Journeying from interior Orissa to cutting-edge IT entrepreneurship, Subroto Bagchi defies several stereotypes along the way.
Starting an organisation is a little like having your own child. It kind of completes and fulfils you; you know it's going to be physically/mentally tough but you still will have no other way.
If you do a Google search on "Go kiss the world", the first result thrown up is the address given by Subroto Bagchi, Chief Operating Officer, MindTree Consulting, at the IIM-Bangalore in 2004. In that fascinating speech on defining success, he talks with pride about his humble background, the values his parents taught him... and his coming from the US to visit his mother, who had suffered a paralytic stroke. After two weeks, he had to get back to work, and kissed her face while departing. "In that paralytic state and a garbled voice, she said: "Why are you kissing me, go kiss the world."
Said Bagchi in that speech, "This woman who came to India as a refugee, no more educated than high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose last salary was Rs 300, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity was telling me to go and kiss the world!"
Born in Koraput district of Orissa in a place which had no electricity and no school, Bagchi was home-schooled till the age of 8; from his father he learnt integrity none of the five boys were allowed to sit in the government jeep unless it was stationary and from his mother that success is defined not by "what you create for yourself, but what you leave behind."
On why he chose to graduate in political science, he says he wanted to study economics, but the local college didn't offer Economics with Maths. "My eldest brother (who later became Chief Secretary, Orissa) who mentored me said, `you can either become a second-rate economist or a first-rate political scientist'."
In 1976, after BA he joined MA in political science in Bhubaneswar, but his heart was set on International Relations, taught then only in Delhi. Not wanting to depend on his brother, he tried to pledge his national scholarship with the bank, but failed on technicalities.
But after 60 days he realised he "was only wasting time"; the only other option was to write the civil services exam, but he was underage. So he took what was available a job as a lower division clerk in the Department of Industries at a salary of Rs 305.25!
The family, which was informed only after the deed, was aghast. His father asked: "What will folks in the UPSC think when you ultimately write the civil services exam?"
"So I said they should be proud of me and he let it pass."
Career in IT
But before he could write that exam, he joined DCM as a management trainee in 1977, and stayed "at this mindboggling stint" the first in the private sector for his family for five years, before joining the IT sector, beginning with PSI. "Because I came from a non-technical background the hunger to learn more was very acute and I was lucky to work in R&D twice during my career, particularly after I joined Wipro in 1988, where I became Wipro Global R&D's first chief executive," says Bagchi, adding, "If I were to start life all over again I would not study humanities, I would study engineering."
On Azim Premji as a boss, this is Bagchi's take: "He's a remarkable man, absolutely first rate person to work with and learn from; he is a manager's manager."
After a 10-year stint in Wipro, and "because I must have been mentally restless for some reason", he took the opportunity to set up the Bell Lab development centre for Lucent, but soon realised this was not his calling. It was 1997-98 and "time to think of setting up a next generation services company out of India." On why he chose to be an entrepreneur, Bagchi says, "It's aspirational and like responding to an inner call; why does one want to abandon the security of a good job, because the moment you step out of the sanctuary of your past and on the street, you're setting the reset button. It's like when a woman wants a child she will go to the end of the world to have a child, knowing it'll be physically and mentally difficult. She knows it from her grandmother but she'll do anything to have that baby. Starting an organisation is a little like having your own child. It kind of completes and fulfils you; you know it's going to be physically/mentally tough but you still will have no other way."
And so, along with a couple of likeminded people, he founded MindTree, a high-end IT and R&D services company, which has clients such as Unilever, Port of Singapore, ANZ Bank, Volvo and Emirates. The first IT service company in India to cross the $100-million dollar mark in six years, it crossed the $103-million mark last year and hopes to grow to $150 million this year.
Does a man brought up on strict norms of integrity have to compromise on business ethics in an era of rampant corruption?
Apparently not. The IT industry has been very blessed and doesn't generally have to deal with corruption, says Bagchi, adding that it does have to deal with such issues in the larger society where the paradigm is different. And yet, at MindTree every new person is told that the "rules here are different." Last year the company added 1,000 people its total strength is 3,500 and, of these, "80 experienced people were asked to leave the organisation because a background check found they failed to meet our requirements on integrity. So even if the IT industry doesn't have to bribe, it does have to deal with such issues."
Twenty per cent of the people at MindTree are women, which is eight per cent higher than the industry average, says Bagchi, adding, "I have two daughters and I'm a feminist. We've never built a MindTree facility without creating `Baby's day out', which is the happiest place, looking like Disneyland." This is more than a crèche and is for occasions when the crèche will not work because "the child has temperature, or there are other problems. The idea is not to separate the child from the mother on such days; there are babies who've gone from MindTree to kindergarten! Also, we're saying it's okay for two MindTree persons to get married, many employers don't allow that. We're very collaborative, not accommodative, when it comes to planning the family, and it's much more than maternity leave and about helping the professionals to return to the workforce, and that includes flexi time, working from home or taking different and less taxing assignments," he says.
Where time has stopped
When you ask Bagchi on the miserable plight of tribals in the region in Orissa where he was born, he says, "Yes, time has stopped there," but adds, "Well Orissa is now batting with the front foot," referring to the Mittal investment. When told that past experience has shown that huge investments in mining often make worse the plight of tribals who lose both their land and soon the compensation too, Bagchi responds: "The funny thing about India is that it shows you the face you want to see. But our job is to feed the opportunity and not the problem."With a huge smile he adds, "After Chennai, Orissa is our port of call; we're putting up a 42-acre facility with 5,000 people in Bhubaneswar."
Does this have anything to do with his roots?
"There is a tug, that land has fed me as a baby; though I'm a Bengali and not an Oriya."
India vs China: "We need to be aware of China, concerned about our comparative lack of infrastructure. But beyond a point we shouldn't worry too much; just as it's a challenge to fill up potholes, it's a bigger challenge to build a democracy, which will remain our competitive advantage. We are not a black box; in India what you see is what you get, which is not the case with China."
Advantage India: "India has an edge over China in intelligent manufacturing. You'll have mass scale manufacturing in China but India's advantage is the design component, everything that requires software to be embedded in a chip and similar things."
Dream: "MindTree itself, as a big dream, is unfolding. Second is to be able to catalyse people's thinking. The middle class 300 million can do a lot more. This is exactly the BPL number; if one middle-class person adopts one BPL person, we'll see significant change in one generation. But today the middle classes are shedding values and becoming very self-centred. If I can change people's thinking in some way through my work, my writing, and my talks, then I'd have done something I'd be happy to leave behind. It is very important to have a sense of legacy, not material but intellectual."
Freedom: "As I get older I see things in context. Our first phase of freedom was from foreign domination and it took long years. The next phase of economic freedom took another 50 years, and that includes freedom from stupid economic ideology that the world has to be capitalistic, communist or socialist. There are bigger things than getting caught in isms and that realisation coincided with economic liberalisation. The next level of freedom now has to be won freedom from ourselves. The `foreign hand' can no longer be blamed as in Indira Gandhi's time. More grain gets wasted in India because of logistic problems than is required to run a rural feeding programme."
The enemy: "Who is the enemy? The enemy is within. A bust gets defaced... birds do it all the time starting from Gandhiji's statues... and you bring a city to a close. People should talk of building hundreds more temples, churches and mosques instead of fighting over one piece of land... and you build political continuance on that basis. And look at the kind of tussle going on in the political ethos today on reservation, tomorrow on something else. You sack the AIIMS director as though that is all there is to governance. This indicates that we now need freedom of the intellect, which is going to be longer and most difficult because you have nobody to blame!"
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