Date: Tuesday , March 02, 2010
What an amazing journey my life has been. And it doesn’t stop. Even today I feel I am just starting out because there is still so much more that I want to do. But, in the midst of this frenetic pace, whenever I do get a moment to reflect, I am humbled by the fact that I have got more out of life than I ever expected and never cease to thank God for how kind he has been to me.
Life may have been different had I followed our family routine and joined the IAS but I opted for IIT and stood 2nd at the All India Entrance Exam, which helped overcome my parents’ opposition. IIT redefined my life. At the beginning it was humbling. 200 entrants, used to being top of their class, competed ferociously till everyone found their place in the sun. Averaging close to 10 points didn’t get me top of the class but allowed me to expand my vision beyond academics. I restarted my school going activities of debating and dramatics and got elected as Literary Secretary. I then realized that IIT Kanpur had no newspaper and created a core team, raised angel funding from our seniors and founded the campus newspaper – “The Spark”. It took us a year of losses and more “angel funding” to realize that our “business model” of subscription based revenues alone was flawed so we approached the IIT authorities, got an intro to their vendors, advertising revenues commenced, we even got IIT to “outsource” to us the entire publications at Convocation time and we never looked back. Without realizing it, we created a 40 strong institution that survived after we had left. Then IIT got gifted a TV station, a batchmate took on the technical part and I took on the programming. Pretty soon we had another organization of 40 odd people and were doing more hours of programming per day than the only other TV broadcaster in India – DD I. So when I left IIT I had already learnt how to compete and cooperate with the best of breed, had already done 2 successful “start ups”, realized that there was life beyond academics and that if you were willing to take the plunge and lead, anything was possible.
My next stop was Harvard and there was no better time to be in America. Joan Biaz, Janice Joplin and Pete Seeger performed free at “Vietnam war protest” concerts, girlfriends were plenty in the era of hippies, flower children and “make love not war”. I grew marijuana on my window sill, went to Woodstock, and even campaigned for Eugene McCarthy for President.
Much as I enjoyed America, I continued to feel I could make more of an impact in India and after years of working there, returned with IBM. IBM however, decided to leave India, which proved to be a blessing in disguise as I moved from selling hardware domestically to exporting software services from India, one of the best moves I ever made.
In 1989 however, when I was running the software operations of Tata Unisys, (accounting for 30 percent of the Indian software industry) I realized that I was only 40, couldn’t see myself continuing the same way for the next few decades and decided to become an entrepreneur. IIS Infotech quickly became one of the top 20 software companies and set many trends, including being the first to get ISO9001. Within a decade we acquired companies in the UK and Singapore, bought and sold one in the U.S., merged with one in India and then with one in the UK, which listed as Xansa on the LSE as a $800 mill. company.
Xansa was acquired by the French giant, Steria, I stepped off the board, became a serial entrepreneur but realized that what I truly enjoyed was not so much running an existing company but creating a new one. So I started angel investing and, in 2000, founded, with some friends, India’s first angel venture capital fund – Infinity, which succeeded in creating some great companies like Indiabulls, India Games, Avendus, Brainvisa and Epicenter. To institutionalise angel investing in India, three years ago I co founded the Indian Angel Network (IAN) which has now become the largest business angel group in the country, operating in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai, with over 100 members comprising the who’s who of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs. And, to support these angel investments, we are now launching the Indian Angel Fund. Between Infinity, IAN, some of the government funds on whose investment committees I serve and some purely personal investments, I must have been involved in the creation of over 50 companies, covering diverse sectors such as IT, BPO, Real Estate, Hospitality, Robotics, Education, Pharmaceuticals, Retail and even Media and Entertainment. I have learnt a great deal from all the passionate entrepreneurs that I have been involved in funding and I am convinced that entrepreneurship is the engine that will drive India’s economic growth. This is why I have been involved in the Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), which has now become the world’s largest organisation devoted to entrepreneurship. I founded the Delhi chapter of TiE and continue to remain actively involved as Chairman Emeritus. The focus on the entrepreneurial eco system is rounded off with my deep involvement with the VC/ PE industry through the Indian Venture Capital Association, which I chair.
In 1988, a handful of us (myself, the late Prem Shivdasani, F C Kohli, Harish Mehta, Narayanmurthy, Nandan Nilekani, KV Ramani, Ashank Desai), convinced that the fledgling software industry had great potential, founded NASSCOM, which has played a vital role in building the industry of today. My stint as Chairman of NASSCOM taught me that leading such a group requires even more teamwork, collaboration and vision than running a company because the only authority you have is what your peers are willing to give you.
I have learnt a lot as well with my engagement with the academic sector, being on the Imperial College Business School’s Advisory Board, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at IIT Mumbai, Management Board at Indraprastha University, Delhi and equally from serving on various government committees and task forces on IT, Venture Capital, Innovation, Railways, development of some states and the Indo EU Round Table. I have also tried to apply my learnings to community service through the NASSCOM Foundation, America India Foundation and the India Sponsor Foundation.
My biggest takeaway from life is that anything is possible – you need to dream big, assemble a team of people better than yourself, sell them your vision, persevere through thick and thin, and stick with the old adage – “if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well”.
The author is Chairman, CA India