Why did Nandan Nilekani make it to Bill Gates’ 5 favourite fanatics of 2016?


On Tuesday, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates penned down a year-ender – a list of his ‘favourite fanatics of 2016’. Published in his highly popular blog GateNotes, the list included one Indian who incidentally, is popularly known as the ‘Bill Gates of Bengaluru’ – Nandan Nilekani.

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He writes, “By ‘fanatical’ I mean that I was so focused on my vision of putting a computer on every desk and in every home that I gave up a normal existence. I didn’t take vacations or weekends off. I wasn’t interested in getting married. (Obviously, that changed when I met Melinda!")

He says that he learns a lot from these fanatics, who include scientists, teachers, and engineers, and believes that their hard work and dedication makes him optimistic about the world’s future.

Gates mentioned Nandan Nilekani under the heading “Rebooting India”. As he writes about how he met Nandan Nilekani 20 years ago, he also explains why this entrepreneur, philanthropist, and thinker is one of his favourites.

Philanthropy and public services

Nandan Nilekani left Infosys in 2009 to serve as the chairman of the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), India’s new identity card system, Aadhaar. He joined in the rank of a cabinet minister on the invitation of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Aadhaar has provided biometric IDs to over one million people, and Nilekani envisions ways to use this platform to help improve the lives of the world’s poorest.

Nandan Nilekani and his wife Rohini Nilekani launched a social venture, Ekstep, to address learning challenges in primary education through smartphone-based apps. Fundamentally, it is about delivering a great learning experience to a child living in a village, on a phone.

Bill Gates and Nandan Nilekani’s thoughts on the digital revolution in India

Bill Gates says that he and Nandan Nilekani share a common optimism about the future of a digital revolution in India. This was discussed during a conversation with the Financial Times during his visit to India.

Gates observed of the significant engagement in terms of payments, healthcare, and agriculture in India. According to him, people are ready to try something new, adding that in the next couple of years, India will be more digitised than any other country.

Nandan Nilekani further elaborated this, describing how the Aadhaar system has successfully given a digital identity to a billion Indians.

Nandan Nilekani’s vision for India’s future

In the same conversation, Nilekani also discussed India’s economic growth. “India’s economic growth has to be domestic, service based. But typically services don’t raise productivity very high whereas we think with technological infrastructure service productivity can go up dramatically. So this is very important to India’s job creation and growth,” he stated.

Additionally, both entrepreneurs believe that their projects will have a big impact in India.

In his blog, Bill Gates also suggested reading Nilekani’s book, Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations.

The other ‘fanatics’ on Gates’ list include former President of the United States Jimmy Carter, Nate Bowling, Washington State Teacher of the Year Dr Ana Mari Cauce, President of the University of Washington and Ken Caldiera, who Gates called one of his best teachers. Caldiera is a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science.