India’s software successes have been much chronicled — and justifiably too — with well-researched biographies of Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji; and articulate works from Nandan Nilekani. However, India’s growth in the IT hardware and mobility industry has not got its share of attention.
In that sense Ajai Chowdhry’s book ‘Just Aspire’ fills an important gap in India’s business history, tracing the origins of India’s knowledge economy through the PC revolution and the subsequent explosion in mobile telephony.
Two of India’s pioneering IT companies — Infosys and HCL — were both founded by young engineers from non-business families, in the pre-liberalisation era. They represented the first generation of Indian entrepreneurs who created global enterprises of scale, long before founders and start-ups assumed the coolness they enjoy today.
- Also read: Interview. The biggest lesson I learnt from the crisis was that nobody can do anything alone: KK Shailaja
This is an era when starting and running a business was a lot more complex than today’s India. It was a time when getting funding wasn’t easy and politicians and bureaucrats were not expected to facilitate, or frankly didn’t even bother to understand what ‘ease of doing business’ meant.
As one of the co-founders of HCL, Ajai’s contribution to shaping India’s ICT & hardware industry is unparalleled. Just Aspire provides an insight into the personal life of Ajai, intertwined with the story of the growth of India’s IT and hardware industry and some of the significant milestones.
The author’s passion and a deep sense of commitment to making a difference come through, as also his discipline and ability to forge long-term relationships beyond business.
HCL’s story is a fascinating one and, in a way, a template that numerous entrepreneurs have followed to this day. It is like the original movie script, which gets remade every decade or two. But at those times, it must have been quite a decision to leave a stable job and start HCL, and Ajai captures all that went through his mind as he took this decision.
Ajai’s life story is inspirational. He is extraordinarily humble and grounded as he narrates his story, starting from his days in Jabalpur to his time with the six co-founders who quit stable jobs to pursue a dream. A team he calls the techno dreamers.
The book has deep insights into some of the blue sky thinking and opportunity exploring that the entrepreneurs went through in their quest to build a business. No templates existed. No precedencies to go by. Just instinct and a strong will to succeed.
The book provides interesting details of the two significant tie-ups that jumped HCL’s fortunes; the first with Hewlett Packard to manufacture minicomputers and distribute PCs in India. The second — the tie-up with Nokia — as the national distributor for its mobile handsets.
He doesn’t shy away from acknowledging Shiv Nadar as his friend and mentor. This quality is hard to find in the current culture of start-ups and entrepreneurship.
This story is a testament that all the founders together were able to define roles and functions, and as Ajai advises budding entrepreneurs in the latter part of the book, they were able to choose and back a captain. This, like many other recommendations the reader has to offer, is supported by proof of concept — Ajai’s journey.
Ajai’s narration of some key inflection points is worth a read. During my time at Motorola, I encountered many strategies Ajai and HCL had deployed to help Nokia with distribution and retaining market leadership. To hear it from him in this book is quite an insight. His uncluttered thinking helped not just grow businesses but also build institutions.
True to form, Ajai starts his stories of growing up in Jabalpur to his journey into founding HCL and remains unstoppable and tireless. Even as he retires from HCL, his involvement in giving back to society and focusing on education is commendable.
He is currently focused on the EPIC Foundation, a non-profit that is working to make India the world’s electronic hub global player by putting policies in place to enable electronics system design and manufacturing.
All in all, ‘Just Aspire’ is a great read infused with practical wisdom from a business leader who has led from the trenches, and an inspirational one for young minds looking to plunge into the world of entrepreneurship.
Check out the book on Amazon.
(Lloyd Mathias is an Angel Investor and an Independent Director. He had a ringside view of the evolution of India’s IT & Hardware sector as a senior executive at Motorola and HP.)