"Learnings From An Entrepreneurial Life" by Sanjay Anandaram

By Sanjay Anandaram|11th Oct 2011
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The young engineer looked up at the sign which said AB Engineering Works. His letter of appointment, he remembered, said AB Engineering and he had just been directed by various people starting from the railway station, responding to his English and non-existent Hindi, to this location. This was his first trip to Agra, indeed his first time in North India. He had applied on a whim to an UPSC advertisement in the newspaper for the job of electrical engineer in the defence ministry and was surprised that he had been selected. In spite of a lot of apprehension and trepidation at home, he set out for Agra, his first trip to North India.He had graduated less than 5 years ago as an engineer and had joined the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board where he worked for a couple of years. Getting bored with that job, he then joined the Kothari group as an electrical engineer in their Trichy outfit. A tough hard charging boss, two competing labour unions and a hostile environment greeted him there. Working hard, solving problems, working closely with the unions, tact and diplomacy earned him a lot of goodwill and a good name. Yet he wasn’t feeling sufficiently challenged.

The engineer, waiting outside AB Engineering Works, waited for a couple of hours for someone to show up. When someone did show up, he showed the person his letter of appointment. He was shocked to learn that he was actually supposed to report to the army’s Army Base Engineering that was located at the other end of town! With his “hold-all” in tow, he finally arrived. He worked hard there and quickly gained the attention of his superiors. He was sent for training on electronics and then worked on various projects for the Army’s Corp of Engineers. He lived in the barracks. It was the mid 1960s.

The LIC of India had decided to import a computer but couldn’t deploy it because of intense agitation by labour unions who thought jobs would be lost. This computer then found its way to the Defence Ministry in Delhi which then looked for people who could operate the computer. This engineer was selected for training on computers – he topped the training - moved to Delhi and earned a good name for the quality of his work and ability to work with people. Experiencing the glass ceiling for civilians in the defence services, he began to look around for opportunities outside. It was the late 1970s and he had a young family as well. He had never been to Bombay, as it was called then and so he headed there.

MNCs like Coca Cola and IBM had been asked to leave the country – this had created a huge opportunity for Indian companies and indeed led to the birth of the Indian IT industry. Indian companies imported computers to start EDP - electronic data processing – departments with the UK’s ICL and the US’ Data General being the preferred suppliers. The engineer applied for and got a job with the Walchand group, which incidentally built India’s first modern port (Hindustan Shipyard), first aircraft factory (HAL) and first car factory (Premier Automobiles) at their factory outside Pune. A young Indian company, Patni Computers, had tied up with Data General to provide computing and training services to EDP personnel of various companies. The engineer received training on this machine by one NR Narayana Murthy of Patni Computers.

Wanting to experience the big city life of Bombay and given the rising demand for computer experts, he applied for and received an offer from a top MNC – Union Carbide (remember, Bhopal hadn’t yet happened!) which had also procured a DG machine. At the same time, he was approached by NR Narayana Murthy to consider teaming up with him to start a company. He had a choice to make: a well known, well paying, respected MNC job in Mumbai versus a no-name startup in Pune. The decision was clear – join the startup! Murthy had a good reputation, the opportunity to learn was great and the challenges were exciting. It was 1981. The company he co-founded was Infosys.

The engineer’s name is NS Raghavan. He is a first generation entrepreneur who, in 1999, quit the company he co-founded (as Joint Managing Director) to start several initiatives to support entrepreneurship. He set up the eponymous NSR Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at IIM-B, mentored, funded and supported several entrepreneurs in addition to significantly supporting various not-for-profit ventures. Arguably, the first such person in India.

How then did an educated, very middle class Indian end up as an entrepreneur when, even today, it is still the exception rather than the norm to find a member from the educated middle class considering joining a startup, let alone co-founding one? What then are the learnings one can glean from such an experience?

1. Don’t shy away from challenges. Seek out new challenges. Follow your heart. Get out of your comfort zone.

2. Work hard. Demonstrate capability.

3. Learn as much as possible. Use all opportunities to do so

4. Be good to and with people. Be humble.

5. Success is a by-product of the above – money has never been the motivator, it has been the by-product

6. Give back.

Not very different from what all entrepreneurship studies tend to throw up!

What do you think?

Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Ojas Ventures which is backed by NS Raghavan.

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