Trying to plan a business for people you’ve never met living in a place you’ve probably never been to is a formidable challenge. On top of that, Tibetan refugees live in a unique situation, with a strong desire to preserve the traditional elements of their culture. The better you understand the Tibetans, the more successful your plan will be. We want to help make it easy for both you and the Tibetans to succeed through this competition, so we’re providing as much background information as we can. If you still have questions after exploring the resources below, you can request a Tibetan mentor.


Our thanks to Tenzin Wangyal of TED (Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development) for assisting us with much of the following information.

The Tibetan people have a long, rich history, with written records dating from the 7th century. For the purposes of this competition, the relevant period of Tibetan history begins in 1950.

Tibet’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China began in 1950, when the People’s Liberation Army entered the Tibetan area of Chamdo.  The autonomy of Tibet has since remained a highly charged and controversial issue.

The late 1950s saw the beginning of the Tibetan resistance movement and armed uprisings against China, culminating in the 1959 Tibetan Uprising in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, during which thousands of Tibetans were killed. The Dalai Lama and some members of the Tibetan government subsequently fled to India, followed within a year by about 80,000 Tibetans.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru permitted the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans to settle in India and establish a “government-in-exile” in Dharamsala, known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). Originally the Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and the political leader of the Tibetans, but over the years, the Tibetan government has made modifications to their constitution and has gradually transitioned to a democratic system. In 2011 the Dalai Lama proposed changes leading to the removal of his political authority, making the democratically elected Prime Minister the highest political office-holder.

Today the CTA operates according to the 1991 “Charter of the Tibetans In-Exile”, and has three branches: the executive branch, headed by the Prime Minister, or Sikyong (currently held by Harvard-educated Dr. Lobsang Sangay), and supported by the Cabinet, or Kashag; the legislative branch, consisting of the democratically elected Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, currently at 44 members; and the Tibetan Judiciary, whose members are appointed by the Parliament-in-Exile.

The ministers of the Kashag are known as Kalons, and head seven departments: Religion & Culture, Home, Finance, Education, Security, Information & International Relations, and Health. Some of the initiatives of the CTA’s departments include schools, hospitals and health clinics, economic development programs, cultural activities, and reception centers for new refugees from Tibet.

  • Population: There are approximately 128,000 Tibetans living outside Tibet, primarily in India (94,203), Nepal (13,514) and Bhutan (1,298).
  • Age: More than half of all Tibetan refugees living in India, Nepal and Bhutan fall between the ages of 15 and 39. There are smaller but substantial populations of children under 15 and adults from 40-74. The population aged 75 years and older is relatively small.
  • Gender: The ratio of female Tibetan refugees to males is 798 per 1000.
  • Income: The average annual income per Tibetan refugee household is approximately 80,000 INR (Indian rupees) per year (about $1,300 USD) with moderate variation across regions.

There are approximately 128,000 Tibetans living outside Tibet, primarily in India (94,203), Nepal (13,514) and Bhutan (1,298). There are between 40-50 Tibetan settlements and scattered communities in India. Although there are more settlements and communities in northern India, the total population of Tibetan refugees living in the north is about the same as in southern India. The settlements in Nepal and Bhutan are, for the most part, smaller than those in India.

The five most populated communities in India are marked in green on the map below. They are, from north to south:

  • Ladakh – 6,769
  • Dharamsala – 13, 701
  • Dekyiling – 5,686
  • Doeguling – 9,847
  • Lugsam – 9,229

Almost half (48%) of Tibetans in India live in these five communities.

Education has been a top priority of the Dalai Lama and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in the refugee communities. Every Tibetan refugee child has access to free education up to the senior secondary level. There are no legal restrictions on Tibetan students pursuing any kind of education in India. The literacy rate of Tibetan refugees six years old and older is 82.4%, with the rate for males being higher than that for females (88.7% and 74.4% respectively).

There are about 76 Tibetan schools in India and Nepal run by various administrations, where both traditional and modern subjects are taught to Tibetan children. Many Tibetan families in China send their children to Tibetan schools in India where students have more opportunities to learn the Tibetan language and to study Tibetan culture and history. The CTA’s Department of Education oversees all programs.

Tibetans pursue higher education in colleges and universities in India on par with Indian students. Finances can be a prohibitive factor, but the CTA’s Department of Education provides some scholarships to colleges and universities in India and abroad. Tibetan students have earned PhDs, master’s degrees, professional degrees and bachelor’s degrees in various fields of study.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) Department of Health runs 7 hospitals, 5 primary health centers, and 38 clinics across India and Nepal, providing primary health care services (both preventive and curative) to Tibetans. Services provided include TB control, mother and child health care (including prenatal services and immunizations), HIV medical support, health education, substance abuse prevention and rehabilitation, and disability support. Tibetans can receive more specialized secondary and tertiary care in Indian hospitals through the Tibetan Medical system, a subsidized welfare insurance system.

Congested living conditions, particularly in the schools and monasteries, have contributed to the rise of public health issues among Tibetan refugees. The worst of these are tuberculosis and Hepatitis B, both of which are prevalent at high rates in the Tibetan refugee communities. Tibetans have also seen an increase in chronic health conditions in recent years, such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease.

Traditional Tibetan medicine is still widely practiced among Tibetans, incorporating centuries-old traditions based on Buddhist principles alongside more modern Western methods and treatments.

Most Tibetan businesses are small-scale with a rudimentary nature and focus, and are limited to their owners’ immediate geographical areas. The most common occupations among Tibetan refugees in India are traditional agriculture (46% of Tibetan families practice farming or herding) and seasonal sweater selling (49% of families). 10% of households engage in jobs outside the settlements and in individual businesses, but most businesses are seasonal, unorganized, or unregistered entities. The average annual income per Tibetan refugee household is approximately 80,000 INR (Indian rupees) per year (about $1,300 USD) with moderate variation across regions.

There is a shortage of jobs in Tibetan communities, so many Tibetan youths leave their settlements in search of gainful employment. The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government, concerned that the emigration of young people is diluting Tibetan culture and communities, are working to make it easier for young Tibetans to stay. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) Department of Home runs several programs to promote self-employment through skill development and better access to capital. Examples include:

  • Youth Empowerment Support (YES) – provides job skill training and career services through several career centers
  • Institute for Small Trade Learning (ISTL) – a vocational training initiative run by YES in Bangalore, India
  • Vocational training centers
  • Cooperative societies – organized into the Federation of Tibetan Cooperatives in India Ltd.

Tibetans have very little or limited access to loans or investments for start-up capital or expansion, with a lack of connections to resources for financing and advisement. Tibetans in India also lack a supportive ecosystem for cultivating business ideas, including creative mitigation strategies addressing their refugee status and legal environment.

Tibetan refugees in India are unable to own land; however, federal and state governments in India have leased out thousands of acres of land for refugees to live in self-sufficient compact communities, where they may legally own and operate their own businesses.


Tibetans are generally satisfied with available infrastructure in their communities; however, there are complaints in some areas. The most common complaints include:

  • Bad roads within settlements
  • Poor maintenance of housing
  • Absence of proper waste management system
  • Lighting in public spaces

Basic requirements in schools are satisfactory, but there is opportunity to improve technology-based teaching and learning aids, such as internet service, computer-based teaching, and Smartclass teaching.

Tibetan refugees in India are affected by some of India’s persistent infrastructural challenges and shortcomings, particularly limited or unreliable electricity services, water supplies, sanitation, and internet access. These services are especially underrepresented in rural areas.

Most of India’s power comes from coal; however, the government of India has indicated intentions to increase solar and hydroelectric power in the future.


Access and proximity to transportation is better in the northern and southern settlements in India. The Tibetan settlements in northeastern India are more remote, making transportation and shipping difficult. Rural areas of India have poorer road conditions.

The government of India recently announced a new budget for 2015-16 in which infrastructural improvements to roads, railways, and ports are due to receive a sizable increase in funding.

For many years, the legal rights of Tibetan refugees in India weren’t clearly defined. But in October 2014, not long after granting Tibetan refugees the right to vote in Indian elections, the government of India approved the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, which sets a uniform policy across all Indian states regarding the rights of Tibetan refugees. In part, it specifies that Tibetans are allowed to undertake any economic activity, including starting enterprises, and are entitled to all associated permits and licenses. The policy states that Tibetans can pursue and take any jobs for which they are professionally qualified. It also extends the government’s land lease agreements with Tibetans.

Effectively there are no legal barriers to Tibetan refugees starting businesses in India.

Most of India has a tropical climate, although the mountainous northern and northeastern regions have a more alpine climate. Average annual temperatures across most of India are above 70° F (21° C). There are four seasons in India: winter (January-February), summer (March-May), monsoon or rainy season (June-September) and post-monsoon season (October-December). 80% of India’s precipitation falls during monsoon season. Droughts, floods, cyclones, and other natural disasters happen sporadically but can be severe.

The land and climate in the southern and eastern Tibetan settlements is more suitable for agriculture than in the northernmost settlements.

Although relations are good between Tibetans and Indians, the two groups generally maintain their separate identities. Despite establishing settlements in India over 50 years ago, most Tibetans still consider their residence in India temporary and look forward to a time when they can return home to Tibet (or, in the case of younger Tibetans born abroad, see Tibet for the first time). Most Tibetans do not seek Indian citizenship or intermarry with Indians.

There are some generational differences among the social attitudes of Tibetans. Many younger Tibetans were either born outside of Tibet, or left Tibet when they were very young, and thus have grown up under the influence of outside cultures. Many Tibetan youth speak English, use the internet, enjoy western entertainment, and leave their communities in search of employment. The older generation of Tibetans worries that their traditional culture is being diluted.

The relationship between the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) and the government of India is excellent. Successive Indian governments have permitted the Dalai Lama to live in India since 1959, and the Indian government has allowed the CTA to operate schools, health clinics, and other community amenities. Federal and state governments in India have leased out thousands of acres of land for refugees to live in self-sufficient compact communities, as well as for the establishment of monasteries to educate monks in Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

In 2014, the government of India granted Tibetan refugees the right to vote in Indian elections, and also approved the Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, which sets a uniform policy across all Indian states regarding the rights of Tibetan refugees. This policy has clarified, standardized, and extended the rights and benefits available to Tibetan refugees in India.

The geographical isolation imposed by the Himalayas allowed Tibetans, over a long period of time, to develop a unique culture separate from those of other peoples in central Asia. Tibetans have their own distinct language, art, music, dances, literature, architecture, cuisine, calendar, and cultural traditions. Tibetans both in Tibet and in the rest of the world are committed to preserving the traditional elements of their culture. Much of Tibetan culture is influenced by Tibetans’ Buddhist beliefs; music, literature and artwork often feature religious themes.

In 1970, the Dalai Lama founded the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India to preserve and disseminate Tibetan culture. The library houses more than 110,000 manuscripts, books and documents, as well as photographs, artifacts, and works of art. Many of these cultural artifacts are religious in nature.

The sight of Tibetan Buddhist monks, in vivid crimson and golden robes, is familiar to people all over the world, as are the brightly colored strings of prayer flags commonly seen in the Himalayas. The overwhelming majority of Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, which is not so much a religion as a way of life for most Tibetans. Although there are only an estimated 10-20 million followers of Tibetan Buddhism, the emigration of Tibetans to other parts of the world in recent decades has helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism across the globe.

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century, and over time, Tibetans adapted it and made it their own, differentiating it from other schools of Buddhism by incorporating some elements of the Bon religion, a common folk religion in Tibet, and by the establishment of lamas, the title for their spiritual leaders. The most famous of these is the Dalai Lama, well known around the world today as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama is believed to be the manifestation of a bodhisattva, or enlightened being, who has postponed his own nirvana in favor of reincarnating to serve humanity. Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th and current Dalai Lama. For several centuries, successive Dalai Lamas served as both the spiritual and political leaders of the Tibetan people, until 2011 when the 14th Dalai Lama initiated a process of transferring his political authority to the democratically elected Sikyong, or prime minister, of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

The government of India has allowed Tibetan refugees to establish Buddhist monasteries to educate monks in Buddhism and Tibetan culture. As a result Tibetan Buddhism continues to thrive among Tibetan refugees.





Disclaimer: Any views and opinions expressed within the above resources are those of the individual authors or creators
and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Rochester.


By entering the Tibetan Innovation Challenge, authors of each submitted plan agree to allow use of all elements of their plans to the Tibetan refugees; however, they and their home institution(s) will receive credit and recognition in any publicity and media coverage. The winning team’s business plan may be the foundation of a new business venture in a Tibetan refugee camp, to be partially financed by the Tibet House in London and The Art of Peace Foundation. The winning team may have the opportunity to travel to India at their own expense at a later date to visit the refugee camp and meet the people who will be implementing the winning plan. Tibetan refugees will be able to implement any of the plans submitted.

Participants grant the University of Rochester and its respective employees, agents, and assigns a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, and unconditional license to edit, modify, reproduce, copy, transmit, publish, post, broadcast, display, adapt and/or use or reuse their submitted plans, any materials submitted or prepared for use in the Tibetan Innovation Challenge, their names, images, voices, likenesses, statements, background and biographical information in any and all media (including but not limited to print, electronic, video, digital, radio, television, internet, etc.) for publicity, promotion, advertising, fundraising, administrative, academic or educational purposes.


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