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Dont wait for Apple to fall on your head- Ganesh Natarajan

Ambreen Zaidi speaks to Ganesh Natarajan Vice Chairman and CEO of Zensar Technologies, Co Chair of National Knowledge Council and also the member of Chairmen’s Council of NASSCOM, few excerpts:

AZ: You’ve been a gold medalist in Mechanical and Industrial engineering, then you stepped into the IT, how and why did this transition happen?

GN: That’s actually a very interesting story; I did my engineering in Bombay, at National Institute of Industrial Engineering. At that time we had 46 people in our batch and except for two people, me and a colleague, everyone said we’ll be in IT. IT was the happening thing in 80s, so both of us in rebellion, decided that we will never join IT. Then I joined Crompton Greaves in Nasik, as a software industrial Engineer. I worked there for three years and realized that it is a very large company, so my boss said, look how do we manage materials, material production better? So his mission was to computerize. That day and in those times we didn’t have the SAPs and the Oracles, we actually sat down and wrote a complete unique production planning and materials management system for our computer and started using them. Then I got so fascinated by the application of IT into real world problems, that I didn’t start the company for two years which was just doing that for manufacturing companies like Voltas and Lakme, Hindustan Lever in Bombay. So I just gravitated, having sworn to never be in IT, and then of course got sucked into running an IT company. Even facebook, 3 months back I said that facebook is only for me and my friends. So it used to be like, if it crossed two hundred, I can’t have more that two hundred friends, so I go through everything and cut it down till two hundred. Even in twitter I have two thousand three followers. Then I just gave up.

AZ: It is being said that during your 10 years as a CEO at ApTech, You grew its revenue 50 times. How did you achieve so much of success?
GN: It was an interesting situation. I am currently writing a book on it, called “Aspirations for young people.” And it’s a very interesting concept. In fact I spent the whole weekend discussing it. So, it’s attempting to preach, saying that you must have this life vision what to do when you are 30, 40, 50. If I look at my life, nothing like this would have happened, and I was telling my publisher on Saturday, when he asked me, when you were 25 years old, what was your ambition in life? I told him that I just got married and my wife and I both were very middle class people. By the time we retired, one of us should be the general manager of a company, we should have a car maybe a second hand car, and then we can go drive. This is the extent of aspiration. Your aspiration level is also going up with opportunities and the change in environment. So I was telling a young person, no you can’t do it. He must have known that you are going to see your big company and I said no it’s just pure opportunities. And to take your point I was only 33 years old when in Delhi I was heading the consulting business of NIIT. And my wife was running a bigger business of NIIT of education. Then I got a call someday that they want a chief executive for this company wasn’t called ApTech it was Apple Industries in those days. And I said that you must be making a mistake because I was too young to be a chief executive, I’ll give you phone number of my boss. They said no, we got your number from somebody, atleast meet the Chairman of Apple Industries. Next day the Chairman was in Delhi and we met at Oberoi and he said we want a young person like you, who can change the way NIIT works. So, I said sure, if somebody is foolish enough to appoint a 33 year old guy as a CEO, I have no issues. We shifted to Bombay, when I joined I saw this 10 crore company making 4 crore losses. I felt ‘Oh my God, what have I got into’.

AZ: Then? What did you do?
GN: Well, at that kind of a situation the only way you could go was go upwards. We built this team of various fun loving young people. Then we worked really hard, listed Aptech in London Stock exchange, opened 1000+ Aptech centers in 40 countries including India. We had a blast, our company was doing extremely well.

AZ: Were you satisfied with the quality of students who passed out from Aptech?
GN: That’s a very interesting question you asked. That was the dilemma I was always in; we were a Public Ltd company. You have maybe 20% great students and 80% not so great students, you still take students because our belief in Aptech was that you should not disqualify people from entering a program, but we did have qualification programs for placements etc. And when you are taking 10 thousand to 25 thousand rupees in fees, I used to question myself, are we doing justice to these children? That was more important than quality of students. But even today, when I look back, I feel nice that we may have made atleast 10,000 students happy.
AZ: Once you said that the gap between the graduates and the employable skills are many, there is influx of institutes all across the country, but the quality and quantity hugely differs. What do you have to say to it?
GN: That still is very much a problem. Even today we are seriously talking about finding solution to it. We were discussing it at the Economic Summit also, the whole issue everybody is talking about 10 million employable skills that India needs and what we are doing is so pitiful, we are churning out large number of engineers and MBAs who are completely unemployable. It’s a big challenge. That’s why we say that India’s demographic dividends that India’s massive mass of young people is becoming already a demographic nightmare.

AZ: So, what is the solution?
GN: We are still trying to figure it out. Infact, Shashi Tharoor was saying in a conference, that 30% of the districts of India have some sort of civic unrest. Maoism is just one example, naxalites are all over the place. So if you don’t educate young people to quote Shashi, “ They will be subjugated to the blandishments of the gun”, which is very true. We just saw Shootout At Wadala and there was so much of violence and there is this young man who has already got so much of angst in his system, goes back to his girl, and depicts to the audience that a girl will subjugate herself to you if you just act macho. This is what I object to. You are giving a completely wrong impression of what it means to be all male, to the younger generation.

Looking at the situation my wife and I set up a company, Global Talent Track, which she is a CEO of. GTT is doing extremely well. Every year 50,000 students are trained and they do a complete reverse model of Aptech and NIIT. So what we do is identify bright people, according to their qualifications and the demand in the market, train them and then send them to these companies. So here we are getting 100% placement. This is a completely different module, lets create a demand first then create the supply according to the specifications.

AZ: What is Natarajan Education Society (NES) all about?
GN: We first started it as a recognition program. We went to all engineering colleges across entire western India to identify great projects. This year we are moving towards mentoring program, where we have identified 200 CEOs and high profile HR Heads. Our endeavour is to link each CEO with 2-3 mentees, from the same colleges, so atleast by interacting with them, sometimes face to face, sometimes through internet, so that they can give some words of wisdom, guide them so that these students are well prepared for their professional life ahead. We basically focus on people from North east, Bhopal, and places like that, who don’t have access to these programs and slowly become disillusioned, here we come in and say, ok guys don’t worry you can also do extremely well in life. Somebody should not feel that he is not the best because he is not studying in best of the institutions.

AZ: At Zensar Innovations seem to play a very important role, tell us more about it.
GN: Our vision was innovation, when I took over we already had big monsters like TCS, Infosys, Wipro etc and we were just starting in 2001, I had to choose the clichéd, the road less travelled. Means, everything we do must be different from what others are doing, so if the competition is saying we have 10,000 great programs, we go out and say we don’t need programs, we’ll make modeling tools which are programming automated. This was even discussed case study at Harvard Business School ‘Innovations at Zensar’. What I believe is keep innovating and keep thinking differently and every 2-3 years you come up with big bang innovation. You cant wait for the apple to fall on your head, in the mean time you should keep doing little things, at the same time you must plan that one day the apple will fall on your head.

AZ: In an article in 2009, you wrote India will emerge as a true island of excellence if we tackle the terrorism and economy properly. Where do you think we stand now?
GN: We are in a much worse scenario than in 2009. Then, India’s current account deficit was very low, fiscal deficit was low, the inflation was well contained, people were generally happy. Even after the 2008-09 slowdown, India was one of the few countries with a good banking system but few things happened like too much of subsidy creation, too much of free hand outs. Due to this the whole work ethic of this country got disturbed. We have got corruption, we have got lack of progress, RBI is talking about 5.7% growth next year, if it happens, it is dead. We can’t afford 5.7 %. I think we are heading towards a big crisis if we don’t fix the political consensus. They just don’t let the govt work. How will the country grow? Nothing is getting passed.

AZ: What do you think is the main problem?
GN: I wish I knew, but I must tell you, today most of the voters are not intelligent people. They can all talk in 5 star hotels, give lectures on how to fix the country, but they won’t go out and vote and choose the best candidate.

AZ: What is your message to the youth.
GN: Dream big dreams. The problem in India is that our dreams are too small, don’t be cynical. If you aim is big enough you’ll get your path.

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Ambreen Zaidi


Maharashtra ,  INDIA


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