To inspire thousands of youngsters to be not only excellent professionals but also successful entrepreneurs — that seems to be the life's mission of Subroto Bagchi, co-founder of MindTree.

Some selfish surgeons don't like to share all of their skills with their juniors in the fear they might become redundant. Subroto Bagchi is not a surgeon but in the process of moving from being a paid employee — first to the Government as a clerk, then DCM, Wipro, etc — to a successful entrepreneur who co-founded MindTree. His life's mission seems to be to inspire thousands of youngsters to be excellent professionals and successful entrepreneurs. Such as Infosys's N. R. Narayana Murthy, Biocon's Kiran Mazumdar or Café Coffee Day's V. G. Siddhartha.

In his business series Go Kiss the World, The Professional and The High Performance Entrepreneur, Bagchi's latest book is MBA at 16. It makes a brilliant attempt to fire the minds of high school students with exciting business ideas. But why should an extremely busy person such as the Chairman of MindTree take the time off to engage youngsters in such a dialogue?

As he says in the introduction, like all middle-class families, his parents too were appalled when his older brother, Aurobinda, said that when he grew up he'd like to be Somalingam, the only grocer in their little town. Hailing from an educated, middle-class family, he was expected to aspire to be a doctor, engineer, teacher, army officer or government employee. “In families like ours, where no one understood the world of business, Somalingam's ilk was looked down upon. He was suspected of hoarding sugar and kerosene and selling them in times of scarcity”. While Aurobinda became an army officer, Subroto, to whom alternatives such as diplomat, professor, civil servant or doctor were suggested, landed up in the world of business.

Businessmen are not crooks!

Along the way he learnt “how much we all depend on businesses of all kinds to be able to live comfortable lives, to do the things that make us happy every day.” But, he realised that 60 years later, the views of many Indian families on business have not changed. So he decided to write a book for young adults — “future chief executives, founders of businesses, inventors — that would give them a proper perspective of how business, trade and industry work.”

But to make it non-text-bookish, interactive and, more important, interesting and relevant to teenagers, he needed “some serious help” from his target group… how they looked at the world of business, what intrigued, fascinated or worried them. So he borrowed 31 bright young boys and girls from Bangalore's National Public School, and worked with them over four weekends — with pizzas and colas thrown in — to pick their brains on what interested/intrigued them about the world of business. The programme was called “Business with Bagchi”. He listened intently when they asked questions and made presentations; they took copious notes of what he said. Together they watched business films, read case studies, articles, books.

The material thrown up for discussion at those sessions gave him a much clearer idea of what 16-year-olds want to know about business. It meant trashing his earlier manuscript and writing the book all over again. So obsessed was the author about making the content of his book relevant and engaging for teens, he even had Megha Harish, one of his favourites teens to “scrutinise the manuscript to vouch for content appropriateness and readability.” After carrying out the changes his “teen editor” suggested, Bagchi was content that his book was now “teen tested”.

Clarity of thought

It is clarity of thinking of an exceptional kind and Bagchi's innate ability to tell a story simply, but in an absorbing and engaging manner, that makes MBA at 16 come alive in so many different ways. At one place, Bagchi uses a school trip to meet an exciting entrepreneur, another moment, the teenager's mother explains fascinating concepts of marketing. Then there are imaginary characters such as “Fly High the Hawk” telling Suheil the mesmerising story of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two bright youngsters approaching Ram Shriram who becomes the angel investor for the start-up called Google.

In the course of these conversations, the young learn that in today's world production is like “a symphony orchestra. Every musician plays his or her own instrument and collectively, something magical comes out.” So an auto manufacturer can source coiled steel, paint, electrical wiring, seats, glass fittings, horns and batteries and a hundred different things from different suppliers, and put them all together to make a fancy car.

Or how your mother's kitchen is the perfect example of efficient inventory keeping. “At any given time she carries an inventory of hundreds of items, including perishable and non-perishable, utensils, implements, machines, cooking vessels and cleaning accessories. Her larder resembles a miniature supermarket, stocked with at least fifty different items from rice to spice, oil to matchbox.” Add to this her fridge, jars, tins, cartons, bags — all these compose the “inventory for the production of food for the family.” With an expert eye on the consuming pattern of the family, she replenishes and discards stuff.

The biggest contribution of this book is to dare, inspire, coax and compel youngsters to dream to set up their own enterprise some day. And Bagchi's “kids” don't stop at this. They learn about various aspects of running a business, such as marketing, finance, inventory, from reading, talking to charismatic entrepreneurs, one of their own parents who is an expert in a specific area, or imaginary characters such as “Fly High the Hawk”.

Again, very deftly, Bagchi steers his target readership — teenagers, young adults — through daunting concepts such as vertical integration, supply chain and use of scale to bring down cost. This time it is Akshay's golden retriever Cyber, who weaves an interesting story around these terms. How Apple buys components from many suppliers and the assembler puts them together into a final product. Or, how a famous auto manufacturer sticks to its core competence to make engines, leaving someone who understand glass technology the best to make impact-resistant windshieds, others to make durable dashboards, and so on.

From airports to jeans that hug a woman's rounder figure compared to her daughter's, Bagchi unfolds a fascinating tale of business and the immense opportunities available to bright youngsters. So that instead of lengthening the queue of millions of Indians seeking jobs, they could create thousands of jobs themselves as Narayana Murthy, Kiran Mazumdar, Siddhartha or Bagchi himself have done.

Breaking down grandiose ideas into simple components, packaging them in a language and style that is engaging and gripping, and leaving behind a legacy not only for one's own family but thousands of others, is what transforms a mere businessman into a thought leader. Surely, Bagchi has managed to do what his dying mother asked him when he kissed her forehead: “Go kiss the world”.

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(This article was published on April 16, 2012)
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