As a nation, we perhaps suffer from a paucity of heroes. This is probably why, more than any other country in the world, we tend to embrace the success of our diaspora as our own. So, when an Indra Nooyi becomes head of PepsiCo, or a Satnam Singh Bhamra makes it to the world’s toughest professional basketball league, or now, when India-born Sundar Pichai takes over as Chief Executive Officer of Google, we rejoice in that success as an endorsement of the potential of India and of Indians to succeed on the world stage. Pichai is not the first Indian-origin executive to head a major global enterprise. In fact, even within the technology sector, more than a dozen biggies, ranging from Microsoft to Adobe to Cognizant to Nokia, are all headed by people who are of Indian origin. But even in this roster of remarkable achievements, Pichai’s success is noteworthy, and holds a couple of important learnings, not just for India Inc, but our policymakers as well.
The first is that Pichai, like many other successful India-born executives in global leadership positions, is a product of the much maligned Indian education system, the same system which has also produced domestic success stories like Infosys’ NR Narayana Murthy. Pichai was a student of Jawahar Vidyalaya and Vana Vani schools in Chennai — good schools no doubt, but not ones which figure in any listing of ‘star’ schools; and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The IITs, of course, have a much more stellar record in producing leaders for industry, both Indian and foreign, but the news of the success of yet another alumnus comes at a time when the entire IIT system is the subject of intense debate, after the expulsion and re-instatement of 73 students in Roorkee. Our school and higher education systems have been subject to massive tinkering over the past few years as the authorities struggle with the challenge of not only providing universal access to education, but an education which equips students with the skills necessary to play a productive role in India’s rapidly evolving economy. While change is unarguably necessary, mere change for the sake of change will not serve the purpose. As we work out how our education system can help the nation reap its demographic dividend, it is important to reflect on the success of Pichai and others like him, and examine what part of the system worked right, in order to produce winners like him.
India Inc also needs to learn a lesson — but it is not from Pichai, but Sergei Bin and Larry Paige, the founder-promoters of Google. They, like the leadership of so many successful global mega enterprises before them, have demonstrated not only the ability to spot talent, but the acumen and, dare one say, largeness of spirit, to allow that talent to flower. How many Indian enterprises can we stack up against Google or Microsoft, where ownership or ancestry has not been allowed to trump talent and ability? If Indian enterprises are to transform into global players, they need to first and foremost transform their mindsets.