From campus nostalgia to business networks: Stories and tips from 25 successful BITS Pilani graduates

The book ‘Pilani Pioneers’ offers personal and professional insights from 25 BITS Pilani leaders in the startup and corporate worlds. Here are some tips and takeaways.
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Looking for an informative and entertaining business read set in India? Check out The Pilani Pioneers: Inspiring Success Stories of 25 BITS Pilani Graduates by Gaurav Mandlecha and Durjai Sethi.

The profiles span startup founders like Hari Menon (Bigbasket), Phanindra Sama (redBus), Sagar Yarnalkar (DailyNinja), and TP Pratap (Qwikcilver Solutions), and investors such as Nilesh Kothari (Trifecta Capital) and VT Bharadwaj (A91 Partners).

Corporate heavyweights in the book include Baba Kalyani (Bharat Forge), Harish Bhat (Tata Sons), Sunil Duggal (Dabur), and Tulsi Mirchandaney (Blue Dart Aviation). 

The authors, too, are graduates of BITS Pilani. Gaurav Mandlecha is an early team member of Airmeet, a virtual events platform, while Durjai Sethi is a member of the technical staff at Oracle. 

“Their fields of work may be diverse, but the sentiment of adding value to their lives by giving back to society is distinctly evident in all of them,” the authors begin.

Here are my key takeaways from this insightful 280-page book, summarised in the six sections below. See also my reviews of the related books Why I Stopped Wearing My Socks, Funding your Startup, Young Turks, Indian Innovators, I Love Mondays, and Social Entrepreneurship in India.

I. Social impact

Abhishek Humbad, Founder and CEO of Goodera, is pioneering approaches for corporates to channelise CSR funds and employee volunteerism into NGOs via an online matchmaking platform. “Our business model to make profits while helping non-profit organisations was baffling in itself,” he recalls. 

Ajay Bajoria, President and Director of JK Tyre & Industries, has invested in philanthropic activities like scholarships for the underprivileged. Baba Kalyani, Chairman and MD, Bharat Forge, founded the Pratham Pune Education Foundation. 

“A purposeful point of view is what will help a brand sail through,” advises Harish Bhat, Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of The Curious Marketer.

Companies need to live in harmony with communities. Harish recalls the early Fastrack ads that focused on championing the LGBTQ+ community.

II. Environmental impact

“Anything good for the world should be viewed as collaboration, not competition,” observes Mahesh Babu, MD and CEO, Mahindra Electric. The rise of many players in the Indian EV industry bodes well for environmental friendliness. Interest priorities should first be on people, followed by the nation, industry, and company, he adds.

The sheer size of India’s population calls for an urgent need to shift to renewable resources, affirms Sandhya Prakash, Founder and MD, Beacon Energy Solutions.

She is a strong proponent of a sustainable circular economy. People need to take on collective responsibility and pace their use of fossil resources.

“We have incorporated several unsustainable ways into our lifestyle,” cautions Shishir Joshipura, MD and CEO, Praj Industries. He is an advocate of EVs and bio-mobility, and co-founder of the Alliance for Energy-Efficient Economy (AEEE). 

III. Corporate experience

Many founders started in the corporate sector, while others stayed on to climb to leadership positions. Honesty, integrity, and ethics are deeply inculcated in the Tata Group, according to Ajoy Misra, former MD and CEO, Tata Consumer Products.

Lessons in disaster management were also learnt during the terror attacks in Mumbai and Colombo, he adds. Global conglomerates give exposure to international cultural diversity and by working across separate companies.

“In a successful firm, the CEO must be an influencer,” advises Gulu Mirchandani, Chairman and MD, Onida Group. This helps align teams with the corporate vision.

CEOs must effectively motivate employees. “The key to their hearts is a story,” explains Pradeep Kashyap, Founder of consultancy MART, and Project Shakti for rural empowerment.

While younger workforces may switch jobs often, there’s a lot to be learnt by spending a significant amount of time in one company and really understanding the industry. 

IV. India: challenges and opportunities

Being grounded locally need not mean being “India only” – there are many global opportunities, and Indian companies are expanding and acquiring other firms overseas. 

Many successful Indian conglomerates are modernising with technology, and engaging with startups (for example, Blackstraw.ai and Tork Motors, supported by Bharat Forge). 

Industry-academia partnerships are improving, according to Vinod Saraf, Founder, Vinati Organics. He formed alliances for R&D with NCL and IICT. He urges more corporates to sponsor research and pilot labs.

The ecosystem was not quite ready for many digital startups in the late 1990s, recalls Hari Menon, Co-founder and CEO, BigBasket.

“Analyse the ecosystem and make sure it offers an option to scale,” he advises aspiring founders. Today, many players are catalysing the Indian ecommerce market.

In India, organised retail and ecommerce retail businesses are developing in parallel, unlike mature economies, where organised retail emerged first, observes Gunender Kapur, Investor-CEO, Vishal Mega Mart.

But the digital world also opens up challenges in data privacy, cautions Shivangi Nadkarni, Co-founder and CEO of Arrka Consulting, and author of a textbook on data privacy. “The laws are catching up, and the world is still figuring things out,” she adds.

Regulatory obstacles also arose in the early stages of the airline cargo industry, recalls Tulsi Mirchandaney, MD, Blue Dart Aviation. The tough environment has led to the demise of eight cargo airlines within six months of launch.

As compared to mature economies, India is perhaps a generation behind in terms of accepting that both partners in a marriage may want active careers, observes Nandini Chopra, MD of professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal.

Rural-urban aspirations are merging, but affordability gaps remain. “The rural consumer is far more value-conscious,” according to Sunil Duggal, former CEO, Dabur India. Indian consumers also value their culture, like traditional medicine.

Entrepreneurship opportunities are opening up for those outside traditional business families, too. Consumption among youth is going up, but savings are coming down. Quality consciousness is higher, and tolerance for shoddy products and services is less. 

V. Founder advice

The book is packed with advice for startups — on the importance of self-motivation, toil, persistence, customer engagement, and passion for the problem. As the company scales, founders need to become enablers, not just doers and hustlers. 

Frugality, lifelong learning, hiring the right people (not “gold diggers”), co-creation, and roping in mentors and coachers help too. At times, entrepreneurs may doubt themselves, but need to keep reflecting till they find the right thing to do. It is important to ignore naysayers but also gauge when it is time to pivot.

Product-market fit and competitive moats through brand quality are key for startup success, advises VT Bharadwaj, Co-founder of investment firm A91 Partners. Startup culture should promote constructive criticism, but eventually, result in alignment.

 

“There is a fine line between passion and madness,” cautions Sagar Yarnalkar, Co-founder and CEO, DailyNinja, recalling an almost reckless loan decision. Empathy between co-founders is key for the long haul. 

“You might experience a lot of failures, but you will have unique insights that most won’t,” explains Abhishek Nayay, Co-founder and CEO of open-source web framework provider Appsmith. 

Uncharted markets may be risky but also offer opportunities, according to TP Pratap, Co-founder of gift card pioneer Qwikcilver Solutions. The gift card market offers two customers in one — the buyer and the recipient, though it took a while to bring brands on board in the early days.

First-mover advantage is important for a startup, advises Phanindra Sama, Co-founder, redBus. Prior experience in Texas Instruments helped him understand flat organisations, quality culture, soft skills, and even office politics. Companies like Wipro have shown how it is possible to be successful without indulging in unethical practices like bribery, he adds.

As compared to Silicon Valley, Indian tech founders may have less business exposure and communication skills in earlier stages. Companies like Cisco have mastered the art of internal “spin-ins” for entrepreneurial employees, observes Prem Jain, Co-founder and CEO, Pensando Systems.

Equity and venture debt solutions are now available for startups, observes Nilesh Kothari, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Trifecta Capital. Building a company only with equity entails the risk of dilution, he cautions.

Fortunately, India’s startup ecosystem is maturing, thanks to VCs, government initiatives, accelerators, and incubators. The rise of unicorns is testimony to this potential.

BITS Pilani has a Centre for Entrepreneurship and Leadership (CEL), as do many other engineering colleges and management institutes.

VI. Campus nostalgia and networks

The business leaders narrate their experiences back to the early days of the campus, when computer programming was done on punch cards, non-veg food was not served in the mess, and there was an 11 pm curfew for girls. Many fondly recall their roll numbers and hostel room numbers.

They reminisce on activities in the gliding club, Cuckoo Club, Maggi noodles in shacks, writing for Sandy Times and Cactus Flower, communication through hand-written letters, hanging out at C’not, hiking expeditions, and the annual Oasis and APOGEE festivals. 

They appreciate the flexibility they had on campus, though it meant students had to be more responsible. The campus experience was a “great equaliser” for people across barriers of geography, class, and religion. Advice given to students includes learning from internships, developing hobbies, and constructive use of time.

As for alumni and industry communities, Abhishek Humbad founded the Wall Street Club at BITS Pilani. Prem Jain helped co-found the BITSConnect initiative. There is the BITSAA (alumni association) too.

In sum, the 25 personal and professional profiles offer valuable insights into leadership, business trends, and individual growth. An online companion to the book, with more business leader details, alumni research, and networking resources would have been a welcome addition.

The book also opens the doors to other educational institutes to profile their own alumni and draw useful lessons for the next generation of Indian leaders.

YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).

Edited by Suman Singh

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