Reminiscing his journey as a young engineer, who decided to take on India’s IT & Telecom issues, Sam Pitroda shares stories and anecdotes of how he revolutionized India’s telecom industry. He candidly discussed his intuitive understanding of what this world needs right now and how it is important to focus mainly on the Planet and its People.
The Father of India’s Telecom Revolution shared his insights on how he made a true impact in India, how to support rural India, and spoke about his role models, using ignorance as fuel to drive passion, his belief of the Gandhian principles and on always being a problem solver, no matter what the situation, in another exciting session of the “Be the Best Version of Yourself” webinar series hosted by SOIL Institute of Management.
Read on for highlights from this exciting conversation.
On his role models & the greatest men who ever lived
“Our role models, growing up, were hanging on the wall of the front room of our small house, represented in big pictures – Gandhiji, Nehru, Patel, Bose and Maulana Azad. As little children growing up, we always looked up to and at those pictures”
As a product of his environment, Pitroda reminisced how his role models were directly embedded in the Indian independence movement, steeped in the idea of democracy, freedom, equality, justice, diversity and scientific thinking. After the Indian independence, he shared that there was a mood of excitement & empowerment, with an emphasis on the Gandhian way of life – Discipline, Truth, Trust & Love.
He went on to share that his other role model was Einstein.
“These are the two greatest men who ever lived - one understood people, poverty, root level needs and could galvanize millions by picking up a pinch of salt, and the other one could see & imagine things nobody else could, with just a pen & paper, no instrumentation!”
On Ignorance being an Asset
“If I would have known all the difficulties I would have coming my way, in doing the things I did, I would have never done it - coming to India and taking on telecom! If I had known all the complexity and bureaucracy I would have to face, I would have never tried it. I did it because I was ignorant!” stated Sam emphasizing that one of the biggest lessons he’s learnt is that ignorance is a great asset.
He recalls how he got into Telecom by accident “With a degree in physics & electrical engineering, common sense in those days said my path had to be in nuclear instruments. But the company decided to move from Chicago to Cleveland & I didn't want to go to Cleveland, so I took up a job in telecom, which took me on a different path”
He recalls that there was often no strategy, no wisdom and many big life decisions were made by ignorance. But he emphasized, it was a series of accidents & a series of intentions, and that made things happen.
On Gandhi as a thought & an Idea
“As I started my company in Chicago, I realized that what I learned in my childhood about truth, trust, kindness, was appreciated by my team. All the things people talk about management today in terms of egalitarian architecture, team building, etc - we did it, I practiced it without knowing what these things meant because it was the Gandhian thing to do.”
Pitroda went on to give some examples of this, if somebody was sick, he would call and tell them to stay home, he would ask about their families, he would give them a hug. He never treated his employees as a management lesson or HR technique.
“So, in life, Gandhi remained my inspiration.”
He reiterated that Gandhi & his ideals never get old. Gandhi emerged out of the Indian experience – he stood for non-violence, love, truth, trust, which are all very interesting human ideas rooted in India. He just packaged it in a way to make it easy for everyone to understand. “I have always said that you could be wearing jeans and drinking scotch, and still be Gandhian in your thinking”
On Mission Telecom, Indigenous Development & Made in India
“I was in India to take my parents to see the Taj Mahal and I tried to make a phone call to my wife. This was 1980 and I could not make that call. You may call it a little bit of arrogance and a lot of ignorance, but I said, ‘I'm going to fix this’. I told my wife that I'm going to spend the next 10 years to fix India's Telecom because I believed it would change the face of India”
That's when Sam met Rajiv Gandhi for the first time, he described Mr. Gandhi as a man with spark, enthusiasm, vision, and honesty.
“I get a lot of credit for India’s IT & Telecom revolution, but in reality there are two other elements that people don't realize were a very important part of this success: One was the political will & support from Rajiv Gandhi and the second was the young talent from IITs, IIMs and other universities.”
He adds that they all together built an innovative high-performance organization to make this indigenous development happen.
He further described their work as a Mission. “It became a mission to really build the telecom and IT infrastructure for India and our young people became the foundation. They became the leaders of tomorrow, they learned how to get things done, they were energized, motivated and they had a clarity of mission” He added that the team, with Mr. Gandhi’s backing, built the groundwork for the next 25 years with rural telecom infrastructure, ancillary industries, local production licenses, privatization of Telecom, industry specific technology missions & more.
On the current crisis & redesigning the world
“This little Corona virus has put this world on pause, and it told me that basically there are just two things that really matter 1) our planet and 2) our people, everything else is an illusion. He stated that the world has changed & that we cannot go back to what it was. He urged everyone to focus on what is good for the planet and its people, again going back to Gandhian ideas.
“I realized that the world was last designed after World War II, which gave birth to the UN, World Bank, NATO, IMF, WTO, GDP, Per capita income etc. This design had five main elements: Democracy, Human Rights, Capitalism, Consumption and Military; and that worked well for 75 years. It helped manage peace & created prosperity.”
He further elaborated that now we have Hyper Connectivity – Internet, Mobile phones & everything has changed - our work, interactions, family relationships, entertainment, trade, finance.
There is nothing that doesn't get affected because of hyper connectivity, which brings democratization of information.
Based on this, Sam decided to write a book on redesigning the world.
Towards the end of the session, Sam highlighted the need for building strong infrastructure to push forward India’s digital growth, the emphasis on not only good content for education but also curation of the right content and the challenge of improving the economic status of rural India. He taught us that technology is about problem solving and that it should be used in all fields & industries. He signed off by saying “My message to all the young people is to really work on improving self – work on respecting others, have discipline, creativity & curiosity - all these are interconnected.”