BLF2020 | Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions – Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood with Pankaj Mishra

This was a powerhouse of a conversation, in which Pankaj Mishra quizzed Sundeep and Varun, the authors of the book Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions.

Azim Premji, the man beyond the book – what is it that Sundeep and Varun could not cover?  

Sundeep responded with a tinge of regret that they could not meet Premji or his family, as a result they could not get aspects such as his family’s reaction when he decided to give up 90% of his wealth to philanthropy. Though they got to speak with the Board and CEOs, Premji’s inputs would have enriched the book.

What defined who he is, what he could not become?  

Sundeep described the pivotal moment in the first years of this century for Premji as a business leader. After Wipro’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange, Wipro started losing steam. Pre-2000, Premji had not been hands-on in IT; later, when he did become hands-on, Wipro became a laggard compared to others like TCS and HCL, with margins slipping. This was pivotal since Premji got more into philanthropy.

Varun narrated how Premji wrote a ten-page letter to Welch on why the GE team should come to India and give Wipro a fair chance. He reflected on the irony that people in the industry greatly respect Premji, yet he had difficulty in finding CEOs (Wipro saw eight CEOs in the last two decades).

What will be his legacy?  

Varun spoke about the Wipro values that Premji created way back in 1971, which Indian IT companies are inspired by today – respect for customers, respect for employees, do business in the only way of doing it correctly.

Sundeep added that Premji has shown that path which is now a part of the DNA of the Indian IT industry – make money the right way, then give to society.

If you meet Premji, what questions would you ask him directly?  

Sundeep immediately responded, “At 75, what next?”. He wondered whether Premji would get deeper into philanthropy or take up any new projects in the offing. He would also ask Premji, if not IT, any other business he would have gotten into, and among competitors, who did he consider the fiercest.

Varun had a slightly more personal set of questions – what makes Premji happy? His perspective on the state of affairs in the country?

How would you compare Premji with other business leaders?  

Pankaj’s poser was not restricted to either business or philanthropy, but through multiple lenses of Premji as a personality. Sundeep responded that each leader has different perspectives, priorities,  and ambitions. Premji was a limited business leader compared to others because he chose to keep his ambitions checked. His vision for philanthropy makes him among the best in the world.

Pankaj had a comment on how Premji used to be vocal earlier, e.g. coming out about bad roads in Bangalore; however, during the past decade he has become a recluse. Sundeep remarked that Premji is who he is; he does not do anything to please anybody.

Managing Succession – Comparing Wipro and Infosys  

Pankaj got into further comparison and asked, “How do you compare Wipro and Infy on managing succession?”

Both Varun and Sundeep agreed that succession is better handled at Wipro. Varun reflected on how Rishabh went through a proper grooming and moved from ground up, which was planned and noiseless. Though Premji did overstay for a couple of years. Sundeep added that when Murthy brought in his son, there were murmurs. That said, he felt there are many factors which go into managing succession, hence they might not be the right people to comment on it from outside.

Q&A from Audience  

The first question from the audience was whether it is the culture in Bangalore that drives philanthropy. Sundeep called it ‘Serendipity’. Bangalore has become a hub for philanthropists, an ecosystem has been created with Murthy and Premji being role models. Varun’s take was that Bangalore is a young city with a diverse set of people and this drives philanthropy. Pankaj had a differing opinion – he said that the buck has stopped, the next generation of taking it forward is non-existent, which is a worrying sign.

The last poser was on the extent to which philanthropists impact policy. Varun disagreed to the premise and mentioned that philanthropists give away their money not to gain something from it, Sundeep added, “If someone was looking for power, they would keep the money, not give it away”. Pankaj gave a twist to the tale by saying that philanthropists do want to shape policy, since the future of their philanthropy depends on it, it is important to bring about an outcome.

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog, talks about her experiences in her YouTube channel Usha’s LENS and puts up photos on Instagram. She is also a software professional and a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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