meeting were very awkward, as we were just staring at him,” laughs Dhariwal.
So, what is life like for an adult, whose only job (literally), is to play? It’s fun, he admits. At MadRat Games, Halder and Dhariwal come up with ideas and designs for board games and manufacture them out of their two production units in Bangalore. At the office, employees can be found hunched over board games to test them and meetings are known to end with an idea for a new board game.
Today, MadRat’s board games such as The Great Pyramid, Jungle Safari and the first Hindi board game, Aksharit, to name a few, can be found in retail outlets including Shoppers Stop, Central and Hamleys. More recently, the company was in the news for selling one lakh games between January to September 2013. The company managed to sell another one lakh between October 2013 and April 2014, and they manufacture roughly 25,000 box units of games per month.
Dhariwal has his own favourite board and card games, though. He is currently addicted to Canasta, Mikado and Blockbuster, MadRat’s Bollywood-themed game. So, which board game can he beat anyone at? “Most of them,” he laughs. “But specially at Boggle.”
Born: March 4, 1983
Education: I’m still in the process of educating myself. But I know you want to know that I have a BTech from IIT Bombay in Computer Science and Engineering and a Masters Degree in Electrical and Computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.
First job: I haven’t had a real one yet. But I had fun teaching middle-school kids Science at Rishi Valley School right after college.
Mantra in life: Goofraba...!!!! (Mantras are for pundits).
Best advice I ever got: Don’t let your education become your liability
Fitness mantra: Actually looking for one. Any good suggestions?
Magazine: Anything that can put me to sleep on a train journey
Film: The Man from Earth and Andaz Apna Apna
Book: Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic by Osho
Destination: Nubra Valley, Ladakh
Quote: You can know more about a person in an hour of play, than in an year of conversation — Plato