Journeying through dreams to reality

Just Aspire — an inspiring memoir penned by HCL co-founder Ajai Chowdhry — presents the milestones of his life coinciding with the illuminating saga of the origins of India’s knowledge economy through the PC revolution and the subsequent explosion in mobile telephony

Journeying through dreams to reality

The founders of Infosys — the software firm identified with India’s IT boom — Narayan Murthy and Nandan Nilekani wrote ‘Better India, Better World’ and ‘Imagining India’ respectively to discuss the trajectory of their lives, as well as their dilemmas, hopes, and expectations from India. Their spouses have been equally good at penmanship if not better: Sudha Murthy is an award-winning author of inspirational books for young adults and kids, and Rohini Nilekani has written a treatise on Samaaj, Sarkar, and Bazaar – a template for partnership among civil society, government, and markets.

However, the story of India’s finest hardware firm — Hindustan Computers Limited — was waiting for a muse, and who could do a better job than one of its own co-founders, Ajai Chowdhry. His book ‘Just Aspire: Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship and the Future’ fills an important gap in India’s business history, tracing the origins of India’s knowledge economy through the PC revolution and the subsequent explosion in mobile telephony. In fact, it is important to place on record that both Infosys and HCL were founded by young engineers from non-business families.

Now for the offering itself: ‘Just Aspire’ is the memoir of the HCL co-founder who dons many hats — entrepreneur, sportsman, salesman, engineer, educationist, jazz aficionado, patron of classical music, Devanand fan, angel investor, and a passionate advocate for the Right to Repair, all with equal ease. Growing up in the sleepy but picturesque town of Jabalpur in a family that had migrated from Abbottabad in the throes of Partition, his parents, like all of India’s middle class, wanted their prodigal son to take the IAS exam and follow his father’s footsteps for the stable, secure, and well-respected life of a powerful mandarin. But that was not to be, and even though his father was initially disappointed by his son’s decision to opt for a career outside of government, in retrospect, it is clear that this was indeed the road he was meant to travel.

The sixteen chapters in the book talk about the milestones in his life – and I do not wish to make a precis of the narrative, for the purpose of a review is to edge the reader to buy and read the book in the original. Together with his band of techno dreamers: Shiv Nadar, Arjun Malhotra, Yogesh Vaidya, Subhash Arora, and DS Puri, he went on to establish one of the most valuable computer enterprises in the country Hindustan Computers Limited (HCL). With limited financial resources, it was actually driven by the passions and commitments of these techno dreamers, who left their secure jobs to dream and aspire beyond the known horizons.

But before you say: so what’s the big deal, let me put this achievement in the context of the political economy of the 1970s. We are talking of the year 1975 when the word ‘socialism’ was inserted into our Preamble by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through the 42nd Constitutional amendment, profit was still a ‘dirty word,’ and Ease of Doing Business (EOBD) was nowhere in the lexicon of governance or entrepreneurship. There were no Investment Summits to honour and acknowledge entrepreneurs, and the kind of bonhomie that we see today among corporate honchos and the government was well beyond imagination.

Anyway, let’s get back to the HCL story. Within a decade of its founding, HCL became the largest IT company in India, and in the first of its kind initiative, HCL also took a leap of faith by becoming a multinational when it started a hardware manufacturing plant in Singapore. And then there was no looking back! In his own words: “We really created the hardware market in India. When we started, there were just a hundred computers in India. In those days, you had to design everything, hardware, and software; and if you notice, all software companies, the large ones are born out of the hardware.” The book provides interesting details of the two significant tie-ups that sky-rocketed HCL’s fortunes: the first with Hewlett Packard to manufacture minicomputers and distribute PCs in India. The second was the tie-up with Nokia — as the national distributor for its mobile handsets. Ajai also echoes Bob Dylan’s verse “if you are not busy living, you are busy dying”, for two iconic brands of his times – Kodak and Nokia – have lost out by resting on their laurels, rather than explore new possibilities.

As this is a book on aspirations, let’s dwell more on this concept. To Ajai Chowdhry, the aspirations of a person define his hunger for achievement. “A is always greater than R”, where A stands for Aspirations and R for Resources. If you have the aspiration, resources will happen. And it is wrong to postulate that aspirations are bound by the constraints of geography. “The aspirations of rural India are the same as aspirations of urban India. A person in a rural area also wants an Apple or a Samsung phone. Why should she settle for anything less?”

What then are the key takeaways from the HCL journey: first, present the product as the solution by focusing on the benefits rather than the attributes. The second is about brand image: a name (like Hindustan) has power, and a logo is a visual connect with customers. Third, be restless and scan the ecosystem for opportunities and possibilities, and last but not least, building relationships is good for business because it ensures your venture’s sustainability. But like any true relationship, it must be based on mutual trust and a genuine appreciation of the needs and requirements of the customer rather than from the need to ‘sell’ and complete the monthly or quarterly sales target.

But the book is not about HCL alone. It’s also about the future of India. It raises difficult and uncomfortable questions about our failure to keep pace with our requirement of semiconductors, without which we are critically dependent on China. Why are we not moving up the value chain in IT? Why are we not designing the IT architecture for AI? Why are we content to work for Google and Apple? Where is the brand Bharat? But he is not just asking questions; he is also designing templates to address them through the EPIC Foundation, a non-profit that is working to make India the world’s electronic hub global player by putting policies in place to enable electronics system design and manufacturing. Given his track record, and his ability to build partnerships, this ‘aspiration’ will also bear fruit in the not so distant future! Meanwhile, grab a copy of the book, and make your own notes on technology, entrepreneurship, and the future!

The writer, a former Director of LBS National Academy of Administration, is currently a historian, policy analyst and columnist, and serves as the Festival Director of Valley of Words — a festival of arts and literature.

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