I had written this last year around by birthday. But since I was not updating my blog then, I didn’t publish it then.
The Early Years
On August 15, I turn 40. By standard life expectancy measures, I have probably crossed the half-way mark. Birthdays are a good time to reminisce and look ahead. So, here are my thoughts on my life so far and what I’d like to do in the future.
I was born in Pune in 1967. My father, a civil engineer, had returned from an educational and work stint in the US. He had grown up in Rajasthan. My mother had grown up in Pune. She was 19 years old when she married my father in February 1966. After I was born, she continued to spend more time with her parents in Pune to complete her studies in Arts.
Sometime after that, my mother and I moved to Mumbai (Bombay as it was called then) to be with my father’s family. Ours was a small home, first at Chinchpokli (Byculla), then at Nepean Sea Road, and finally at Mahim. My father had quit L&T a few years ago to start his own consulting practice – as a structural engineer helping design buildings, especially tall skyscrapers.
Mahim was where I spent much of my early childhood. I went to St. Michael’s High School. We lived in Mahim till I was 7 years old. Then, we moved to Siddhartha building on Nepean Sea Road – which was to be our home for the next 30 years. With that, I also changed schools – shifting to St. Xavier’s High School (near Metro).
I was a quiet, studious child. My younger sister, Neeta, was born when I was 5. My mother’s sister lived on the floor below us in the same building. Neeta and my cousins were more of the same age, and interacted a lot more with each other than I did with them. In the building, I was the youngest by a wide margin – and so never quite had deep friendships. It was school and books that brought out the best in me.
I discovered new worlds through reading. Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with the radio. Listening to BBC World Service enriched my life. I’d sit at the window, close my eyes, and listen to the radio for hours. My favourites were the two science programmes, Discovery and Science In Action. I used to even be able to identify the news readers just by listening to their voices!
Academically, I did very well – topping my class. Two of my closest friends are the ones I went to school with. One of the events which brought us close was the Nehru Science Centre Quiz Contest. We beat out everyone else to win that in 1981. I was also fortunate to have some wonderful teachers – and till date, I try and maintain contact with a few of them.
I would spend vacations at my grandparents’ home in Pune. Once a year or so, my parents, sister and I would go to Rajasthan – where my father had set up a marble factory. When I was 14, we went on a packaged tour (SOTC) of Europe. It was around that time I started keeping a diary – a habit which lasted many years. (Even today, every so often, I will write out a page or two of my thoughts.)
In 1982, after completing the SSC exams, I joined St. Xavier’s College. College was not particularly exciting. Maybe it was the environment. It was a big change from school. I didn’t study as much in the first few months – spending more time in the library reading. I remember getting the shock of my life when I ended up getting 59 out of 100 in Maths! That was it. Back to academics.
Around that time, as I was getting quite bored, my father bought a computer for his office. And that changed my life. Until then, I had wanted to be a civil engineer – just like him. I would accompany him on site visits to see the new construction. The computer came into my life when I was looking for some alternate outlet for my creativity.
I leant BASIC programming from a book. After my classes at college, I would go to my father’s office and write software – mostly games. I remember three games that I created – one which simulated a one-day international cricket match, another one to play Monopoly, and a third one which I called “Mindermast” after the Mastermind game (also known as Bulls and Cows).
I loved spending time on the computer. It was around that time I decided that I wanted to become a computer engineer when I grew up. Perhaps, I thought that my logical thinking was made-for-programming. Or maybe, the reading that I did convinced me that computers were the future. But it would be still many years before I really go to do more programming.
Twelfth standard studying meant joining Agarwal Classes. I also started preparing for IIT. That left very little time to do anything else. My father was also keen that I go abroad for studies – and so I applied to various US universities. As it turns out, I got into IIT (193rd rank in JEE) and had an admission from Carnegie-Mellon. After talking to various people, I decided to stay in India and join IIT – even though I had to settle for Electrical Engineering rather than Computer Science.
It was the four years at IIT that brought out the best in me. Luckily, I didn’t do well academically in the first semester. I focused completely on studying – and ended up not topping my class. That shook my confidence – if after all this time spent studying I could not be the best, then what more could I do? What started as a ‘timepass’ volunteer effort in Mood Indigo in 1985 led me down the path of extra-curricular activities, and I ended becoming the General Secretary (Cultural Affairs) in my final year.
More than anything, IIT helped me open up. I learnt very little in the classroom, but everything outside it. The ‘cack sessions’ with wingmates in the hostel, the late-night chess sessions, participating in student government, organising Mood Indigo 1988, the Himankan trek in the Himalayas – all helped developed aspects of my personality which have stood me in good stead in life.
Even as I participated in all the other activities in IIT, I did reasonably well academically – passing out with a CPI of 7.93 on a scale of 10. I got into Columbia University, New York, and in early September 1988, took a Lufthansa flight to JFK. I was now completely on my own. I was 21, but in many ways, had led a fairly protected and sheltered life. School and college had been fun and somewhat carefree. Now, I had to go out and build my career.
When I left India, I was very sure that I would come back within a few years. My father had done the same in the mid-60s, and that was what was expected of me. He did not have any expectation that I would join him. All he said was come back and become an entrepreneur. “Doing something on my own” was what I wanted to do. I had seen my father experiment with many ventures – a few succeeded but many failed. Yet, he never stopped trying.
I completed my Masters in Electrical Engineering in 9 months at Columbia. I took half my courses in Computers – rekindling the love from seven years ago. I still remember the Operating Systems course I took in the first semester. My advisor warned me against it – since I did not the prerequisite of C Programming. I told him – give me a few weeks, and I will learn C. Which is what I did – while I was doing four other courses. Programming came naturally to me – and I enjoyed it.
Living in New York was something else I liked. I discovered Calvin and Hobbes, and a deeper love for books (including Poetry). I also discovered Cooking – no choice there! New York was so much like Bombay – a fast-paced buzz that never left you.
After Columbia, I started looking for a job. It was a tough market – the summer of 1989. Luckily, I got an offer from NYNEX Science and Technology in White Plains, an hour or so from New York City. I accepted and joined in September. NYNEX was at that time one of the Baby Bells, created out of AT&T.
NYNEX was a wonderful learning opportunity for me. I combined my love for programming with ‘business development.’ I got to travel and meet people, make presentations, and build ‘relationships.’ It was as good as it gets – until I reminded myself of my India commitment. And so, in December 1991, I walked into my manager’s cabin and handed in my resignation. It wasn’t easy – the team at NYNEX had become like an extended family. And yet, I knew I had to return to India. Entrepreneurship beckoned – though at that time I had no idea what I would do. After a few months with a company on the West Coast, I returned to India in early May 1992.
I have chronicled my fifteen years as an entrepreneur in detail in an earlier Tech Talk. All I want to say here is that these fifteen years, with all their ups and downs, have been as exhilarating as anything I could have imagined. For me, it is about creating new things, it is about the journey. I have tried fifteen different things in these fifteen years. There has only been one big success. But that has never stopped me from trying or dreaming big. Failure, for me, has been a learning opportunity. And that will never change.
I am currently involved in running Netcore. We are doing some interesting things in the mobile data space. I have also invested in more than a dozen companies – with a thesis that we need to build the digital infrastructure for the India first, and then take these solutions to other emerging markets. I think of these ventures as the Emergic ecosystem.
In the next five years, I hope many of these ventures will succeed. If they do, I will benefit in two ways. I will not only have significant financial resources (and here I means, access to billions of dollars) but also I have the ‘operating system’ for layering the applications that can transform life in India.
For me, money is an instrument of change. I have no interest in leaving a financial legacy and a fat bank balance for our only son. I want to bring about change in India in my lifetime. I want to spend all the money that I earn in my lifetime and while I can – because we are running out of time for India. But I do not have enough for what I want to do (more on that shortly). So, I am using entrepreneurship as a ‘money amplifier.’
The Emergic ecosystem companies will also help create the core elements for building out India’s digital infrastructure. From network computers to broadband equipment, from mobile data services to mobile payments, from leveraging video over broadband to creating books for an increasingly literate population, from rethinking healthcare to using solar energy – companies in the Emergic ecosystem have various elements which can help lay the foundation for the change we want to bring about.
As I look ahead, I would like to help build the New India over the next two to three decades. That, for me, means three things. And in all three ideas, my guide has been Atanu Dey. Atanu has helped me think deeply about the issues that need to be addressed for the development of India – and Indians.
Here are three things I’d like to do in the rest of my life and which will require investments of hundreds of millions of dollars. This is not about philanthropy, but about building the right systems and foundation – in a sort-of self-generating way. Ideally, the Indian government should have been the enabler – but I don’t see that happening with the politicians we have. Indian business has started taking the lead but is not doing this fast enough – and in some cases, is not even doing it right.
First, ensuring access to quality education for hundreds of millions of Indians. Education is a life-enhancer – and nothing comes close. My father was helped by his education to get out of the village he grew up in and created opportunities for himself. How can we do the same for millions in India who are otherwise resigned to a life devoid of opportunity? This is not about trying to build the world’s best school or college, but ensuring that a sustainable and scalable system to provide quality education for everyone in India. For more, read Atanu Dey’s series on Doing Education Right.
Second, we need to build hundreds of new cities to house the hundreds of millions of people who we need to get out from the villages. Our current cities are bursting at the seams. Creating urban slums in not the answer. We need 600 new cities of a million each or 6,000 towns of 100,000 each – or a mix of both. But there is no way we can provide any reasonable future to pockets of 1,000 people living in 600,000 villages. In other words, India cannot afford its villages – and needs to urbanise fast. Else, the demographic dividend will turn out to a big nightmare. Creating these new cities right – in a clean, green, and self-sustainable way – is what I’d like to see us do. For more, read Atanu Dey’s series on Creating India’s New Cities.
Finally, I want to create a Santa Fe-like institution in India. It should be a place where multi-disciplinary thinking is the norm. It should be a magnet for smart people to spend time interacting with the best in different areas so they can forge multiple mental models which can then go out and solve problems right. We go wrong in solutions because we have partial knowledge and so we do not understand the real problem. This leads to what I call brain-dead decisions. An institution like this will ensure that we make the right decisions for the future. It will create a platform for the innovations we will continue to need.
The day after we had sold IndiaWorld for $115 million in November 1999, my wife, Bhavana, told me: “We are custodians of God’s money. If God has given us money at such an early age, there must be something He has in mind for us. We have to utilise this wealth for the greater good.” These are words which have formed the bedrock of my life since then. Till then, I was an entrepreneur trying to prove that I could, even after repeated failures, be successful at least once. Since then, I have come to believe that what good we need to do, we have to do in our present life – while we still have the physical and mental energies.