On March 3, 2024, we mark the 185th birth anniversary of Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata group. His pioneering efforts in laying the foundation of modern Indian industry are the stuff of legend. Way back in the 1890s, he conceptualised India’s first integrated steel plant, Tata Steel. In 1903, he created Mumbai’s first luxury hotel, the Taj. He visualised clean hydro-electric power for Mumbai, which resulted in the establishment of Tata Power. He was the founder of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, which continues to be India’s finest science university.

In all his ventures, Jamsetji was driven by his immense love for India. In founding the Tata group, he wished to create a business enterprise where the community was always centre-stage and not just another stakeholder. Jamsetji’s philosophy continues to guide the Tatas until today. He has also been a source of inspiration to millions of Indians over the decades.

If Jamsetji inspires us, who inspired Jamsetji? Here are some people who had a marked influence on Jamsetji’s thinking.

Dadabhai Nowroji

Dadabhai Nowroji, also known as the grand old man of Indian nationalism, was living in London when Jamsetji Tata encountered him there in the 1860s. Jamsetji spent four years in England at that time, and Dadabhai Nowroji became a trusted guide and advisor. Each Sunday, a small group of people including Jamsetji Tata met at Dadabhai’s house for conversations on topical matters.

Dadabhai’s passion for India, and his work focused on proving that Britain was draining money out of India, clearly had an impact on young Jamsetji. In later years, when Jamsetji was considering the establishment of Tata Steel, Dadabhai wrote to him urging him that the company should be built using only Indian capital. Indeed, when capital was eventually raised for Tata Steel, it was completely swadeshi, though this happened in 1907, three years after Jamsetji Tata had passed away.

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was one of the most influential English authors and philosophers of his time. In 1867, while visiting Manchester, Jamsetji Tata attended a lecture by Carlyle. Here, he heard Carlyle say that “a nation which has the steel shall have the gold”. Sometimes, a single statement that we hear or read has a big influence on us, and this remark by Carlyle appears to have impacted Jamsetji hugely. He wrote it in his scrap book, and it marked the beginning of Jamsetji’s desire that India should have its own steel plant.

In fact, it is likely that this speech by Carlyle was the initial trigger for one of the central thoughts of Jamsetji’s life — that India’s industrial self-sufficiency was a pre-requisite for its political independence.

Swami Vivekananda

Perhaps no chance encounter in Indian history is as captivating as the meeting between Swami Vivekananda and Jamsetji Tata, during July 1893. They were co-travellers on a ship from Japan to the Americas. On this long sea voyage, Swamiji and Jamsetji spoke on a number of subjects relating to the progress of India. It is said that Swamiji urged Jamsetji to establish industries in India which could create employment and preserve national wealth.

A research paper which has examined this voyage says that it is likely that Swamiji also spoke about his plans for “organizing monks for industrial purposes” to ensure the advancement of the country. Both these themes as well as the sheer force of Vivekananda’s personality appear to have influenced Jamsetji Tata immensely in the actions that he took towards establishing Tata Steel, Tata Power and IISc.

Lord Reay

Donald James Mackay, 11th Lord Reay, was the Governor of Bombay between 1885 and 1890. An enlightened man with many intellectual interests, he was also Chancellor of Bombay University, which at that time was a purely examining body. While speaking at the University Convocation in 1889, Lord Reay made a strong case for evolving teaching universities in India. He called for “real universities which will give a fresh impulse to learning, to research, to criticism…which will impart strength and self-reliance to future generations of our and of your countrymen.”

By this time, Jamsetji Tata was already a wealthy businessman who was eager to do his best for the country. He was also convinced of the value of higher education. Lord Reay’s speech therefore deeply impressed him, and it sparked off in Jamsetji’s mind a grand scheme for establishing a university of science in India — which eventually led to the establishment of the Indian Institute of Science.

Pherozeshah Mehta

Pherozeshah Mehta, the Lion of Bombay and one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, was a good friend of Jamsetji Tata. The two friends met at least once a week to discuss political and family matters. They jointly founded the Ripon Club in Bombay, where members could come together to fraternise and discuss matters of social and national importance. Mehta’s thoughts on politics, society and the city of Bombay appear to have influenced Jamsetji’s thinking about his beloved country and city.

Burjorji Padshah

If Jamsetji Tata had a reverse mentor, it was a man named Burjorji Padshah who was much younger to him. Padshah was a man of brilliant intellect and a polymath. Jamsetji convinced him to join the Tatas, and thereafter Padshah was actively involved in a wide range of strategic initiatives including the steel plant and the science university. Jamsetji appears to have relied on his ideas and advice in several areas, and they were intellectual partners for the rest of Jamsetji’s life.

In conclusion, it is fascinating to see the remarkably diverse set of people — ranging from a revered spiritual figure, Indian political leaders, British philosophers and officials and his own young employee — who inspired Jamsetji Tata. His life tells us that true inspiration can come from many different sources, both expected and unexpected, as long as one is willing to listen with an open mind.

The writer is an avid marketer and bestselling author. He was formerly the Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views