Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The IIT game changers

Someone has uploaded a scan of the physics paper of the IIT entrance exam, JEE, conducted on 8 April, on an IIT alumni facebook group I am a member of. And the general consensus is something: Oh boy, if we sat for the test today, we never would have got in! Of course, most of those who have commented graduated from IIT at least 20 years ago, so their memory of what happened when two cylinders rolled down a slope, one with most of its mass concentrated near its surface, and the other, near its axis, may be pretty muddled. But still…

The Facebook post got me thinking about IIT, and a book that has been lying with me for a couple of months now (and also appearing in non-fiction bestseller lists).

The Game Changers, by Yuvnesh Modi, Rahul Kumar and Alok Kothari, tells the story of 20 IIT Kharagpur (or Kgp) alumni and their entrepreneurial journeys.
The IITs have always been famous for producing entrepreneurs. In fact, it may be worthwhile for some researcher to investigate why the IITs have been far more successful in this regard than the IIMs. One reason, of course, would be that till some years ago, a large chunk of IIT graduates went off to the US for higher studies, and were exposed to cutting-edge ideas and an environment encouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurship. But that could hardly be the only reason, since, though US-based IITian entrepreneurs are more famous and get more media coverage, there’s hardly a dearth of them in India. And the very range of disciplines in which IITians have carved out their own individual niches is fascinating.

Of the 20, some are well-known, like Suhas Patil, perhaps the first IITian to make it big on his own in Silicon Valley; Arjun Malhotra, co-founder of the HCL Group of companies; Vinod Gupta, founder of InfoUSA and friend of Bill Clinton; and Harish Hande, who won the Magasasay Award last year for his work with solar energy in rural India. The authors have also included the outliers, people one does not usually associate with the IITs, like activist Arvind Kejriwal, SPIC MACAY founder Kiran Seth, and Sam Dalal, who set up Funtime Innovations, the world’s largest supplier of self-created products for magicians.

The common factors that bind all these men (and one woman) together are, unsurprisingly, passion, self-belief and persistence. Many of them faced early setbacks that would have daunted lesser humans. A couple of them even faced ruin and starvation, but hung in there, simply because they believed. But for me, the most important takeaway from The Game Changers is that many of these high achievers came from impoverished backgrounds, and used their IIT education to transform their own lives and of countless others around them. This is surely the most signal achievement of the IIT system, one of the fairest in the world, where nothing matters other than raw merit.

Billionaire Vinod Gupta grew in a UP village which had no electricity, running water, toilets or roads. His first encounter with technology, when he was in Class VII, was a transistor radio a friend owned. That device sparked off something that has since defined his life. Ranbir Singh Gupta, founder of Sigma7 Design Group, a leader in mission-critical facilities for businesses, grew up in a Haryana village, which, even today, does not have running water. His father, a struggling businessman, lost a leg to disease, and Ranbir was raised by his grandfather. He heard of the IITs for the first time when he saw an ad for the entrance examination in an Urdu daily. He sat for it, and got through. Praful Kulkarni, founder-CEO of gkkworks, one of the world’s 100 fastest growing design and construction management firms, did not own a pair of shoes till was 11. Looking back at his childhood in a village near Nashik, he told the authors: “I knew I had to study hard to get out of the rural mindset…As far as food was concerned, my family could afford that, but clothing definitely was an issue.”

The founding fathers of the IIT system would surely have been proud of these men, for, invariably, such IITians have given back generously to their communities and alma maters. As far as I know, Gupta was the first alumnus to donate substantial sums of money to an IIT, when he gave IIT Kgp $2 million in 1991 to set up a management school. That opened the alumni endowment floodgates for all the IITs and other Indian institutes.

The Game Changers is informative and may even turn out to be inspiring for many young men and women, who may not necessarily be either IITians or engineers. Of course, the tone throughout is deferential, stopping barely short of awed admiration, but then, I suppose that’s what the book is all about (It would be very unseemly for me to reveal undergraduate memories about a hostel mate of mine who is one of the 20 profiled here). And it’s somehow fitting that two of the authors are still students at Kgp, while the third graduated in 2009. In a way, they’ve already given indication of their entrepreneurial spirits. And of course, they got through the JEE, one look at whose current question papers makes my head spin.


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