Things I learnt from Ratan Tata

I vividly remember the first time I met Ratan Tata (well, who wouldn’t). My schedule was such that I had to drive into Mumbai straight from a board meeting in Pune.

I had arrived 2 hours early for the meeting. As I was waiting, I worried that I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say to him. I decided to focus on the fact that I was meeting him to talk about the Indian startup opportunity. It was a comforting thought as I did have opinions about the Indian VC space and views on its future.

Waiting for the meeting to start, I had time to dwell on RNT and his legacy — the Tata brand. The Tata group, its 150 years of existence, the fact that it contributes over 2% of India’s GDP and does business in the most ethical manner, giving many Indian’s like me, a feeling of great pride. We have surely consumed at least one Tata product, if not more, in our lifetime.

I also thought about the deeply inspiring biography of JRD Tata — “Beyond the last Blue Mountain” that talks about the establishment of the Tata group and its exemplary growth under the stewardship of JRD Tata.

I was just beginning my career when Ratan Tata was named Chairman of the Tata group. Since I was (and still am) an ardent admirer of JRD, I recall wondering how RNT would be able to fill such big shoes.

Over the years, I have closely followed the seamlessness with which he has led India’s largest business conglomerate. As he took the Tata group from strength to strength, my admiration for the man only grew stronger.

I stepped into the meeting with these thoughts running in my head. RNT exuded an aura of simplicity and approachability. He was very kind and gracious. He was also curious and encouraging. He listened, he opined. Within minutes, I was completely at ease and we had a very meaningful discussion. I then, ever so boldly, asked him to consider being an advisor to our firm, Kalaari. In time, he graciously agreed to this request. It marked the beginning of my personal association with one of the most outstanding names in India’s business history and a person that I have drawn huge inspiration from — right from the very early days of my career.

I have met him several times since then. Each time, his attention to people and to details, his graciousness, humility, sense of calm as well as his intellect and ability to think rationally have inspired me to no end. What has stood out for me in my interactions with him is his intellectual curiosity, marked lack of pretentiousness, and his eagerness to contribute towards making the world a better place. He is a perfect picture on how an authentic leader should be. He is an ideal role model for founders who are about to begin as well as entrepreneurs who are leading some of the biggest startups.

I am lucky to have the opportunity to interview him at the launch of our seed program— Kstart, on Feb 5th 2016.

A few days before the launch, I started thinking about this interview. After endless iterations, finally at 2 a.m. on the night before the interview, I decided to engage him with questions that could bring out the entrepreneur in him.

Some noteworthy takeaways that Ratan Tata (RNT) shared in the interview are as below:

 

‘The most significant thing that happened to me was going to college in the US. The system was solely based on merit. It is a humbling experience and makes you down to earth’.

If you were a 26-year old entrepreneur of today

Ideas come when you see a problem. Find problems to solve and then put time, energy and efforts to create ventures out of these thoughts or ideas.

In the very limited time that I have been associated with startups, I have heard ideas which I thought would never work. However, those ideas have gone ahead and done fairly well. I realized I am on the learning curve of understanding what young intelligent people around me can do.

Principles on which companies should be formed.

It is exciting if your idea can change the way people live, think or sustain themselves. For me, partly due to my involvement in philanthropy, I am particularly excited when an idea can in addition make a positive difference.

What qualities should one look for in an investor?

One looks for investors who have a similar sort of excitement and passion for what one is trying to do. Collaborate with an investor who is not only willing to risk his money but also participate in the journey of the entrepreneur, and use his contacts, mentorship etc. to make the entrepreneur’s vision work in the real world.

Growth v/s profitability, how does one find the equilibrium?

There is no single formula or proven science behind this. In the last few years, I have seen companies grow at rates that I never thought would be possible. The next question then is, can these growth rates be sustained. I think it should be about how you want your vision to be implemented and then closely monitor the progress at each stage.

Importance of creating a personal brand for a start-up CEO

I think it is a personal choice to build your brand inseparable from a company, some people do it, while others don’t.

Many founders believe that communicating too much gives away their competitive advantage. However, an active system of communication with all stakeholders is a great plus. Successful CEOs do it religiously. It is important to know that “how the world sees you is a result of how well you communicate”.

Celebrating success and defining moments

There have been several successful moments in my journey. But the one moment under the sun that clearly stands out for me was the launch of the Tata Nano. The idea came when I saw a family going on a scooter on a rainy day. They met with an accident and were lying on the road. That got me thinking on how to make a two wheeler safe — which in turn led to the concept of making an affordable four wheeler. Tata Nano is a result of that thought.

We put together a team to design and manufacture the car at a price point that was extremely affordable. We launched it at the auto expo in Delhi. It was a spectacular event.

One thing you wish you had known at 26

As a young employee at Jamshedpur, I went to my bosses with a lot of ideas, but often I wouldn’t be heard and would be told to continue doing what I was doing. In such situations, I yearned for an environment where one would be heard when one had an idea. Maybe, I did not know how to frame my question or idea. I think how you communicate is something you wish you could have done better when you were young.

His Inspirations

  • JRD Tata: who left his mark on the industry in India; was a tremendous mentor to me
  • Henry Schacht: Former chairman and CEO of Cummins Diesel inspired me a lot. I learnt a lot from him.
  • Amar Bose, who formed the Bose Corporation. He and I became very close. We spent a lot of time exchanging ideas.

That concluded the interview — one of the most enjoyable 45 minutes of my life that I would cherish for a very long time. After the interview, I pondered at the reason behind him being so inspiring. He has a moral core that is strongly anchored, bringing to mind the proverb “No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it”. In the world of business where loyalties are ever shifting and competition dictates values, he stands out. He is a special gentleman, perhaps a disappearing breed, who stands by his beliefs and is driven by principles that are rooted in responsibility than in self-fulfillment. He sets a glaring example of what we could achieve if we overcome our personal limitations, retain our humility, and stay true to our values in spite of all odds.


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