Reflections on the decade and homecoming

My dad once took me to cinema the night before an exam. It’s not something parents generally do. They would want their children to feel the ‘exam fear’. But my father was a contrarian, which I guess should explain what I have become. He said, “Why not? You should have finished your preparations long back, and shouldn’t be doing it just before the exam. However, if you need studying just for the exam, what is really the point of learning?”

It made me think seriously about education and examinations. Simple questions can trigger profound reflection. Timing matters, the phase of life matters to the answers we seek and receive. As we embark on a new year, 2017, I find this time of the year always useful to be nostalgic to taking stock. It also marks ten years since my return to India, after spending twenty in the US.

I was born in India, in Kachiguda, Hyderabad. India is my Janma Bhumi. US turned out to be my Karma Bhumi, where I spent my professional life. So returning to India 10 years ago was a deeply satisfying experience for me in that I could experience the country both as my janma bhoomi and my karma bhoomi. Ten years is a milestone to pause and reflect.

Often when we look back at the past, we realize that we can’t compartmentalize happenings into specific months or years. We can’t say “this is the exact year and day that one thing stopped and another began”. Real life seldom fits neatly into the timeline that one sees in history books or on our calendars. That’s because things are more closely related than we realise, and the causal chain binds one event with another that might lead to something deep and profound in impact, it’s neither possible nor wise to restrict our life events, our musings to a single month, year or decade. Things develop and evolve over time. The seeds are sown long before a tree bears the fruits. So, when I think of the ten years of my second innings in India, my thoughts wander back even further.

Indian schooling

Schools play an important role in anyone’s life, and it’s no different in my case. Co-learning and competing with my friends and fellow students in the classroom (all girls) and in the playgrounds (until 11 years old, I was allowed to play with boys in the colony) formed an important part of my growing up years. I don’t remember being unduly stressful, actually I don’t think I ever heard the word stress at all. It was very different from the middle class children today. I worry that they are burdened with too much expectations.

These days, in the post liberalization era, many tend to look down upon socialistic policies pursued by Jawaharlal Nehru. In our rush to celebrate the free markets (and there is nothing wrong in celebrating it), we tend to forget the benefits that have come from social sector investments made by the government. Real world is not too concerned about ideologies — It is concerned with action. And some of those actions have turned out to be good for the country.

Take our India’s investments in higher institutions. Our engineering institutions produced students of high caliber, who went to US for further studies and careers in science, technology and management, and when the outsourcing wave began in the 90s, thanks to this, India became a key player. Fast forward to today. The tech executives who come back to India to startup on their own, or to join startups, in some ways, belong to this long tradition. And all of it can be traced back to the vision of Nehru, and the importance he gave to technology education. I see myself as one of the beneficiaries of this tradition. I don’t remember paying more than 1000 rupees a year for my engineering education here in India. As a product of middle class India, this was the only way to aspire and grow beyond your limited means. I am certain without this access to almost free higher education, there would have been no future for me and countless others.

It’s not the case in India alone. Take China. We believe that its material prosperity came after its economic reforms in the 80s. But economist Yanzhong Huang of Yale has argued that much of Chinese economic growth owes to the social sector investments made in the 70s — towards primary education and primary health care — before the state focused on getting foreign direct investment. Capitalism became its unintended beneficiary.

I wonder if we have adequately acknowledged the contribution made by socialistic policies of post-independence that has enabled us to pursue this capitalist path today.

And then there is of course the bigger question — are we doing enough to help the younger generation prepare for tomorrow, which by all indications will be vastly different from the present.

A question of values

After being in US from 1985, I moved back to India in 2006. Many people find it difficult to move back. It’s no wonder that many friends dissuaded me that the move is going to be difficult. I benefited a lot from what America had to offer a bright, hardworking person, butI also retained the inner core, the values instilled in me and passed down to me from my family. I didn’t find it difficult to move back to India.

The balance of fitting in and retaining your values, is an internal tug of war. We need to be mindful to find our inner balance on this lifelong. Sports is only one of the many things that define the culture of corporate America. There are rituals that are associated with different sectors. In fact, Gillian Tett, a journalist with Financial Times who covered the financial crisis extensively and wrote a fantastic book called Fool’s Gold on those heady days, says her training as an anthropologist helped in understanding the dynamics in the world of high finance. In closing strategic sales for example, I found myself in Dallas, at gentleman’s club, which was a norm to take your clients to in the evening. But, I am a teetotaller and a vegetarian and don’t like to smoke a cigar, what then do you do at one of these sales evening outings, in my case it is about being comfortabe to be myself and focus on the value I brought which was not in socialising but knowledge of our products. I factor my growing up environment to give the sense of self, and personal map to define and retain my own individuality and my own values. I find that when you are sure of who you are, the rest of the world will bend to make way for you.

This important lesson couldn’t have been learnt without the narrow, middle class upbringing of the 60’s I had.

The transition to India was pretty easy in one sense. The reverse migration also is a test. Because now I had acquired other things from the 20 years of living and working in US. Straightforward and honest feedback without bluffing, expectation of professional ethics and respect for everyone’s time, etc…These don’t always sit well in India. My determination to keep my own identity, irrespective of where I was also gave me a clarity on what works for me, seeing what works here and what works there without getting too judgmental about it.

Nooyi, Nadella and Narayen

There is much to improve in India. But, focusing too much on the path ahead, and worrying too much about the distance that is yet to be covered, we often fail to notice the distance that we have already covered, the great benefits we already reaped. For example, education. We need to improve India’s school system no doubt. But, let’s also remember it’s the same school system that produced Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Indira Nooyi and Shantanu Narayen. To study and understand what’s right with our system, replicate and scale it up, is as important as to find out what’s wrong with it and fix its problems. The stories of Pichai and other high achievers clearly show that there is nothing in the system that holds back those who want to transcend its limitations.

Does being in a system that has perfect infrastructure, no shortage of resources, best access to teachers, books, internet connectivity the right preparation for life? As a parent Ithink about this a lot. In real world people don’t work in perfect conditions. In the corporate world, no one ever gets all they want. There are constraints. What defines a person’s success is the ability to work within constraints and be able to achieve extraordinary results. In some morbid way, I feel the best in me came out because I grew up in a resource constrained world, I didn’t go to the best schools and I didn’t have access to many opportunities. I think that increased the determination to make the best of the limited opportunities that came along.

There is a balance to be achieved — between providing enough resources, but not to the extent of making the students believe that life is going to be easy for them. That everything will come in a perfect individualized package optimized for them personally.

What exactly that mix is, I do not know. But I am sure it’s worth our while to ask how our system produced some of the world class leaders, who could succeed in diverse environments, and why a system such as China’s couldn’t replicate that feat. Though in sports the very opposite is true, China has produced world class athletes and our system has produced very few.

I wanted to expose my own children to different environments. So, it’s not that they are sacrificing American school system for India’s. But, I didn’t think it was wise for them to completely sacrifice the Indian school system for America’s.

There is another trend today that is into individualization and personalisation. There is no doubt that it’s there because there is some value in it. As a venture capitalist, I believe that it’s possible for companies to capture significant value with personalisation and individualization, giving a customer what exactly she or he needs. However, I also know that personalisation and individualization has its limits. We live in an interconnected world.

Our choices affect others, and others choices affect ours. To arrive at an optimal solution, we need to respect others choices, be willing to understand them, negotiate with them, and arrive at a solution that’s good for all concerned.

It’s a skill that’s in short supply across the world, and would be valuable in any country. David Remnick, in The Bridge, his fascinating biography of Barack Obama, points out how this quality helped Obama through his career. I believe there is some aspect in Indian schools system — more by accident than by design — helping its students develop such qualities.

Such qualities cannot be developed in an individualistic world — basically the ability to give up gratification today, for an uncertain bigger benefit sometime in the future. It cannot be developed without respect for others, which is about humility, to know that you don’t know everything and you don’t have everything, and you need to depend on others to get what you want for yourself and for this world. I feel Indian education system — rooted as it is in the culture — stresses on these qualities.

The big changes in India

So, when I came back from the US and settled myself to the rhythm of the life here, I personally didn’t feel it was difficult adapt.

And on the top of this, there were big changes taking place in India. In the 80s there were only three car brands, Maruti, Ambassador and Fiat. Now, every major car company in the world sees India has a huge market. It’s not really hard to find competent mechanics for Benz, Audi or BMW. In the eighties, if you want a new phone connection, you have to make an application and wait forever. Now, you can get a phone connection in a matter of hours. In fact, Reliance Jio demonstrated that it’s possible to scale up millions of connections by using India’s identity and authentication platform, Aadhaar. And most importantly there is a sense of confidence across the country. I see a lot of it in my line of business. A good part of it comes from the awareness that they have the skill sets that is very much in demand; and that they have the ability to envision a new solution and execute it well.

The current generation believes their future will be better than the past generation, this is a powerful impetus.

I find smart entrepreneurs in big cities as well as in small towns — passionate about their businesses and willing to put in the hard work that is needed to make them successful. Recently, I had a chance to have a long conversation with an entrepreneur from Chandigarh. He was talented, passionate and ambitious. And most importantly, he had no intention of moving out of Chandigarh because he believes he can achieve what he wants from his own place. Entrepreneurship has transcended age barriers. You will find college dropouts getting into entrepreneurship as well as people who have clocked years of experience. Entrepreneurship is also attracting women entrepreneurs in increasingly large numbers.

One question that I hope to work on is the scaling up of Indian startups. We haven’t created huge internet companies like China has done with Alibaba or Didi. I don’t think it’s because there is lack of opportunity in India. We are somewhere behind when it comes to building companies at global scale; companies that are profitable and sustainable. United States built a number of giants in the first internet wave — Google and Amazon came into existence then. In the second wave, of social, cloud, mobile and data, it produced a few more global leaders including Facebook and Uber. What is it about Indian ecosystem that it’s not able to do this yet? My belief is that we are laying the groundwork for such a future.

The general mood in India is that our tomorrow will be better than yesterday or today. Not many countries can say that.

On Ugadi, the Telugu new year day, there is a tradition of having a mix of neem flower and jaggery, mixed with tamarind, chillies and green mango, an indicator that life has its sweet moments and bitter moments, mixing the hot with the sour. It’s a representation and a reminder to us as we start the new year to accept the many shades of life and this is what gives balance to our life. While there are sweet thoughts to think about there are also difficult ones to reflect upon and learn from.

I wish you all a great new year.

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