Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Nandan Nilekani at IITB Convocation

Message 14 in IIT Global Archives

Nandan Nilekani was the chief guest at the IIT-B convocation last week. Priya Ganapati accompanied the Infosys CEO on his nostalgic visit to the campus, 24 years after he graduated. It is going to be a very exciting moment for me," he says.

Dressed in a slightly crumpled blue shirt Nandan Nilekani cannot wait for 4 pm of Friday, August 9.

It is a big day for the Chief Executive Officer, President and Managing Director of Infosys. He is slated to give the convocation address at the 40th convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, his alma mater.

At 47, Nilekani is the youngest chief guest IIT-B has had for graduation day. Previous chief guests include scientist Vikram Sarabhai, then prime minister Indira Gandhi, then President K R Narayanan; last year, it was the turn of another IIT-B alumnus, Citibank Chairman and CEO Victor Menezes.

Nilekani is in Mumbai just for the day for the convocation. But on campus, it is as busy a day as it would be at his office in Bangalore. His schedule is packed with meetings and he is running late. The potholed roads of Mumbai are to be blamed.

"It took me a long time to get from the airport to the campus. There was an awful traffic jam," he complains.

Two meetings have had to be cancelled: A visit to the computer science department and a session with Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, who teaches Dhrupad to IIT students.

Nilekani manages to squeeze in a visit to the 2,000-year old deity at the Padmavati temple on campus. "No, No. I am not really religious," he says. The opportunity to meet with members of Vidya, a social organisation that works with lesser-privileged children residing around the campus is what took him there.

In the 24 years Nilekani has been out in the real world, he has helped create one of the biggest software companies in India.

"Infosys is a role model for India's globalisation and liberalisation. For its wealth creation. For the social equity it has created and for its innovation. When you are the role model you have a lot of people looking up to you," he says.

After a pause, he adds,"Just two days ago, the president of Ghana was on the Infosys campus." The Rs 320-crore Infosys campus spread across 50 acres has become a Shrine to the success of the Indian software industry. The largest software campus in the world, it is a must-see for almost every dignitary visiting India.

"My colleague made a presentation and then the president planted a tree on the campus," says Nilekani.

Planting a tree on the Infosys campus is a ritual VIP visitors have to follow. A neat little white sign with details of the visit marks the spot.

Last year, the president of Algeria, the prime ministers of Japan and Singapore came calling. This year, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe have visited the Infosys campus.

Nilekani says he is proud to be present for each visitor if he is not travelling.

"I think the dignitaries come to see what we have created. The success of IT in India is important to the country. We have been able to demonstrate globally that we can create a competitive and successful company. It has given confidence to Indians who go abroad and to those who live there. The success of the industry has done a
great deal for the economy too. It has created jobs and helped the economy grow," he explains.

As for the plants planted on the campus, they are growing wonderfully, he assures this correspondent. "Oh, we have a lot of foliage coming up. I think the plants are doing very well."

Infosys lives in a glass bowl, its every move scrutinised by analysts; its every step chronicled by the media. Such intense scrutiny can prove disastrous when there is a PR crisis. Which is what happened in the last few weeks. A former employee slapped a sexual harassment suit on Phaneesh Murthy, the US-based director and
head of sales and marketing and charged the company with wrongful termination of employment.

Lauded for its transparency, Infosys suddenly clammed up. It released a terse statement after Phaneesh Murthy resigned, which offered no details of the suit. Nilekani, who personally fielded calls from reporters, refused to answer any questions about where the suit was filed or the name of the employee who filed it. Eventually, eager newshounds sniffed out the details.

"We had to strike a balance between transparency and legal issues. Once the case is settled, we will definitely come out with all the details and our side of the story," Nilekani says.

How bad was the pressure walking the thin line then? Nilekani is silent barely for a second. Yet, in the spartan but tastefully decorated room at the IIT guesthouse, the air conditioner buzzing, it seems an eternity.

"I think it goes with the territory. It is an occupational hazard and you learn to deal with it. I think all this made me feel even more confident of what Infosys stands for, which is commitment to its customers, fairness in its business dealings and excellence in its work," he says, moving on to more pleasant subjects.

Like the new hostels being built on the IIT-Bombay campus for which he has contributed $2.25 million. Designed by the wellknown Mumbai architect, Hafeez Contractor, the 1,000-capacity hostel will be state of the art. Each hostel will have three buildings of seven floors connected by two sky-bridges. The hostels will house a computer room, television lounges, indoor sports facilities and a gymnasium.

"The other day staffers were asking me, 'Madam, is a five-star hotel coming up here?' They didn't realise it is one of IIT's hostels. When I told them the plan they just couldn't believe it. The architecture is nothing like what we have so far on campus," says Aruna Thosar-Dixit, IIT-B's public relations officer.

Nilekani nods approvingly. He is thrilled to hear this: "You must write about the hostels when it is done. I am very excited about them."

A television crew waits for an interview. In 15 minutes, he has to go in for the ceremonial tea before the convocation, attended by the dean and heads of all departments. But Nilekani has never been one to turn down a request if he can help.

The lights are switched on and the camera starts rolling. Nilekani is articulate, earnest and answers with self-effacing charm.

"The darling of the Indian stock markets, Infosys, has always had an impeccable reputation. But in the last few weeks, the company has been in a controversy over the exit of one its top executives, Phaneesh Murthy. We >are now here with Nandan Nilekanni..." The reporter stumbles over his name. Cut.

"How do you pronounce it?" asks the reporter.

"Ni-le-kani."

The interview covers familiar ground:

Will the departure of Sanjay Joshi, your chief marketing officer in the US, to your competitor Wipro mark the beginning of a trend wherein more of the top employees will be poached upon?

I don't know if you can call this a trend. This is all part and parcel of what happens in any industry. It is also one of the reasons why Bangalore is so successful. There are a lot of choices. And people are bound to exercise their choices sometime.

When do you think the IT industry will recover from the slowdown?

It's a difficult to say. No one really knows the answer to that. But we have shown double digit growth, given that the global market is so challenging. Our ability to show this growth only shows that outsourcing to India is here to stay.

Ten minutes later, Nilekani pulls out the microphone and strides across for the ceremonial tea.

He emerges from it dressed in a beige gown with orange lapels and walks down the aisle with the entire IIT-B faculty to the chants of Gyanam Paramam Dheyam (Knowledge is Supreme).

The convocation begins.

"Meritocracy is the foundation of any successful institution. One of the important reasons for the global reputation for excellence that IIT has been the outstanding achievement of its graduates. This is because its students have been selected on a meritocratic basis. Merit ensures that an organization, like an institution, continues to prosper and fulfill its charter. The philosophy of merit permeates
Infosys. We select roughly 1.5 percent of the total number of applicants
-- not as stringent as the IITs but still fairly selective," he tells
the 1,200 students and their parents.

A titter ripples across the hall. The audience connects with him. After all, he is one of them, a former IIT-B alumnus. Nilekani continues, "You have the quiet confidence of an IIT education, one you have acquired entirely on your merit. In all my transactions, I have tried to put merit of the individual and of the concerned
situation -- in front. It is a lesson learned at IIT."

Nandan Nilekani is the single largest donor to IIT-B. In 1999, he pledged to give $5 million to the institution and with his donation in January fulfilled his commitment. He is closely involved in IIT's fund raising activities and co-chairs the Board of Advisors for the IIT-B Heritage Fund that seeks to build a network of IITians across the world and promote education and research among the students of the
institution.

In seven months, this is his second visit to the IIT-B campus.

"Nandan has given to his alma mater generously and with no conditions attached, except that the money be used wisely. He has given to the point where it probably hurts and in this, he has the fullest support of his wife Rohini. They have never asked for anything in return. While the magnitude of the contribution is
important, what has been so touching is this commitment to IIT. They follow the advice of Gandhiji on the creation of wealth for the gainful utilization for human good," says Professor M G K Menon, chairman of IIT-Bombay's board of governors.

For Nilekani, it is only about giving something back to his alma mater to which he says he owes his self-esteem and success. "When I came to IIT in July 1973, I was a gawky 18 year old from a small town, unused to and unaware of the big sophisticated city. I was in awe of everything around me. Five years later, I had the experience
and confidence to face the world. This metamorphosis was made possible by people who had preceded me, who had no idea that I existed, yet had the vision and foresight to create a fair and merit-based system that allowed a callow boy to become a confident man. It is acts like these that spur me to give back, recompense for the priceless
education and learning I got from IIT," says Nilekani.

Two hours later, the convocation is over. Nilekani is mobbed by eager students who tear away from friends and family to talk to him. And then quietly he moves away to the guesthouse.

"The convocation has changed from the times when I graduated. It has become a very solemn affair now. There are a lot more students graduating. But what remains the same is that it is an important milestone to finally walk out of these hallowed portals. It is a defining moment for everybody," he says.

The downpour outside has changed to a drizzle. There is an hour of rest before he goes to dinner with a few professors and former classmates at the home of Ashok Misra, director, IIT-B.

"I am here 24 years after I left this place. Life has turned a full circle," he says.